Friendships – like gardens – require time, effort, the occasional bit of pruning, and boundless love.
The harvest you reap will sustain you throughout bountiful spring times and miserable winters. Luckily for me, my garden has been lovingly tended and has produced the best assortment of flowers a girl could wish for.
Without the support of my friends, the turmoil of separation and divorce would have been almost unbearable.
They fed me, listened, counselled, made me laugh, made me cry. They encouraged me to take risks, to have confidence in my abilities, to trust in my judgment, to write this blog.
Friendships, however, are not always straightforward.
Occasionally you find the odd species of ‘milk-the-drama’ or ‘you-think-you’ve-got problems’ variety hidden amongst the blooms. Some careful pruning may be required. And sometimes, with all the claims made upon our time in those busy married years, we inadvertently forget to tend to our gardens. When your marriage ends, you may feel cut adrift from certain friends. You may be unsure where their allegiances lie or disappointed they haven’t contacted you since your separation.
During that difficult post-separation period, it’s very likely you will be operating below capacity. You may have trouble identifying what you need, then coming up with a way of asking for it. Here are a few suggestions that aim to provide practical ways of asking for and accepting help, and of managing disappointment when help is unforthcoming or simply unhelpful.
Working out what kind of help you need
- Create a list of tasks you need help with. Think laterally. For example, when I couldn’t drive – either through injury or because I was too busy crying – I had chauffeurs who got me to my destination safely. Their contribution was exactly what I needed at the time.
- Make a list of the things that are worrying you most, and the actions that might lessen those concerns. Don’t be afraid of writing down ridiculous solutions. At the least, they may provide you with a laugh. ‘Kill my husband’ is a popular one, (although finding a friend who’ll risk gaol time for you might be difficult.) But the articulation of a thought like this may lead you to a more workable answer, like ‘I don’t want to hear what he’s saying/how he’s coping/how he’s not coping’. You can then convey this insight to your support network.
- Always include meal preparation in your list of needs. During my recuperation, people I regarded as mere acquaintances would turn up at the door with meals for the family: the parents of my children’s friends, neighbours, even a mate of one of my sons with a magnificent lasagne he’d made.
Asking for help
- Start by practising: think of a way you could say what you require. For example ‘I need a day to myself’. Practise saying it in your head when you’re feeling strong so that on the down days, you won’t have to think too much about it. You’ll be used to hearing the words.
- Nominate a trusted friend and say ‘When I’m not okay, how can I tell you?’ Together you can figure out a word – pineapples/bananas/jaffas – to convey your state of wellbeing.
- Ask this friend if they would be happy to designate tasks to your support circle when you are feeling overwhelmed. A group email reduces the awkwardness of targeting a specific person who may not feel up to the task required of them.
- Choose your mode of communication with care. Face-to-face is always best: communication is largely in the body language and the response is usually immediate. Misunderstandings can arise when a text or emailed message has somehow gone astray, and your request is met with silence. If this happens to you, send a quick follow up along the lines of ‘just wondering whether you got my email/text of last Wednesday.’ You could add something like ‘some computers read my address as junk mail.’ It will act as a prompt for your friend, who may not have received it, or may be struggling with how to respond.
- Cement new friendships and reinforce old ones by acknowledging the care and support you’ve received. I love to send cards with a personal message, but not everyone shares my enthusiasm. An email will do if you haven’t got the energy for cards, but make it heartfelt: ‘Thanks for the good wishes/messages/meals you have sent us over the past few weeks. It has made a huge difference to me/the children and I/my family to feel the care and support of people like you.’
Managing shared friends
- Don’t demand exclusivity of friendship. I have heard of people who forbid their friends from having any contact with their ex-partners. This is damaging for everyone, and is more likely to result in them choosing your ex over you. Divided loyalties can paralyse some people, so don’t expect too much of shared friendships, especially in the beginning.
- Send them a message or email acknowledging that your circumstances have altered. Let them know their place in your life is unchanged as far as you are concerned. If they feel the same, they will probably let you know. If they remain unresponsive, you may have to come to terms with seeing less of them. None of this is easy.
Dealing with difficult friendships
- Friends who enjoy fanning the flames of conflict by informing you of the comments and opinions of others on your domestic situation.
- Think of a statement that will protect you without giving offence. ‘I know we’ve shared everything with each other in the past, but I find this stuff very difficult to hear’ should send the right message. It may have to be rounded off with ‘Would you mind not sharing other people’s comments with me until I’m feeling more resilient?’ Which may be never.
- Friends who tell you to move on before you’re ready. A friend of a recently bereaved friend of mine drew up a list of women in an even worse situation than she was: someone who had lost a husband and a child, or a husband and a parent. Somehow this was meant to give my friend some perspective on the ‘comparatively’ minor upheaval she was undergoing. Call me harsh, but my tolerance of that kind of misguided self-indulgence is very low.
- Give some serious consideration to whether the absence of such a ‘friend’ would leave a huge gap in your life. If so, then by all means refrain from punching them in the jaw and stepping over their body on the way to the bar. Tell them that, while you appreciate their care and concern, there are some things you find difficult to tolerate. Listicles of those less fortunate than yourself are one of them.