#250: How do I tell people about my divorce?

Dear Captain Awkward, 

Not wanting everyone all up in your business: a cultural history.

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.

I don’t know how to tell people.  
I’ve told the people closest to me and most of the people who need to know, like doctors and stuff.  The main problem I have is I don’t want to talk about the divorce with most people I know.  I’m fine with talking to my mom or my best friend or my therapist about the divorce, but I haven’t told anybody else.  I serve on the board of a non-profit that has a group of about 30 active volunteers, none of whom know about the divorce.  As well, I haven’t told  any of the people I work with.  Eventually they will all need to know because I will be moving, probably in July.
Part of me is tempted to just put it on FB and hope nobody says anything to me.  Part of me wants to ask one of the more chatty volunteers at the non-profit to casually mention it to everyone else so I don’t have to.  My therapist suggested sending out an email and then mentioning in the email that I don’t want to talk about it.  I don’t like any of these ideas.
Can you help me find a way and the words to communicate this to people?
I Don’t Want To Talk About It
Sweet Machine here. First, let me say that I’m so sorry that you’re going through this, and that you were somewhat blindsided by this. You are dealing with an incredibly stressful situation, and the social fallout around it is not making it any easier. I think you know that you do have to tell people, for practical reasons. Before I get into practical advice about how to do this, I just want to make a Blanket Statement: divorce is not a failure, and it is not something to be ashamed of. A six-year relationship does not have to be retconned as awful just because it is ending. I just want you to keep that in mind, for your own mental health, as you go through the next few months and years.
The simplest, but not the best, approach.

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.
Like I said, these are the things that worked for me during a hellish time. I don’t know enough about your personality or your particular coworkers, volunteering colleagues, and social circles to find the exact words that will work for you. But I know this: all of the steps above involved setting a boundary while giving difficult information, and once you’ve set the boundary, it’s much easier to say “I’m not up to talking about this” or “Please ask so-and-so about this project, I’m off next week.”
I’m with your therapist, by the way: mass email is your friend in this situation. (Use bcc so no one can reply all!) In the last few years, I’ve received mass emails announcing divorces, pregnancies, gender transitions, cross-country moves, and more. Even when the information was a surprise, I appreciated getting it in a formal way rather than a “did you hear” gossip chain, which leaves a lot of uncertainty about what is “public knowledge” and what isn’t. You deserve privacy and autonomy even when you’re asking for help or revealing something personal. Right now, your sandwich of love is made of information. Let Team You help you put it together.
Good luck,

20 thoughts on “#250: How do I tell people about my divorce?

  1. Full credit to Sweetmachine for good advice. When I went through my divorce, I did something very similar in who I told what:

    Category #1: People I work with, who should know why I might be irritable/moody/hiding under my desk. These folks got told that I was going through a divorce, it’s stressful, and it might affect when I’d be available at work, but I would make up any missed time. They got no details, and didn’t really ask for any. The only things I told them were things that would relate to work. If I was moving one weekend, I’d let them know I wouldn’t be available for contact that weekend, etc.

    Category #2: People who knew both me and my spouse, but whom I did not count among my friends. We had a lot of mutual friends and more acquaintances. They got told that I was going through a divorce. I also told them that while I was really busy with work at that time*, I would appreciate any invitations to going out and being social, but not if they would be uncomfortable with it. I made it clear I didn’t want anyone feeling like they had to choose, but I also didn’t want to discuss private details with anyone.**

    Category #3: My friends and family. They got told about the divorce, told that it would be tough on me, but they also got told that if I didn’t offer anything, they shouldn’t ask. I appreciated being invited over for dinner or out for drinks or movies.

    I too had a few scripts, or at least phrases well-rehearsed:

    “It’s not something I want to talk about right now.”

    “I’m too close to it right now to talk about it. Maybe later, when I’ve got some distance and perspective.”

    “There are a lot of logistical elements we’re working out right now, and that’s taking most of my time and attention. It’s really dry and not worth talking about, but it has to be done. Sort of like cleaning a basement.”

