To go through a divorce or breakup with a longtime partner is to have a sudden lack of company. When Lindsay Meck broke up with her live-in boyfriend of five years, her friends immediately started a large group chat. “Anytime I was midwork and having a little bit of a meltdown, I could send a message to this text chain,” she explains. “That text chain saved me.”
Meck’s not alone in having found solace in company. The many Slate readers, colleagues, and experts I surveyed about how to get through divorces and breakups agree that the best way to help someone who is going from having a life partner to not is to lend an ear. While obviously no breakup is easy—Meck now co-runs an honest-to-God concierge service called Onward to help people get through this stuff—the answer for how to help others move on is pretty simple: Spend time with your loved one, even when they are extremely upset and perhaps objectively unfun to spend time with.
When Francesca and her now–ex-husband had a screaming match on their fourth anniversary, she wouldn’t have anticipated being in the mood for company that night. (Like many interviewed for this piece, Francesca only wanted to be identified by first name.) But one friend pulled together a small gathering at her house with friends and beer and ice cream: “Somehow it was the perfect thing.” Ashley describes a friend who “stayed on the phone with me as long as I needed to talk, most of a Saturday” when her relationship dissolved. When Jill Sockwell separated from her husband, one friend introduced her to a woman who was at a similar stage in the divorce process; they went on long walks together and eventually ended up co-authoring a book. Another woman noted of her divorce, “My siblings and closest friends listened to me ugly cry at all hours of the day/night.” A dad who was splitting with his spouse cited other dads, “including a few I barely knew,” taking the time to grab beers with him.
You might feel lost about what to do or say when a friend is going through terrific heartbreak and life upheaval. What I learned from hearing these stories is that just your presence can mean the world to someone. It’s probably what they need most right now. Embrace the phone if you don’t live nearby, even if you don’t have bandwidth for hourslong, teary calls. A text can go a long way to let someone know they have people who care about them and how their day is going. If you want to go above and beyond with gestures and gifts, here are some ideas to guide you.
Those little annoying parts of life are that much more challenging during heartbreak. “The day-to-day tasks that you could normally complete with ease—it’s like moving through concrete,” says Sockwell. This can be especially true for those who are blindsided by the breakup. Often, a well-meaning “let me know how I can help” puts too much onus on the one in need, so Sockwell advises offering to do something specific, like bringing by dinner, or shuttling kids, and suggesting a few times that you’re available to do such things.
Meck’s friends nailed down concrete tasks like finding boxes or a place to crash for a night by coordinating through that group text; with this method, she could make requests quickly to a group, rather than having to contact and coordinate with many people individually. Having friends manage these small aspects of her life was so helpful it inspired her to co-found Onward. Onward has gift cards available upon request, but if you’re not based in New York (or don’t have a budget of a few hundred dollars), take inspiration from Meck and offer to help with tiny tasks yourself.
When an ex and I broke up, I, too, found a kind ear and an offer to get shit done to be the greatest show of support. My breakup involved both of us moving out of our shared apartment. Packing up boxes, spackling over holes in the walls, and vacuuming up festering dust bunnies is annoying in the best of times. When a friend volunteered to come over and wield a Magic Eraser on my soon-to-be-former life for a couple hours, it was the best gift she could have given me. We made headway on a chore together. Plus, talking about my breakup while doing something productive was a nice change of pace from talking about my breakup while sobbing on my couch. You don’t need to bring anything but yourself to be a huge help, but you can earn bonus points by showing up with wine and some fun packing supplies.
If your friend isn’t moving out of a home, or if you can’t be there in person, consider a gift card for a cleaning service. Carefully consider—this is a case of knowing that your audience won’t be offended. Meck suggests this sentiment behind such a gift: “Let me take one administrative task off your plate, so wherever you’re going tonight is clean instead of just some manifestation of your inner turmoil.”
After her marriage ended, Francesca moved back home with her mom. “I isolated myself from everyone, stopped doing anything that interested me before, and had no real plans for the future,” she wrote to me in an email. Things turned around when she signed up for sketch comedy classes at a local theater—an ambition of hers that her ex had mocked. Whether or not your relationship was limiting in this way, a breakup can be the perfect time to take up a new hobby or return to an old one: It offers a low-stake obligation, gets you out of the house, and offers a new social circle. “Having a space where nobody knew my ex or knew me as someone’s wife was the first part of healing for me and so fundamental in being able to move on,” says Francesca.
You cannot, of course, start a new hobby on behalf of someone else. But you can offer to join a friend in trying out a session of aerial yoga, trapezing, learning to cook a new dish, or training for a 5K. On the comedy front specifically, many comedy theaters that offer classes will give free workshops for beginners. After Elena was dumped by her fiancé, her sister came to visit and they woke up early to go to barre class. Doing activities that she wouldn’t have done with him “helped connect me to the sense of joy that I would come to get from life without my ex,” she explains. If you can’t be in town, you can support an existing hobby, gifting a five-pack of yoga classes at a local studio, picking out a fancy water bottle that they’d never buy for themselves, or even curating a Spotify playlist for them to listen to while they take long walks.
Even the best efforts to move on will probably involve a lot of sitting around and being pretty sad. You can’t speed up this process for someone, but you can make the experience a little more pleasant and let them know that they’re not alone. Decorative household goods, like blankets, candles, and plants, can be helpful in making a new place feel like it’s home, or transforming a formerly shared space into something more your own. It doesn’t have to be fancy; I still have a small blue candle that a friend grabbed at an antique shop the day of my breakup that says “peace” on the side. I put it on the dresser of my sublet, and that tacky candle felt like a hard piece of evidence that someone wanted me to be OK.
Nice food can make curling up on the couch feel special, rather than an act of defeat. One colleague recalled treating himself to fancy delivery food during a period where he was having trouble eating after splitting up with a long-term partner. “It cost more than I would usually spend, especially on my own, but it was delicious, and somehow it helped me feel more like an individual,” he explains. You can place an order on their behalf when you know they’ll be around, or, if they live in a major city, get a gift card for a delivery service.
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