Divorce is rarely easy and rarely cheap. But there are things you can do to make the process less difficult and less expensive. After two decades of practicing Family Law and hearing other Family Law attorneys express concern (read: complain) about the same things, I’ve compiled a short list of things your divorce lawyer wants you to know so you can help them better serve you.
Often when we hear about a friend or loved one getting a divorce, we just don’t know what to say or do. We want to be supportive, encouraging, helpful – but struggle with being presumptuous or intrusive in our attempts to offer assistance.
Recently I was invited to speak at a Stephen Ministry meeting when the group was going through training on how to minister to and assist people in the community who are dealing with divorce. The group leader asked me to help them understand the process of divorce and suggest ways to help those going through it. After two decades of practicing Family Law and working with men. women and children who are going through the process, it wasn’t difficult to come up with a list of challenges that divorcing parties often need help with!
PRIOR TO A DIVORCE ACTION BEING FILED
WHILE THE DIVORCE IS PENDING
AFTER THE DIVORCE
We want to show compassion for friends who tell us they are getting a divorce, but often we don’t know how to respond. It’s especially difficult when it’s clear they don’t want the divorce – that the choice was made by their spouse. Often the first thing that pops into our head – an unvarnished truth, perhaps? – is the very thing we should not say as a first response to the news. Here are ten statements that are often blurted out in a well-meaning attempt to offer comfort – followed by what goes on in the mind of the friend (who doesn’t want a divorce) when they hear it.
1. You’ll be better off without him.
The unspoken response: In what way? Better off financially without half of the family income? Better off with only seeing my kids half the time as they shuttle back and forth between two houses? Better off coming home to an empty house, an empty bed? Define “better off.”
2. You can do better than her.
The unspoken response: I don’t want “better” – I want what I thought was the best – the person I love.
3. You’re better than he’ll ever be.
The unspoken response: Then we must both be crap, because clearly I’m not good enough for the person who’s “not as good as me.”
4. The best revenge is being happy.
The unspoken response: Shut up, OK? Right now it flippin’ hurts and “happiness” is a concept I can’t begin to imagine.
5. He’ll be sorry one day.
The unspoken response: Uh, which day is that? I’m pretty sure it won’t be tomorrow. Or next Tuesday. As a matter of fact, I don’t think he will be. Ever. You need to work on your pep talks.
6. Time heals all wounds.
The unspoken response: I’m not “wounded,” you moron – I’m decimated. Does time heal decimated?
7. Have you prayed about it?
The unspoken response: Until my knees are raw and she’s still leaving me. My prayers haven’t been answered. Does that mean God doesn’t love me either? Just how unlovable AM I??
8. Is there another woman/man?
The unspoken response: Why would you immediately ask that? Do you know something? Does everybody know something?
9. Call me if there’s anything I can do.
The unspoken response: Yah – OK. Be expecting a call around 1:00 in the morning – I’ll be asking you to come over and fix my broken heart so I can get some sleep. Or, better yet, let me give you a call about fixing my spouse – make her change her mind about ending our marriage. Can you do that?
10. You don’t have guns in the house, do you?
The unspoken response: Is that suppose to be funny? You may not have noticed I’m not in a chuckling mood. And if it’s NOT suppose to be funny, who are you afraid for – my spouse or me? I don’t need you to put crazy thoughts in my head – there’s already plenty to deal with in there.
Whether you are thoroughly familiar with your friend’s marital history or didn’t see it coming, there are no magical words to be offered upon first hearing the news. If the news is being shared via phone or in writing, offer a simple: “Oh, Friend, I am so sorry” and let them make the next remark – one that may give you better guidance with what to say next. If you are told in person, and your relationship is such that physical contact is appropriate, sometimes it’s better to say nothing. Sometimes an immediate hug – an available shoulder “to cry on” – better conveys a wordless I hurt for you and with you.
Divorce is tough enough without having to endure a public battle and reliving all the strife in a courtroom. An alternative to that knock-down-drag-out trial is mediation – the process of both parties sitting down with a trained individual who can help you arrive at agreements that best suit your circumstances. I’m not saying it’s easy – not much about divorce is – but it’s a very good option to explore if you want to get through the process with less damage than a trial can inflict. Having described the process and it’s benefits in previous articles, including why my perspective changed after participating in a mediation as a party, I thought I’d pass on some tips from an expert.
Kevyn Mattax, a highly regarded Family Law attorney and certified Family Mediator in Oklahoma City, has some tips to help you get the most out of your mediation experience.
