What not to say to someone going through a divorce

Learning how to say the right things starts with learning what the wrong things are.

I was about to start with, “It blows my mind…”, but I realize it’s actually not much of a surprise to be compiling this list. As a psychiatry resident, I have started to become acutely aware of the major failing of our families in their inability to teach their growing youth, regardless of gender, how to experience and express emotions in constructive, meaningful ways. Consequently, it is rare to find in our adults the qualities of emotional intelligence, warmth, and comfort. I experienced this firsthand through my now one-and-half-year old journey through separation and divorce, where I found little comfort outside of my own positive self-talk and delving deeply into prayer and conversation with Allah (SWT).

The basics of any rule of providing comfort to someone suffering is demonstrated by this simple ring structure:

Source: http://lifehacker.com/use-the-ring-theory-to-know-how-to-comfort-someone-977848409

Comfort In, Dump Out. Comfort goes TO the person in the situation, and you seek comfort OUT from your own circle. The onus of a grieving person is not to soothe you.

This concept can be applied to avoid most faux pas in most situations. In very obvious circumstances, the “right thing to say” is intuitive: you wouldn’t, for example, tell somebody going through chemotherapy, “I’ll really miss your long hair!” More insidious things, however, can go unnoticed; one might say, “Everything happens for a reason” to that individual, and it can still feel pretty crummy with the added benefit of shame for the person in suffering who can’t agree with that maxim in that moment.

Now, let’s talk divorce. With rare exception, nobody walks out of a marriage thinking, “Hooray! Glad I got divorced today.” For most people, the only thing worse than getting divorced is staying married. And for many people, it is a carefully thought-out decision, but it still comes with many complicated feelings: shame, guilt, sorrow, loss, uncertainty, hope, confusion, relief. The divorc(ing)/(ed) person knows this and experiences it. You do not.

Divorce, like mental health issues, is starting to turn the corner in becoming more palatable for dinner-table conversation at Muslim tables. However, many still don’t know how to respond to somebody going through it. This is a list of things not to say to someone who is in the process or has recently been divorced. It is a list inspired by my own experience — every one of these was something said to me at some point during my journey. While specific to divorce, it can be generalized to other difficult situations you or a loved one will experience. Learning how to be available and say the right things isn’t an innate, immutable quality; it’s a skill that you can and should practice as part of your role in the greater human fabric.

1. But you guys looked so great together!
Setting aside that I don’t even know what this statement sets out to accomplish, you know what else looks great? Magazine covers, curated Facebook pages, Instagram filters, Snapchat stories. We are adult enough to have the awareness that it’s not what is on screens but what is behind closed doors that’s the real deal – the stuff we’re not privy to.

2. Yeah, I had a friend in that situation. They met with/did/tried xyz and things really turned around for them.
That’s great for your friend. I also met with/did/tried xyz and things didn’t turn around for me, hence divorce.

3. These days, young people don’t have the same sense of commitment/tolerance that the older generation did.
I wonder if that’s because many young people grew up around terrible examples of marriage and bad parenting and realized a little later in life that that wasn’t healthy. Some older people perhaps would have been better off separating than living in toxic marriages and creating two-ton baggages for their kids to drag into their own unions.

4. We thought about divorce some time ago. It took a lot of work and compromise, but we stuck it out.
This is perhaps a failed attempt at normalizing marital woes. That’s great that you navigated a rough patch. I agree – having been married, I can attest to the fact that marriage takes a lot of work. Medical school also took a lot of work, and so does pushing against a brick wall all day. The results of both those efforts are very different, however.

5. I mean, this makes me so scared. Do you think this could happen to me?
True story. Listen, I don’t have the emotional capacity to worry about the state of a marriage I’m not living in because I’m too preoccupied navigating the demise of mine. And to answer your question: yes, sadly, it could happen to you because marriage by definition is a contract that can be terminated. InshaAllah, I hope not, and pray not, but: dump out. Have that conversation with your spouse and work on ways to divorce-proof your union.

6. Log kya kehnge? (What will people say?)
Log kya kehnge is why people are so private about dating that they don’t get adequate guidance, have hasty engagements that they don’t break off despite red flags, and then get into marriages that are bound to fail or they stick it out for Naila Aunty despite their misery.

7. Talaaq se Allah ka arsh hill jata hai OR Divorce is the most hated thing in the sight of Allah (SWT).
First of all, these are weak (da’eef) hadiths. And, more importantly, divorce is still halal. Third, Zaynab and Zaid ibn Harith – two perfectly good people – had some fundamental incompatibilities, and their marriage ended in divorce. I find it difficult to believe that in response to the many sahaba who divorced, the Prophet (S) would have responded in this way.

8. It’s not like he hit you though.
A) How do you know that? B) Why is physical abuse the only “appropriate” reason for a marriage to end? C) There are other things in marriage that are damaging beyond only physical abuse.

9. Tum par nazar lag gayi hai, yeh paro.
I’m all for prayer and dhikr, and nazar is a reality of our faith tradition. But I think the over-emphasis on it (particularly in Asian communities) externalizes the problem and keeps people from taking ownership of behaviors they can and should change. It also helps to keep in mind that Allah (SWT) is still in control of all things.

10. Silence.
And lists like these may deter people who get so scared of saying the wrong thing…but silence is saying the wrong thing. I knew the costs, and I anticipated much of it. However, expecting it didn’t make the alienation and the friends who disappeared like I was a leper any less painful. I can’t even count on one hand the number of people who reached out during that time of my life.

Divorce is a reality of societies that I certainly don’t think should be taken lightly but should be talked about fairly. It is a painful outcome to an unfortunate situation that at times protects against worse ills — falling into despair, violating the rights of one another by being unable to meet their needs, setting a terrible example for children, emotional neglect/abuse, even adultery.

For some people, it’s a disastrous unilateral decision, with someone left jilted and traumatized. For others, it is a mutual decision out of respect and desire for better outcomes for both parties. Regardless, it’s rarely, if ever, black and white, and you just cannot know — Allahu alam. Divorce can be done with justice and mercy, as prescribed in the Qur’an, and if not, well, there is a Day when the wrongs of this world are righted.

Ultimately, I hope our communities start joining a conversation about divorce that isn’t mired by the statements in the list above but instead focuses on greater empathy and kindness and a listening ear towards those going through it. It takes courage to make tough choices, to own those choices, and to be willing to stand alone when standing up for them, and watching everyone around you stay seated. It is often lonesome, but it reminds you of your own uncompromising integrity. And no one should be shamed for that.

Samaiya Mushtaq is a resident physician training in psychiatry. She is particularly interested in the intersection of mental health, wellness, and spirituality in Muslim populations.

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