Dear Captain Awkward,
I am a straight male in the process of getting a divorce. I am the one who filed for it. I did so out of necessity because my spouse has been increasingly unstable and abusive throughout the marriage. I spent years telling myself that things would get better any day and that there was no real cause for alarm. Additionally, my soon-to-be-ex-wife struggles with a lot of legitimate and confidential mental health issues. As a result, as this problem grew and my marriage slowly marched toward its end, I told very few people just how bad it was. Because I spent the first several months AFTER I filed for divorce falsely hoping that the divorce wouldn’t really have to happen, I also didn’t tell people what was going on as the process began.
At this point, she has moved out, and our small child has been placed primarily with me by mutual agreement. And still, many people in my life have not been properly clued in to this major life change. I still have relatives, friends, and co-workers who casually ask me how my wife is, or talk to me about what a wonderful family I have (really, I hid this well). When this happens, I visibly wince at this point. I no longer want to respond to those kinds of comments dishonestly, but I really don’t want to tell the whole story. All I want people to know are the two facts that are key to my current situation (and not easy to hide): the fact that I am divorced, and the fact that I am effectively now a solo parent. What is the quickest, least awkward way to say this when I feel I need to? My goal here is to minimize follow up questions, and ideally also minimize hurt feelings. I am finding that some people definitely feel put off that I hid the truth from them.
It sounds like you are doing the right thing for yourself and your family, in very trying and sad circumstances. I hope that this is the beginning of a new and better normal.
Facebook (ugh, I know) and your most chatty & socially connected friends, coworkers, and relatives are going to be your best helpers right now. Facebookwise, I’m stealing this/adapting this from something I saw in my feeds recently:
“Friends, forgive the mass posting, but I have some news that it’s past time to tell people about. Sadly Spouse and I have decided to end our marriage. Paperwork has is in process, Kid is living with me for now while we sort out the logistics. I know this may come as a surprise to many of you, but out of respect for each other’s privacy we wanted to keep the bad news between us until we were absolutely sure of our decision. Spouse could probably use some friendly faces around them right now, as could Kid and I. I don’t want to go into more detail right now on here, but I did want to let people know what’s generally going on with me and recruit some willing babysitters & playdates for Kid. Much love to you all.”
You’ll get a lot of “Sad news! I hope you’re okay” and maybe one or two people will derail by asking for details or expressing shock – just ignore them, the other people in the thread will handle shushing them and messaging them privately with the details, you don’t owe them an answer or a history or an explanation that makes sense and convinces them it was the right decision. You don’t owe it to stay in an unhappy marriage just because you were personifying someone’s idea of a perfect family. I mean, let the ridiculousness of that expectation sink in for a minute. Also remember, you do not have to respond to every comment, and in fact, there is a little “x” next to people’s comments that lets you hide them. Use it if you need to.
With coworkers, family, friends, etc. you can also spread the word this way: Find the friendliest, most connected, most likely to gossip or know people’s news people. Call them up or get them one-on-one, tell them the news, and tell them “This is really painful and embarrassing for me to talk about, and I’m really trying to be respectful of Spouse’s privacy and keep things amicable and constructive between us during a really painful and awkward time, so I don’t know if I can handle 50 more lunches/phone calls like this. Would you do me a huge favor and spread the word for me to (the others at work/the gaming group/the family)?” I can feel you, cringing through the internet a the idea of this, but listen: The Gossip Network of People Who Talk About Each Other’s Business is real. It is a thing. Private, reticent people like yourself flee and hide from it, with good reason, but it can be harnessed on occasion to save you from 50+ awkward lunches and phone calls. You’ll find that, as a little time goes on, people will already know your news. You may have to do the odd “I‘m so sorry, I just heard!”/”I know, it sucks, but we’re hopeful that there will be a whole lot less tension once it’s all worked out” dance a time or twelve, but you’ll also find that people will be very kind to you – you’re not the first person to go through something like this, and a lot of your fellow divorce and abusive-marriage survivors are hiding in plain sight, ready to help.
If you get pressed for details or people express surprise on the phone or in person, just let it wash over you. It’s forgivable for people to have a moment of surprise, as long as they understand that their surprised feelings are theirs (you’ve got enough feelings of your own to deal with right now). If you can prepare some safe things you can repeat, you’ll get through it. Go with the truth: “Thank you so much for the kind words, it’s still fresh and very hard for me to talk about, so can we talk about you? How is (that thing you do)(your family)(that local sports team you root for)?“
The truth is your friend. “Losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart.” It’s okay to say “I kept it to myself because it was an incredibly tough decision, and I knew that as soon as I told people it would become real. I wasn’t ready, for a long time, for it to be real.””I wish I could have told you sooner, but I really wasn’t ready before now. Thank you for understanding.” Anyone who gives you crap after that that trying to make the hardest decision in your life into something that’s about them and their status in the pecking order of your life. You weren’t lying, you were keeping something private while you dealt with the fallout, and it’s okay to say “I’m sorry you feel lied to, or excluded, that wasn’t my intention. But it was a decision that needed to stay just between Spouse and me until the ink was dry, especially since we were co-parenting all that time.” Then back away from that person for a bit while everyone’s boundaries reknit themselves.
Please also make sure you are talking to someone about the dirty, sad, painful, abusive, horrid details. Find someone who doesn’t need you to put on a brave face, or protect your wife’s public image or your kid’s vision of his mom. A therapist. Your best friend. Your family. She has some extreme diagnosable things going on, it sounds like, but your pain and grief and stress are just as real and just as deserving of love and care. Please don’t neglect your own needs, and our own sorrows during this time. I hope that informing people of what’s happening is one way to reach out to Team You, and that pretty soon some casseroles, friendly ears, and willing babysitters show up in your life and carry you into the next chapter.
Divorced Awkwardeers, how did you break the news?