Labeling Divorce

Responding to news of a friend’s breakup requires empathy 

By Nicole Dahmen

I got divorced last year. 

[Cue standard response: Awkward platitude combined with a head nod, a move made famous by Tom Selleck’s character, Richard, on Friends.]

No, really, it’s OK. It’s mutual and amicable — a best-case scenario. 

[I’ve perfected my response.]

Divorce has been common for decades, but as a society, we still don’t know what to make of it — or even how to respond. According to the CDC, there were nearly 750,000 divorces in the U.S. in 2021. That’s one and a half million divorced individuals — roughly the population of San Diego — in one year alone. 

I’ve been dismayed by the way people — family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even strangers — have responded to the news of my divorce. These responses become labels representing the tired view that divorce is tragic — shocking, shameful, utterly untouchable. Well, guess what? Divorce isn’t always bad.

“I’m so sorry!” 

Yes, “feeling sorry” is a standard way to express concern — but it often comes across as pithy and pedestrian. For many couples, divorce isn’t a calamity. It’s an act of logic, reason — the courage of your convictions.

[Plus, haven’t we all figured this out by now? You have no need to be sorry if you weren’t responsible.] 

“Oh, that’s so sad!”

Yes, absolutely there’s an inherent sadness to divorce. It’s an ending, and closed doors invoke nostalgia, loss, regret. While I won’t go so far as to say that my divorce is “happy,” my life is now open to the possibility of happiness — a prospect lost long ago in my marriage.

[I’m not sad it’s over, I’m sad it didn’t work. And that’s a big difference.]

“Oh, dear.” 

Yes, I’m now that pitiful soul — the one who must check the box that says single, the one eating dinner alone on a Friday night, the one whose children have two homes. These losses are real and they sting, and this response feels like judgment camouflaged as concern.

[Our divorce was healthy, and we’re all OK — better, in fact.]

“What happened?” 

It’s complicated, so forgive me if I don’t want to give you a complex marital history in the produce aisle of the neighborhood organic market.

[This usually feels nosy. But maybe you’re struggling in your own marriage? Or maybe you really care and want to be a good listener? If that’s the case, let’s get together for coffee or a walk. I’d appreciate talking with a trusted listener.]

“No! I can’t believe it! You two seemed perfect together.”

To the outside world, many couples appear happy or at least content, stable. Even in the age of social media, dirty laundry isn’t always aired. You can never presume to know what’s going on in someone else’s marriage.

[We were perfect together — for a while. And then we weren’t.]

“Want me to kick his ass?”

No, not his fault. He didn’t wrong me, though I appreciate you being “on my side.” Here’s what you need to know: The moment we made the decision to divorce, the years of resentment and anger washed away.

[If you’re willing to kick his ass, would you also be willing to help me assemble my new furniture?]

“Did you try marriage counseling?”

Yes, more than once. We didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to get divorced — it was a process long in the making.

[In counseling, we learned about love languages, communication styles, and working through conflicts. Through 16 years of life together, we learned that we weren’t each other’s best friend.] 

“Welcome to the club.”

This response makes it about you and your story — not mine. While I appreciate the reminder that I’m not alone in this experience, I don’t want to be part of this “club.” It’s not a game or a social spectacle. It’s my life.

[Cue Bon Jovi.]


This isn’t a celebration to me — I didn’t earn something, produce something, win something. We knew things weren’t working, and we made a difficult decision that has real ramifications.

[If you’re feeling so positive, consider inviting me to lunch or some other lighthearted outing. It’s good for me to stay busy and have support right now.]

To a large degree, I get it. We don’t always know what to say. But your response — intended or not — affects me. Language matters, always. 

So, what is a proper response?

“Thanks for sharing that with me. How are you?”

Perfect. You’re showing empathy, and, most important — you’re letting me guide the conversation.

I recognize that I come from a position of privilege in writing this essay. Violence wasn’t involved in my marriage or my divorce, nor was scandal or heartbreak. So, I can take myself lightheartedly in writing this quippy (and hopefully helpful) essay. 

But that doesn’t equate to me taking divorce lightly. Some divorces are devastating for all involved. 

You just don’t know. And that’s my point. 

Ask me how I feel about my divorce before putting it through your lens.

Nicole Dahmen is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

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