It's often difficult to know what to do and say, but here's a guide ...
Separation and divorce are messy, unpleasant, and difficult situations for everyone involved. When it happens to someone close to us—a family member or a good friend—it can be difficult for us, too, although not nearly as traumatic as it is for those directly involved, of course. Often, it’s hard for us to know what our attitude should be, and what we can say or do to help. Here are some tips:
We don’t know all the details of what’s happened between a couple that has led them to separate. It’s not an easy decision to make, and we can be sure it hasn’t been made lightly. Although sometimes it might seem from the outside that the reasons for the separation aren’t serious enough to justify it, those of us with experience in helping married couples in crisis know that things are almost never as they seem. Besides, what might not seem very important to one person might be an insurmountable obstacle to someone who’s already been pushed to their limit.
So, don’t judge or criticize, and don’t start to stereotype people or label them. We never know the true motives for the separation or divorce. It’s all too easy for us to end up judging their decision as morally reprehensible, when the person may actually have made that choice in good conscience and in accordance with the doctrine of the Church (Catechism 2383).
When a marriage breaks down, it means the couple has to face the fact that their plan to spend the rest of their life together has failed. It’s not easy to accept, and people who are in this situation need to experience a process of mourning: accepting the fact of the separation, assimilating the change in their plans for their lives, and facing the future in new and different circumstances. None of this is easy, and it’s harder to do alone than when you’re surrounded by people who love you. This is why we need to be available to support them. We need to be tactful and sensitive to their feelings, listening to them and understanding, and respecting their reactions (tears, anger, protests, depression …), so we can help them work through the process in as healthy a way as possible.
Don’t throw more wood on the fire
Everyone in the family suffers when a couple splits up. It’s not the right time to criticize or reproach them for their failures, or say things like “I told you so!” If there were reasons to warn them that things weren’t going well, it might have been opportune to offer them help before the breakup, but now, it’s not helpful. Instead of adding insult to injury, help them recognize and heal their wounds.
Support them in their role as parents
Although two people may have broken up as a couple, they don’t stop being parents to their children. We can help them not to lose sight of the fact that their children need them both, and need their mother and father to get along. For this reason, we should encourage them not to criticize or recriminate each other, especially in front of their children. On the contrary, we should try to help them have the best (or the least bad) relationship possible, for the good of the children.
Offer to help them if they need it
Separating two lives that have been intertwined is a painful and complicated process; there are sure to be ways you can provide support, whether practical or emotional. They may need help moving, or taking care of their kids at certain times, or just having someone give them a different perspective on things.
One form of support they always can use, of course, is prayer. Even when a marriage seems broken beyond repair, we can pray and hope for reconciliation and reunion. When that truly isn’t possible, we can still pray for God to help all the family members find healing, peace, and mutual forgiveness.
All of the above are ways you can help couples who are getting separated or divorced. We need to remember that the ideal is for the couple to be reconciled, so we should avoid maligning either side as much as possible. We must also remember that the priority will always have to be the protection of the best interests of the weakest involved: the children.