1. Understand the process and what it looks like. Have a discussion with your attorney about not just what mediation is, but how it physically works. Who will be there? How is it set up? Does the mediator provide separate rooms or will you all be in one room? Are there “joint sessions” or does the mediator caucus? Does the mediator provide refreshments or should you bring your own? No question is too silly or basic.
2. Plan ahead for what you might want/need while you are at mediation. Take gum, headache medicine, a bottle of water. Take a charger for your cell phone or your laptop. You may be there for many hours. If you tend to get warm or cold easily, dress in layers and bring a light sweater. If you have young children, make sure that you have someone to pick them up and care for them if the mediation goes longer than you had planned. Do not bring third parties to the mediation unless that has been approved in advance.
3. Come prepared. Make sure your attorney sent the mediator a memorandum with as much helpful information as possible (in advance). Ideally, you, as the client should have reviewed and approved that information. Meet with your attorney in advance and go over your position. Know all of the pros and cons and be prepared with your position, yet, work hard to be flexible and open to compromise at the mediation, if need be. Make sure that all necessary exhibits and helpful materials will be at the mediation. Be as organized as possible so that you can focus on the task at hand. The better informed you are about all of the issues, your assets and liabilities, etc. the smoother the process will be.
4. Expect to feel emotional. Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Mediation can be exhausting and mentally draining. Take whatever steps you can to make sure that you are clear headed. Get up and walk around and take mini breaks during the process. Be honest with the mediator – if you are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, tell him/her. Mediators are not mind readers, so just speak up and ask for a break and then share your concerns in private. Mediators are expecting these emotions from the parties and have techniques and tips to share with you to help alleviate stressful reactions. Make sure and stay hydrated and eat enough during the day to maintain your blood sugar.
5. Anticipate the resolution. When one side makes an offer, know that there are really only three possible responses: accept, reject or make an offer. Be prepared to go in slow increments at first. Any movement toward resolution is encouraging. Understand that concessions must be made. Concessions are the language of cooperation. Trust the process. Everything that happens at mediation is confidential so you can let your guard down and be willing to truly attempt resolution with the assistance of a good mediator.
Just when I thought I knew all there was to know about mediation, I learned something new. I know that mediation, the process of resolving legal issues with the assistance of someone trained to help warring parties find creative solutions, is often better for divorcing spouses than having a trial. I have served as a mediator in numerous custody cases. As a Family Law practitioner, I have attended dozens of mediations while representing clients. As a Guardian Ad Litem for children, I’ve sat through mediations between the parents in case I could be of assistance with child-related issues. And as an adjunct Family Law professor, I have taught the mechanics and benefits of mediation to law students for seventeen years. I’ve even written articles about it, such as Take the Bat Out of the Battle, extolling its virtues for parties going through divorce.
I was in court to collect money that had been owed to me for a year and a half because I didn’t see the situation changing on its own any time soon. When the judge called our case, he asked us if we would like to mediate the case before having him hear it. I mentally rolled my eyes (it’s not good to actually roll your eyes when the judge asks a question) and asked myself what would be the point. I had already made two previous agreements with the individual over the past two years, and neither one had been honored. Besides – I was right. She had absolutely no defense. This was a slam-dunk case. I could be out of there in five minutes if it went to the judge. Who knew how long it would take if we tried to mediate it. As in, try to make another agreement with somebody I no longer trusted.
I looked over at my opponent and she shrugged – not quite sure what mediation was all about. The judge made the decision for me, suggesting that we give it a try. Not following the judge’s “suggestion” is about as well-received as eye-rolling. So off we trotted with a mediator who was standing by. The judge was already dealing with his next case.
My opponent and I sat across from each other at a conference table and the mediator sat at the head, forming a triangle with us. He started patiently explaining what mediation was, how it worked, and what was expected of us. I was still in professional attorney mode – and quite annoyed that I had to sit through a talk that I had given myself numerous times. I resisted the urge to “help” move things along.
And then we each had an opportunity to sum up our positions. To my shock and horror, I started getting a little emotional. What the . . . ? Attorneys don’t get misty-eyed when they talk. It just isn’t . . . done. I realized that it was less attorney-opponent and more two people who didn’t agree. Sure, we had “exchanged positions” before – but always through brusk phone exchanges or carefully worded emails. Never sitting across a table while looking at each other. Nothing like seeing a wince, frown, surprise, hurt rolling across the face of somebody you’re talking or listening to for a new perspective. Hearing is more than just taking in sound – it’s processing the words, registering them.
