When I first got divorced 11 years ago, my world was flipped upside-down. Life as I knew it was over and my new reality included custody schedules, money woes and the search for a new home. It was a confusing and overwhelming time, and adjusting to the “new norm” took years. To make matters worse, outsiders were curious and wanted to know the personal details of both my divorce and my new life. How often does he take the kids? they would ask. Are you getting alimony? Who is your lawyer? Are you dating? I wasn’t prepared to set boundaries and so I simply answered honestly, giving way too many details to way too many people. Afterwards, I would regret it, feel emotional and wish for a do-over.
Curiosity, it seems, is a natural human reaction to drama and/or trauma. "It seems people always want the ‘why, what, how and when’ of other people’s grief, trauma and tragedy," licensed couples therapist Martha Greenburg says of the personal questions asked of parents and kids who are struggling with a major life change like divorce. "It’s similar to rubber-necking on the freeway," she adds. "People can’t help but slow down and stare to try to gather the details and make the event make sense in their own mind.”
Marina Shepelsky, a divorced mom of three from New Jersey, remembers the questions that bothered her the most: Does he pay child support? Do you pay him alimony? Why don’t you take him to court and try to get more child support from him? The questions weren’t easy to answer, nor were they anyone’s business. Furthermore, they hurt Shepelsky during an already grueling time in her life. Instead of setting boundaries, she says she “used to get into the details and tell people about my pain.”
Sharing (or oversharing) can be a natural human reaction for some, but Greenburg says it's best to firmly set boundaries from the beginning, even if it feels hard or uncomfortable at first. She recommends having a response on hand that covers the basics, and sticking to "I" statements. “I feel uncomfortable talking about the details of my divorce” is one suggestion that sets a boundary and ends the conversation respectfully.
Another option is to send an email announcing the divorce. Greenburg suggests including the following: “We know some of you might have questions, but the best way to support us right now is to honor our time and space, and trust that we know what is best for ourselves and the kids." Shepelsky has since learned to set better boundaries and honor her right to privacy. When people ask questions these days, she keeps it brief, noting, “I have a right to privacy and so does my family.”
Georgia-based mom of three Lisamarie Ray found herself in a unique situation following her divorce. “My ex-spouse refused to leave our marital home, resulting in prolonged tension for more than six months that directly impacted our children," she shares.
Knowing she had to put an end to the tension at home, Ray made the "difficult decision" to move out herself, finding a new place a few minutes away. The kids and her ex stayed put. This non-traditional set-up prompted lots of questions, many of which were based on some hurtful assumptions. Friends and family didn’t hesitate to ask, “How could you leave your home and your teens?” — implying that Ray “was a bad mother for choosing to leave while [not addressing] the toxic and manipulative behavior of [her] ex-spouse.” The double standard upset Ray, who feels like "it is deemed acceptable for men to leave the family home during a divorce, but not for women [to do the same].”
Greenburg says that when the questions make you feel judged or truly hurt, the best thing to do is “to remain grounded in knowing that you are doing what is best for you and your family."
She adds, "Only you can know what relationships are supportive and helpful for you during this time. Some of your loved ones may have no idea how to support you right now. If they want to, they’ll be open to being told how, and it is OK to ‘coach’ them on what you need," she says. Try saying something along the lines of, "I’m finding that everyone in my life wants to give advice right now, and what I really need from you is to just listen. That would mean the world to me."
“If they aren’t open to this, and you’ve tried to set a boundary and coach them on what you need, then maybe it’s not the season for this relationship," Greenburg adds.
This is what Ray concluded. “I told family and friends that if they could not understand my decisions that I made with my children and for my children because their dad didn't want to meet me halfway, then that was their problem, and I wish them all the best," she shares.
“Not every friend needs to be our person for every event,” says Greenburg, “but the true ones will listen when you are vulnerable enough to share feedback." And they will respect it when you choose not to share details as well.
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.