I’ve been going through an intense breakup process over the past many months. While my post last week focused on my friends’ actions that have been deeply meaningful and helpful, this week I want to offer some practical suggestions about what to say and what to ask, to me or maybe to other people in similar situations. (I was inspired by this piece on a totally different topic that also felt kind of relevant.) All of the “instead of” lines below are things I’ve heard, and I know they are said with kindness and good intentions. But, of course, even the best of intentions can’t protect me from feeling what I feel. The suggestions I offer are a combination of things I’ve heard that have felt good, and my ideas about what might feel better. Although sometimes it’s all just hard.
Instead of saying nothing…
Try: “I don’t know quite what to say. I know these situations can be tough and complicated. I’m thinking of you.”
I’m thinking of two moments in particular, both in the middle of a large and noisy party with people I’ve known for a long time but don’t talk to regularly. They absolutely could have gotten away with not saying anything to me about the breakup at all. But they found a moment to connect, chose to shift tones from the party setting and sincerely expressed their care and affection. They both started off with acknowledging that they hadn’t known what to say—and, actually, that’s OK with me, because they still tried. Saying something, naming what they knew and reaching out across the silence mattered.
Instead of casually mentioning my ex in the middle of our conversation…
Try: “Something about your ex fits into this story I’m about to tell. Is it OK if I continue?”
I know this pause could make the conversation a little more awkward for you, but believe me, it’s less awkward than having me interrupt you and ask you to slow down. My ex and I have a lot of friends in common, and a large community that we share. You bringing him up in casual conversation may bring up lots of feelings for me; I’m not necessarily trying to avoid those feelings, but I would at least like to be ready. I spend a lot of energy these days trying to hold myself emotionally, to balance care and caution with risk and connection. Having a moment to breathe before you bring him into the conversation makes it a lot easier for me to be present with you.
Instead of asking if the breakup is a good thing or a bad thing…
Try: “That sounds really big. What changes is it bringing to your life?”
It is really big. It’s not all good or all bad. It’s big and different and changes everything, or some days it feels like it changes everything, even though it probably doesn’t if I really think about it for long enough.
Instead of asking why we broke up…
Try: “How are you making sense of it for yourself right now?”
Please don’t ask me why we broke up. I know it’s probably really confusing for a lot of people. I know there are people who think they would be better able to support me if they had a better understanding of what happened. I know people ask because they just want to double check that neither of us did anything “wrong.” But please, don’t. If you ask me what I’m going through right now, if you ask me about where I’m at and what that’s like, you might at some point learn about different pieces of what happened. But it’s all in pieces, and I can’t glue it back together and make it legible for you.
Instead of making assumptions about whether I’m dating or what I’m looking for…
Try: “How are you feeling about dating or not dating other people? How are you making decisions around that?”
Some great people have actually caught me by surprise by asking me how I feel about dating or not dating. I don’t know why it surprised me so much, you know, to have my agency recognized and to be affirmed in exploring my feelings and doing what feels right for me. But it did surprise me, in a good way.
Although these questions and comments have felt good in my experience, they may not work for everyone. If you have different ideas about what has felt great or not so great for you to hear after a breakup, please email me or add your reflections in the comments.
And if you have a close friend going through a breakup, in addition to trying some of the questions and comments above, you might also try asking directly:
- What do you want to hear right now?
- What do you want to share with me?
- What kinds of questions can I ask you so that I can better connect with you and keep you company in this process?
For example, Matt (my ex) told me that these questions and comments that I’m suggesting to try are not what he’d be looking for, specifically. He wants people to ask, “How’s it been?” or “Do you want to talk about it?” Or just say “Oy!” so that he can say it back.
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