Dear Captain Awkward,
Seven weeks ago my husband of six years told me he wants a divorce. There is no room for negotiation on his side. We’ve been to a marriage counselor a few times since he told me, and have spent most of the sessions talking about how we’ll divide the assets, deal with the house, ect. He’s not changing his mind ever. I don’t want the divorce and don’t think our issues are anything that counseling could solve, but I obviously can’t make him stay married to me so we’re getting divorced.
Now: how do you tell people this thing that is so personal and yet so public? I’m going to draw on my own experiences to help you with this, since I’ve had experience being both the teller and receiver of life-altering information. The absolute most important thing you can do in this process is to draw strong boundaries where you want them. You have Team You lined up, right? You mention your mom and your bff and your therapist; maybe you have some other friends or siblings or what have you to recruit. Rule of thumb: Team You gets the inside scoop (if you want!), everyone else gets the Xmas newsletter version — that is, the simple information, presented how you want to present it.
I so, so get the impulse to seed the news with the office gossips and be done with it. Necessary background: my mom was sick with Parkinson’s and early-onset Alzheimer’s* for the better part of a decade, which most people in my life knew. But then things got worse very quickly, and it became clear that she was going to die soon, and I was also thinking “Fucking hell, I do not want to say ‘FYI: my mom is dying’ to every human being I know for the next month.” I remember talking to my therapist about wishing I could wear a neon sign that said “PERSONAL TRAGEDY IN PROCESS, DO NOT INQUIRE FURTHER” so that people wouldn’t ask me why I looked sad without me saying anything. Not having neon-tube-welding skills, I had to take a different path. I was a grad student at the time, so my coworker situation was a little different from yours, but it’s still an example of how you can proceed. Here is what I did:
- For people I interact with professionally (i.e., professors, bosses, students): I wrote a brief, informative email with the bare-bones information (“My mom just had a stroke and I will be out of town until further notice”), the tone of which encouraged sympathy but discouraged questions. Then I asked the (wonderful) program assistant who works with grad students if he could be my point person for all necessary school-related stuff while I was gone — I gave him more info about how to contact me, what my plans were, what I could do long-distance versus what would have to wait, and so on. In other words, he became the office member of Team Me, which was invaluable. Now, you probably don’t have to travel like I did, but you will need time off for moving, an experienced divorce lawyer, and just chill time, so if there’s someone in your office whom you trust on Team You, ask if they could help you coordinate those times.
- For friends and friendly colleagues: I wrote a longer, more informative and emotional email updating everyone on the situation, noting my immediate plans, and — and this is important — describing what would be helpful (for me, mail and non-phone-based contact while I was temporarily living with my folks). Team You already knows what’s going on, but you probably have friends and family who aren’t your closest friends but would still like to support you in tough times. This is the opportunity to tell them what would actually support you — in your case, “being supportive” means “not asking me to talk about this.” You’re allowed to say that explicitly! Boundaries: they are magic.
- For all gossip-related stuff, good and bad: My best friend volunteered to be my personal press rep while all this was going on. She let our mutual friends know that if they wanted more info for whatever reason, they should ask her instead of bothering me, no matter how well-intentioned the question. She was the gatekeeper, which was a godsend during an exhausting time. This was also a key way I avoided having the same conversation over and over again.
- For those people who asked anyway: Use your (rehearsed) words. My therapist and I practiced a response line for the inevitable “How ARE you” questions. Literally, we rehearsed a script. If you can devise (with help) a line that conveys both “I’m surviving” and “Please shut up” while still being polite, you can go on autopilot when people want to have an emotional-meltdown-triggering conversation.