    *I actually was working two jobs during my divorce, and being so busy and so exhausted actually made the process easier to get through.

    **You will want to complain about the process, and gossip-eager friends will want to hear you complain, especially those who might want to carry stories to your ex-. I suggest griping about the process or the various third parties affected. Lawyers, necessary forms to fill out, wavers to process, the stupid garbage company that needs to be called four times by each person to get a name removed from the bill, etc. Those sorts of complaints actually show more solidarity to gossip-mongers: “Gawd! RodeoBetty & I have both called the cable guys three times each, plus a conference call, and her name is still on the bill! It’s easier to get your name changed back after a divorce than it is to get the junk mailers to stop sending stuff to the wrong address!”

    1. That’s an awesome phrase. I feel like it might bring up more questions, but it might also send the message that you would rather not answer those questions right now.

  2. I am so sorry you are dealing with this, LW. I understand not liking the Email option–as much as I am capable of understanding your position, because I haven’t been through it and do not want to presume. I do want to share that I used the email option when my husband died quite suddenly. I had already gone through phone calls with our several close friends (which was awful) and suddenly I had a vision of running into people for years and having to say ‘he’s dead’. So I pannicked and sent a mass email. It worked a lot better than I thought it would; in the past two years I have ended up having to spill the beans all of twice beyond that email–at least to the various circles or orbits of people we both knew or who knew me, etc.

    I’m wondering if there’s a way to team up Sweet Machine and others’ great advice about Team You with email etc. Can you get anyone on Team You, or would you be comfortable with an FYI email to the masses from them? Or maybe one profesional mass email, one personal? Can anyone on Team You take charge of address change forms when you move?

    Again. I wish I had something to suggest that could keep this from being hard.

  3. I had rather the opposite reaction to my divorce–the uncontrollable emotional TMI moments with perfect strangers or distant acquaintances. Which, I’m told, are well within the range of normal, but still! It is a good idea to let people whose lives are impacted by your behavior in on what’s happening as a ‘heads up’, but no, you don’t need to write them a saga. You will not be firing on all cylinders before, during, and for awhile after, but you’ll do your best, and that’s really all they need to know, right there. Divorce is very much a ‘your-mileage-may-vary’ situation, and you will be your own best expert on what feels right to you. It sounds like you have helpful people on your side, that’s a HUGE plus for you. Maybe they can run interference a little for you, if that would help? Anyway, jedi internet hugs to you, LW.

  4. I actually sent a email to the people I wanted to know,,,I didn’t explain anything to personal… I just said, it was something that was happening now and I asked not to be asked a million questions, I explained I was tired, drained and when I was up to it, I’d tell more, but at this time, I needed to work on myself first. I’d say, most people were supportive. only one person called me,,,,,, thank goodness… I spoke briefly, but said, I wasdn’t up to talking about it now,,
    I also told my closest friends and family, but everyone else, NO EXPLANATION NEEDED.

  5. I really second someone in the office to be on Team You. When I went through a Major Breakup, I didn’t want to tell anyone at work, so I enlisted one person, who I also know knew everything in the office, to know where I was at so that if anything came up (‘why is S late again today?’ etc) she would be able to say ‘well actually,’ and they would know and it was controlled. It made it much easier for me a couple of months down the track to actually tell people, without having to tell people at a time when it was too difficult to deal with and I couldn’t write it down because Magical Thinking.

  6. Jedi hugs, LW.

    And CNAN — I made a very good friend when I asked a co-worker in passing what was up and he had a full-on brain dump. I barely knew he’d been married at that time, and all of a sudden I knew about the divorce, past issues, custody, etc. That was about 7 years ago, and I still count him a good friend.

  7. A very good friend of mine (actually, they are both friends of mine, but I see more of her these days) was in this exact situation earlier this year, and she didn’t really indicate boundaries around what she would and wouldn’t like to discuss, and I found this initially quite difficult. I believe her ex did too: he didn’t want to take away her agency over their split entirely (he had taken the decision to leave fairly unilaterally), and didn’t want anyone to cross any boundaries she might have had, so kept quiet in order to let her tell people in whatever way was best for her.