Here are a few things I learned about mediation from my new perspective:
Everything I formerly advocated about the mediation process for divorcing couples still holds true: you craft a better solution for your family than some judge who doesn’t know you can; you can get creative with the resolution in a way that the judge cannot; you have some control over the outcome as opposed to tossing the dice with the judge’s orders, you have an opportunity to be heard by the other in a way that you might not get in the courtroom.
I’m not telling you that Mediation is magic dust. It’s not something you can sprinkle on years of hurt, mistrust, betrayal, anger, or other raw emotions to make all the bad stuff disappear. I am telling you it’s a way to start a conversation that can have a different ending than others you’ve had before. And I’m telling you it’s an opportunity to be heard and craft a resolution for your family, and about your stuff, that is personalized in a way a judge just can’t accomplish. I’m telling you this process does not have the tear-each-other-to-shreds result that a trial can have. And I’m telling you, most important of all, that you can leave the mediation room with dignity intact, a desire to work together better for the children, and a sense of satisfaction having crafted a solution you believe works for your situation.
I can’t offer any solace regarding how you might feel leaving the courtroom if you choose to go to trial – because that’s an unknown.
Dividing up property that was accrued during marriage is one more difficult issue that has to be dealt with during divorce. Understanding how the judge would do it and what your options are for doing it without the judge’s intervention can make a difficult task a little less difficult. In spite of the fact that if you and your spouse could easily work things out together you probably wouldn’t be getting divorced, working together to divide the property could save you headaches, court time, attorney fees, and the (potentially) unsatisfying result of a judge’s division.
Most states have laws providing for ‘equitable distribution’ of marital property. (You have to look at your state laws to determine whether ‘marital property’ is everything that was acquired during the marriage or if exceptions apply.) The term ‘equitable’ means that it has to be fair, but not necessarily exactly equal.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER WHEN DIVIDING PROPERTY
Factors that judges can consider when they determine what is a fair way to divide the property include:
• Who uses the property
• How the property was acquired
• If there’s debt on the property
• If there is sentimental attachment to the property
• If one party is seeking particular property out of vindictiveness
• What other property there is to divide
• How the overall debt is being divided
• Any other factor that is relevant to specific property
HOW PROPERTY IS DIVIDED
There are 3 different ways to divide most property (leaving the complex issues regarding dividing businesses and pensions for another time). Terminology may differ a little from state to state, but the basic concepts are the same.
1) In kind: Dividing like items in half. Example: A set of eight Flintstone juice glasses could be divided by giving four to each spouse.
2) Set-off: Property that is not the same divided in such a way that each party is getting assets that have comparable value. Example: Wife receives a bedroom set worth $1500 and husband receives a kitchen table with chairs and a Best of the Brady Bunch DVD collection with a total value of $1575.
3) Alimony in lieu of property. In other words, money for stuff. Example: Wife is awarded the house that has equity in the amount of $10,000 and husband receives $5000 in cash (either from other marital sources or refinancing the house).
HOW TO VALUE PROPERTY
Unless you are already in agreement about how everything will be divided (and if you were you probably wouldn’t be reading this) you should determine what the value is of the major property items such as a house, vehicles, furniture, financial accounts, antiques, tools, big appliances, collections, jewelry, art, etc. (Nobody is interested in valuing your linens, clothes, and Tupperware unless there is something pretty special about them.)
For most valuable assets – things like houses, land, and antiques – an appraisal will probably be necessary. Check with your attorney, friends/family, or other professionals you know for a referral to a qualified appraiser.
For vehicles, whether automotive, recreational, watercraft or aircraft, you will be able to find valuation sources on-line. Enter the type of vehicle you are looking to value into a search engine with the word ‘valuation’ and several sources will probably pop up. You will need to put in some information, like mileage, condition, etc. in order to get a valuation range.
