In May 2011, at age 25, I completed my first year as an English doctoral student. I also left my husband of nine months.
My resolve—long a sort of trembling, gelatinous mound—finally ossified between two paper deadlines. The first I submitted. The second, due the following day, took me an additional month and a half to complete. With paragraphs of Thackeray's Vanity Fair scattered all around me, I navigated charged phone conversations with relatives and friends and sifted through separation papers that managed, even in their legalese, to render me a treacherous bitch. I wrestled with the anxiety that I was, in fact, a treacherous bitch, unfit for long-term companionship.
Nearly three and a half years later, memories of that summer still sting. While I have never regretted the decision to leave my marriage, the process of doing so was fucking wretched. Hearts don't break gently: they always shatter.
To salve my wounds, I turned to my female friends. But as I feared, some of my friends were hesitant to face me. In certain cases, they turned away entirely. One friend called repeatedly, sounding more agitated at the prospect of my divorce than I did. I sent emails that went unanswered. I grabbed coffee with friends who appeared—even pre-caffeine—jittery and ill at ease in my presence. Removing my wedding band had suddenly witched me into a bizarro creature. Many of my friends had always known me as part of a couple. What to do with this iteration of Rachel, the soon-to-be divorcée? To be honest, I wasn't sure either.
In our twenties, we attend exponentially more weddings than divorce hearings, if we attend the latter at all. We pen tongue-and-cheek, yet appropriately chaste toasts to brides and grooms, (generally) expressing our sincere hopes for their enduring happiness, comradeship, and cinematic sex lives. We (again, generally) do not expect to gather in that bride's apartment one year later, champagne and pizza in hand, as we toast to the end of a brief and miserable ordeal. And if our friendship extends to both partners, navigating the choppy waters of loyalty can yield tremendous emotional distress for all involved.
Moreover, when we're in our twenties, the possibility that we, or anyone we know, will divorce before turning thirty seems bizarre, remote. Listicles enumerating the 10 or 12 or 52 pivotal lessons you will learn upon turning 25 do not include parsing separation papers. From a purely statistical standpoint, this seems reasonable enough. The average age of first marriage in America is 27 for women, 29 for men. So twentysomething divorce expels a startling jolt through our social webs. It unsettles a status quo that has only just come into being.
For these reasons, I was saddened, although not necessarily surprised, when a friend or two retreated, unsure of how to react to my sudden marital flight. But in my friends' defense, what the ever-loving fuck do you say to someone who is getting a divorce?
While the solicitous Internet has some suggestions, the topic has been overwhelmingly addressed in terms of what NOT to say. By all means, when this writer advises you against saying, "I hope you have a good lawyer," heed her. (For that matter, if you honestly have the impulse to blurt out "I hope you have a good lawyer" to a friend going through a divorce, perhaps you shouldn't say anything at all.) I appreciated, too, this writer's focus on vaguely pathologizing rhetoric (Ex: "It's so good to see you out."). Reacting to us as if our hearts and bones have turned to fiberglass only exacerbates the problem. And like the writers, I was frustrated by questions regarding marriage counseling and the oddly desperate variations on "But I thought you were happy!"
In fact, so many of these articles populate the Internet precisely because, in spite of divorce's ubiquity, we flail in our attempts to respond to it. We do not want to actually pre-contemplate divorce: why would we? Though we sneer at the concept of "one true love," we remain collectively seduced by it. Divorce lays bare the rom-com mythology of happily every after—mythology that, in our twenties, can offer a means of self-preservation in a decade of flux. Is it any wonder that witnessing the sudden fissure of a short-lived marriage would be unsettling? Is it any surprise that, in the face of it, we would be rendered speechless or even accusatory?
Every now and then, I have contemplated compiling my own suggestions for people coming to terms with the divorce of a friend. But I've ultimately concluded that this might do more harm than good. There are no pat methods to responding to divorce. Our experiences of it are woefully and, often, miserably inconsistent. To be honest, I've never personally been ruffled by "I never thought he was right for you." And because I was 25 and utterly convinced of my essential toxicity, sometimes it soothed me to be reminded that I could be happy with someone else (even if I might have bristled at the words "Don't worry"). Of course, two hours prior, any mention of matrimony might have triggered my gag reflex. Avoiding a list of taboo remarks is not only unimportant but ultimately impossible. The catalyst for your words matters most: whether they are formed by empathy or outrage.
Besides, divorce is already overwhelming, not only for its participants, but also for everyone ensnared by its reach. After looking through so many lists admonishing against everything from "I never thought he was right for you" to the impossibly capacious "Why?", I started to feel like the idea was even more wrong-footed. There are only so many things you can be told not to do before doing nothing starts to seem like the best option. If speaking with someone is framed as a minefield, we are disinclined to say anything at all.
In my experience of divorce, nothing smarted like someone I loved pointedly keeping her distance. And so instead of telling you what not to say, I would rather tell you what kinds of responses sustained me. During a department event, two days after leaving my husband, a fellow graduate student noticed my missing wedding band—as well as my uncharacteristic quiet—and sent me a message to ask if all was well. It was a small, sweet gesture that enabled me to set the terms of the conversation. Another friend said, firmly, "We are all here for you": a statement that, if not necessarily true, assured me of his support and reminded me of the many friends who had revealed themselves to be of the ride or die variety. There were those who inquired simply, without simpering or overly amplified concern, "How are things?" I always felt capable of providing answer to that, even if the answer came through tears.
At the conclusion of Mrs. Dalloway, the protagonist throws a party and, in its midst, a guest unceremoniously mentions the death of one of her husband's patients. Perturbed by this killjoy, Mrs. Dalloway thinks fretfully, "Oh! ...in the middle of my party, here's death." Of course, divorce is not death exactly, but it nonetheless marks a loss of many things we value immensely. And when that loss is sudden, we reel in its wake. So the best we can do is reel together. The best we can do is to extend a hand to those who are staggering most.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She has published essays in The Hairpin and The Rumpus. Hang out with her on Twitter here: @RVoronaCote.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.