    I really recommend Sweet Machine’s suggestion, using whatever mass medium – whether that be a brief, boundary-setting Facebook post (as you mentioned), or email, as your therapist suggested. My friend told me in person about their separation, but never indicated how she would like me to behave – mention it ever? Wait until a certain point? Tell our mutual friends? Keep completely silent to our mutual friends? We are good enough friends that I know that any good faith missteps on my part wouldn’t ruin that relationship, but I also would rather not unnecessarily upset her. People who like you – even if they are work colleagues, rather than friends – also won’t want to upset you, so giving them some sense of what’s happening and how you want them to approach it will be appreciated. All going well, it will also mean that you won’t have to talk about it either.

  8. LW, many Jedi hugs to you if you wish to avail yourself of them. I went through a pretty unpleasant breakup of a relationship just about the same length as yours, so just a few things that I can think of that might help.

    1) Absolutely echoing the suggestion of a point person at work, if at all feasible someone higher up than you. It only has to be one, and you don’t have to tell them any more than you’re comfortable with, but cluing them in to what’s going on will help stave off some uncomfortable conversations and also keep them from wondering why their previously awesome employee is now a little distracted, forgetful, irritable, whatever, because the odds are heavily in favor of you going through periods of being some or all of those things, for totally good reason.

    2) Close friends, close family, anyone who is really heavily on Team You gets told in person (or via phone or whatever, but personally to them) about the situation in whatever depth you feel is appropriate given your relationship and that you feel comfortable with. Everybody else who you either think should know or is going to find out sooner or later and could become an awkward conversation in the produce section or something? That’s where I’m recommending an email/Facebook post (that is LOCKED to only your friends!)/other form of mass communication. Seriously, the “oh well, we’ve actually broken up” conversation is exhausting and can be like a mini-emotional landmine lurking in every encounter with someone you haven’t talked to recently. If you can find a way to prevent that (either by email/Facebook/whatever or by appointing a trusted someone to be the official town crier of your life status or however you choose to handle it, though I’m in favor of email), it will make navigating yourself into this new stage of your life so much less fraught and stressful.

    3) Slightly off the topic of what you asked about in your letter, but I just wanted to second Sweet Machine’s comment that divorce is not a failure. The absolute best piece of advice anyone gave me when I was going through my own split was when my mother (who never liked my SO, for the record) told me, as I was moping that I had wasted six years of my life with someone who took advantage of me and how could I have been so stupid, was that it wasn’t a waste if I learned something about myself. It can be easy to fall into the self-loathing spiral of “I wasted all this time in that relationship and oh god I am a failure” or variations thereof, but try and remember that the relationship happened, it was both good and bad like all things are, and nothing to do now but take what’ve learned and move forward.

    Love and light and Jedi hugs to you!

  9. My favorite part of this advice is tell people what would actually support you. I recently had to explain to a lot of people I care about but don’t get to see very often why I’d be missing out on a lot of the big group events planned for the next two months. I did it by mass email, and at the beginning I apologized for not having a personal conversation with each one of them, explaining that it was a painful conversation that I didn’t want to have to repeat a hundred times. Most people think this is reasonable because they can think of similar conversations they’ve had or expect to have someday. At the end, I said what I would like to hear in response and what I would NOT like to hear.

    It. Was. Brilliant. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that in a semi-public setting (i.e. outside of the group in which I first learned about that technique, where everyone does it because it’s part of the culture already) and the results were spectacular. I got an outpouring of support in exactly the ways that I wanted and none of the ways that I didn’t.

    Your friends and coworkers probably care about their relationship with you more than they really care about the juicy details. But many people don’t know how to SHOW that care other than asking for details because that’s how many of us have been taught the social script goes. If you can come up with a few ways the different people in your life can support you and let them know, it will give you an opportunity to ask for what you need and receive it, and them an opportunity to show their care in a way that will actually be caring for you.