For the rest of the stuff, you have to figure out an approximate value on your own. We’re talking garage sale prices here. The judge isn’t going to consider replacement value or what you paid for an item three years ago and neither should you. If you aren’t a savvy garagesaler, other sources to get ideas on values for used property are:
• Craig’s List
• Classified Ads
• Pawn shops
• Thrift stores
DIVIDING THE PROPERTY WITHOUT THE JUDGE
Once both spouses have gotten lists of property and best-guess values, you can negotiate to divide it up using the same factors a judge would consider. Be reasonable and understand that each of you will probably have to make compromises to get the job done. If there aren’t obvious choices for some of the property that you would both like, take alternating turns making a pick. Or flip a coin if it is one item that just can’t be decided. If you can’t agree on everything, avoid the temptation to make all-or-nothing ultimatums. Every agreement made saves money, so agree upon what you can and reduce the number of decisions that you have to pay lawyers to quibble about.
Tip: If it’s easily replaced (think Mickey Mouse Chip Clip – and yes, that’s a real example of something I saw disputed) or easily copied (pictures and home movies), let it go or split the cost of making duplicates. Save your money, court time, and energy for the really important stuff – like keeping kids safe and protecting your future.
ONE LAST THING TO THINK ABOUT
If you need more motivation for dividing up your own property as opposed to having a judge do it, consider some of the rulings I have witnessed:
• The judge told the parties to meet at a certain time and alternate picks (gee, how much money did it cost them to go to court to find out how to do that??)
• The judge looked at the items that each party had inflated values on (assuming they would be awarded to their spouse) and gave those items to the person who over-valued it, adding the value they had assigned it to their side of the asset ledger sheet. (Just another reason to make sure you use good faith when assigning values to your property!)
• This one had a jaw-dropping effect: the judge looked over the property lists and awarded anything he thought the wife would like (sewing machine, scrapbooking stuff, antique lamps, etc). to the husband. The wife was awarded all the hunting gear, car repair tools, the pontoon boat and a variety of other things that had a male vibe about them. After finishing his list of who would get what, the judge looked at the husband and wife and said:
“Feel free to trade things, if you like.”
For some, the party is already planned for the night the divorce will be granted. But for many, no matter how much they wanted or didn’t want to be divorced, the actual day the marriage is legally severed is a tough one. It’s not only the official end of the marriage, it is also the official end of what dreams, expectations, and hopes were attached to marriage itself.
If there has been a lot of time and energy focused on the process of getting divorced, there can be an unexpected feeling of emptiness following the finality of the process. Even if you were fortunate enough to make it through the process without drama or a trial, having to say you are in court to get a divorce and hearing the judge announce that you are now divorced might bring on sadness or unexpected depression. I can’t tell you how many clients have turned to me at that point and asked: “Is that it? It’s over?”
Preparing ahead probably won’t make a bad day good, but it can make a bad day less bad. And that may be just the assistance you need to do to get on the other side of it without being totally overwhelmed. Here are six things you can do to prepare yourself for the actual day the divorce is granted.
1. Ask your attorney to explain the proceeding to you – even if it is a ‘simple hearing’ as opposed to a trial. What will it look like ? Will I be standing or sitting? Will I have to speak to the judge? How long will it take? Will anybody else be present? Attorneys do this all the time and sometimes they forget that what is routine for them is your first time experiencing it. No question is too silly. Have a clear picture of what you’re walking in to, how long it will take, and what is expected of you during the hearing.
2. Have a plan for what you will do after the hearing. Maybe you have a friend with a positive attitude that you can meet for dinner. Or some pals that you can do something with that requires focus – such as roller skating, bowling, or one of those group painting classes (with or without wine!). Or take the kids to one of those 3D theater cartoons and dodge the animated missiles with them.
3. Whether or not you have been journaling through the process, have a notebook or journal available to capture what the day was like for you – what feelings cropped up. Often the act of expressing those feelings in writing is very helpful for processing. It also gives you something to review in the future – because there will be a day when you look back at this day with the ability to appreciate the evolution and growth you have accomplished since. I promise.
4. Have realistic expectations. Know that it is normal to experience conflicting or painful emotions – even if you wanted the divorce, have accepted it is for the best, or thought you had already gone through this stage. There’s a reason it’s referred to as a “process.”
5. If you need to focus on future events, make a list and name it. 10 Benefits of Being Divorced. 5 Positive Changes I Will Make in the Upcoming Year. Friends I Would Like to Reconnect With. Documents That Need to be Updated. Recipes I Will Try in the Next Month. You get the idea – focus on something that is within your control, attainable, and enjoyable.
6. Plan ahead to be very, very kind to yourself. Make sure your favorite comfy clothes are clean. Have a splurge version of your favorite beverage on hand. And tape ahead that guilty-pleasure TV show so you can watch several episodes back-to-back if you are so inclined.
For many, no amount of planning ahead will make the day of divorce a good day. But some good planning can make a tough day less difficult – a day that possibly some good can come out of.
Notice I said “courthouse” and not “courtroom.” Most of us know what’s expected of us in a courtroom: hats off, gum out, manners on. We address the judge as “Your Honor” and are respectful to the other side – at least when the judge is actually in the room.
What too many parties don’t realize when they enter a courthouse is the courtroom is not the only place they are being judged.
One of the first things I tell a new client is to assume that they are being video taped and audio taped at all times. If they don’t want it seen in court, don’t do it. If they don’t want it heard by the judge, don’t say it. Whether or not you are literally being taped, you never know who’s watching and/or listening.
Emotions run very high in Family Court. People are angry, hurt, resentful, scared, nervous, confused, uncomfortable, sad and all those other things that arise when the fate of children, property and one’s future are at stake. Most of us reign in all the conflicting emotions in the courtroom and try to present a calm, respectful demeanor in hopes of demonstrating our credibility. The effort can be stressful and draining. And the temptation to just let loose as soon as you step out of the courtroom doors can be overwhelming. Giving in to that temptation could cost you your case.
Just because you don’t recognize anybody around you in the courthouse doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t recognize you. Just because you can’t hear what others are saying, doesn’t mean you can’t be heard. And just because you can’t see anybody, doesn’t mean you can’t be seen.
Why it Matters
You may be wondering why on earth you should care what others see and hear – they should be minding their own business, right? First of all, since you don’t know who they are you don’t know whether or not any aspect of your case is their business. Secondly, even if they should be minding their own business doesn’t mean they will.
In the two decades plus that I’ve been hanging out at courthouses across the state, I’ve heard more stories than I can count about what a judge’s clerk, bailiff, or reporter saw or heard that got shared with the judge – either deliberately or inadvertently. (Venting about the judge is a great way to get their attention!) I’ve heard accounts of judges who are in the hallway or a public part of the courthouse witnessing bad behavior from parties during a break, before proceedings and after proceedings. Should they take such things into account while making their decisions? How can they not? Much of what a family law judge hears during testimony falls under the he-said/she-said category – because there’s often not additional evidence regarding personal conversations during a marriage. So credibility of a party is a crucial factor when a judge has to decide which version of an event is more believable.
You may think you know every person your ex would have with them, but there’s always a chance that there is someone you wouldn’t have a reason to know – whether a new acquaintance or the friend of a friend – so don’t make assumptions. And there’s no possible way you would know who opposing counsel might have a relationship with amongst observers. I’ve gotten more than one good tip from a witness who heard a disclosure made or saw behavior from my client’s ex outside of the courtroom that proved helpful to my client’s case.
It doesn’t matter if the names you call your ex or soon-to-be-ex are accurate. It doesn’t matter if you are the wronged party and everyone you know thinks your anger and behavior is righteous. The people that see you in the courthouse generally don’t know you, your family history, and your specific circumstances. They only know what they see and hear. If what they see is you lambasting into the other party in the hallway or conference room, that is what they will base their impression on. If what they hear is you spewing hateful remarks about your opponent to your attorney or supporters, that’s what they’ll base their impression on.
Whether your venting takes place in the courtroom when the judge is not present, in the hallway, in a public area, or even in the rest room, assume your conversation and/or your behavior is not private.
Your attorney may warn you about exhibiting negative body language in the courtroom. Things like rolling your eyes and shaking your head vigorously while another is talking won’t serve you well. But what often isn’t discussed is what body language can convey to observers outside of the courtroom. Talking to your ex or one of their witnesses while standing too close or hovering over them can be construed as threatening even if the words spoken are benign. Displays of arrogance or gloating intended for your ex may not go unnoticed by observers. Hostile looks or gestures could result in courthouse law enforcement interference or escort for your ex – something the judge is likely to find out about.
Judge the One You’re With
Your family and fiends are extensions of you. While they may think their trash-talking and glowering looks toward your ex demonstrates their support of you, they’re not helping at all. Everything stated above about who’s watching and listening to you also applies to them. And reflects on you. If you know that a family member’s hatred toward your ex is stronger than their self-control, you may want to consider leaving them at home.
You should behave appropriately and respectfully in the courthouse during your family law case because it is the right thing to do. And because it serves you well and, if you have children, such behavior better serves them, also. If that is not enough motivation or incentive for you to do so, then remind yourself that there are eyes and ears everywhere.