    1. If you can come up with a few ways the different people in your life can support you and let them know, it will give you an opportunity to ask for what you need and receive it, and them an opportunity to show their care in a way that will actually be caring for you.

      This is such awesome advice, because the vast majority of people do want to be supportive, but won’t know how unless they are told.

    2. GOD this is brilliant and such good advice.

      Most people WANT to be a help, want to be a source of support. It’s so great if you can find the strength and reflection to provide them with a little guidance so they can do this in the best, more helpful ways for you.

  10. LW – I am so sorry that you are going through this. I hope you have plenty of good people on Team You.

    When I went through a major break-up three years ago, I rang my family and closest friends, but told everyone else via a mass email that basically said “As some of you already know, theboyfrommarz and I are splitting up.This is what’s happening with him moving out etc. I appreciate your support, but I am really not up to talking about it at the moment, so please don’t call me. Emails and texts are fine.” That meant I got lots of email support (which made me feel loved and supported, and which I could answer in my own time) and no phone calls (which I totally couldn’t have handled without breaking down – plus everyone would have tried to call that same evening and I would have been completely exhausted from dealing with all their very-kindly-meant support).

    Sweet Machine’s advice is excellent – and the idea of an office member of Team You sounds really helpful to deal with colleagues. I can’t really remember, but I think I told my team and people I worked closely with about the break-up (mainly in case I broke down on them at some point), and decided other people didn’t really need to know.

    I would definitely agree that you should tell people what you want in terms of support. If you are the first of your circle to get divorced, friends won’t know how to react. They are likely to err on the side of showing how much they are there for you, with lots of “We love you. Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it? What happened?” phone calls and messages. So it’s good to be really clear, e.g. “I know you all want to help, but I really can’t bear to talk about it yet, so the best thing you can do for me right now is not ask me about it at all – not even how I’m feeling or what happened. However, it means a lot to me to be around good friends right now, so company, cakes and trashy movie nights would be very much appreciated”.

    I’d also say that there is no wrong way to tell people. Some older relatives may tut about putting something like this on Facebook, but if that’s what makes you feel most comfortable, then that’s the right way for you. Facebook and email both give you a quick way to reach a large number of people while keeping yourself at a distance from their initial reactions (which can sometimes be quite unintentionally distressing – my best friend, for example, blurted out, “I thought you might be splitting up – last time I saw you you seemed to be more like friends than a couple”, which may have been true but was utterly devastating for me. I’d thought he was “the one”, and the last thing I wanted was to be told it was obvious to other people that things weren’t working between us).

  11. Team You in the office can also be useful for non-news-spreading things: for example, bringing you a sandwich for those days when you can’t bear to open your door and leave except to go to the bathroom. People like to help.

    Dear LW, I was similarly blindsided 10 years ago, and you have my deep sympathy. It sounds as if you have a good team. I am sending you strength with my brains, and I hope that when you’re ready you’ll find a super-fun adventure.

  12. LW – I am really sorry you are going through this breakup. I have been through something similar (not exactly the same of course), and remember feeling that letting other people know was an additional stress that I really didn’t need. For me, I found that the anticipation was worse than the actuality.

    I agree with the advice offered here, personally I found that letting people know at a distance (through my boss telling my team, or by posting on facebook, or sending an email for other people) is a really good way to avoid having to repeat the news many times over. It also allowed me to define the start and end of the discussion that I was ready to have at that time. It also gave me piece of mind that since it would be clear to everyone within a particular circle that they had all got the same message, word for word, there would be no scope for people talking to one another about it, until I was ready to talk more myself.

    Like I said, the anticipation was worse – I remember getting really worked up about the ‘story’ that I would tell to people if pressed – but I found that most people followed my lead as to how much I didn’t want to talk about it. For the rest, I think I said something like ‘I’ve decided not to dwell on the past, and I’m looking to the future instead’ and they said ‘good for you!’ and we went on to talk about something else.

    Good luck & best wishes.

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