Related articles you may find helpful:
It’s pretty common to keep a log during divorce proceedings. Jotting down notes about what’s going on with the children, visitation, the spouse’s behavior, etc.While that might help your attorney and your case, it’s probably not doing a whole lot for you emotionally during a challenging time. This is where journaling comes in. Even if you’re not much of a writer, keeping a journal – writing on a regular basis how you feel about what is going on and other related topics – can be very beneficial. This journal is FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. And here’s five reasons to give it a try:
1. It’s a place to vent. During divorce proceedings, especially when custody is involved, everybody is living under a microscope. The wrong word, a misconstrued gesture, being late for an appointment, all become fodder for leverage to be used against you. Your journal is the place you can go to just let loose – a place where nobody is judging you.
2. It helps you process the events. Some days it may feel like your head is spinning with all the information, change, and emotions that you are dealing with. Writing it down helps you sort out some of the issues and may allow you to see things more clearly.
3. It’s something you can do when there’s nothing you can do. There are so many things outside of your control during this time – court dates, who is talking to your children, the loss of property that has to be divided, and so much more. Journaling is one aspect of your life that is all yours – a go-to place that is waiting for you at your convenience.
4. It allows you to see your own evolution. At any given time, you may think you’re an absolute mess, and there’s no way it’s ever going to get better. Your own writing will show you that things do get better. Often very slowly, but it does get better. You get stronger. You evolve in how you react and handle situations. You will see that you are progressing. And the progress you see will be motivating.
5. It preserves your journey. Right now, you think you’ll never forget a moment of the pain, the conflict, the fear. But memories fade and we remember moments or overall impressions. You might be thinking: I don’t want to remember any of this. But there may very well be a time in your future when you will – it might be to help someone else going through the same struggle, to review your progress, to write your memoir – who knows what the future holds?
It may give you comfort to write in a leather bound journal that is soft to the touch. You might choose a blank book that has something uplifting on the cover. Or a printed divorce journal, like Discover Your Voice After Divorce, that has helpful thought-provoking questions that you might not think to ask yourself. Or a plain old sprial-bound notebook. Pick whatever works for you and get writing. Leaving some of your angst on paper may make your load a little lighter.
If someone asks for your advice when they are contemplating divorce, respond if you like. Or if someone you are very close to is heading down a catastrophic path and you and other loved ones are trying to help, it’s your call whether or not to say something.
But if a casual friend, acquaintance, co-worker, gym pal, or book-club buddy tells you they’re getting a divorce, they are probably not seeking your input. In such cases, here are 5 Things NOT to ask:
1. Have you considered the effects on your children? It’s hard to think of a more insulting question. Such a question presumes that you are being more considerate of their children than they are. You, who has no clue whatsoever about what goes on behind closed doors at their house.
2. Have you prayed about it? Very judgmental. Now is not the time to foist one’s own morals upon them, or to assume they don’t have any of their own. And frankly, no answer to that question will satisfy the one asking. If the answer is ‘no,’ more intrusive, intentionally guilt-inducing ‘advice’ will follow. If the answer is: “Yes, and God told me I should” is the one asking likely to believe them?
3. Were your parents divorced? Because we all know divorce is genetic, right? The question implies that, if the answer is yes, they were doomed from the start. And if the answer is ‘no,’ there must be something very wrong with them to not be able to stick it out, too. Again, take a step back and remember that you have no idea about the circumstances that led up to their decision. If it was, indeed, even their decision as opposed to one that was thrust upon them.
4. Was your spouse having an affair? Whether the question is a result of sympathy, empathy, or curiosity, this is sooooooooo none of your business. In any world, at any time, on any level.
5. Is there anything I can do? What are they suppose to say to that? This is right up there with “Call me if you need anything.” The speaker feels they have put out something compassionate, but it’s an empty offer. If you really want to help and there is something you think you can do, be specific. Such as “I know you’re scheduled to host book club next month, I’d be happy to cover that for you if your plate’s full right now.” If there’s not something specific to offer, simply tell them you’re sorry they have to deal with that and/or you’ll keep them and their family in your prayers – whatever response is sincere for you.
Bonus admonition: This is not the time to tell them your divorce-from-hell story. They probably have enough on their plate without the added baggage.
Have you had someone respond inappropriately to you when you said you were getting divorced? Is there something a casual acquaintance could have or did say to you that was helpful? If so, please share so we can all get better at navigating this difficult situation.