Here on HTWB we have quite a lot of advice on what you can write to friends and family when someone has died, when someone has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, when someone just found out they have cancer, and a few more.
Some people might think that to advise on what to write when a relationship breaks up is quite a different ballgame. But when this happens to you (and when it has happened to me) it’s obvious that this can be almost as traumatic an experience as a bereavement.
For a list of all 12 articles in this series on how to write well to people dealing with death, bereavement and other life sadness, click here.
Here are some of the permutations of this sad experience, and how you might react to those if they should happen to someone close to you.
And these thoughts are relevant for most written media, whether in the form of a written card or note, an email, or even a text. Although I can’t tell you the exact words you should write, I can at least guide you on the sentiments that may provide a little comfort to the recipients.
Don’t try to move them on from a relationship breakup
Just as when you write to friends who recently have been bereaved, trying to cheer them up by talking about the future and what great new opportunities might lie ahead for them will be about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
People having experienced a relationship breakup need time to grieve, again – just as in the case of a bereavement which, in a sense, this is too. In your card, letter, text, note or email, just express how sad you are for them, and how you are there for them. And then leave it alone, for now.
What to write when both parties of a relationship are your friends
This can be a hideously difficult position to find yourself in. No matter how much a couple will tell everyone around them that their split has been amicable, invariably some tensions will arise.
And you, as a mutual friend, may find yourself torn – or being torn – between the two.
Face to face conversations may be difficult for you, but at least in your written communications like texts, emails and even social media posts and private messages, you can make sure that your sympathies are expressed to both, given that the split has been relatively blame-free.
Writing to a young person whose relationship has broken up
If you are a “mature” adult – i.e. beyond your 20s – it’s very easy to patronize teenagers and early 20s with such awful clichés as “don’t worry, there are lots more fish in the sea.”
The short answer is, of course, yes there are. But when you are 19 years old and heartbroken, some older person diminishing the pain you feel with claptrap like that makes them want to spit venom in your face.
If a relative or friend is in that age group and seeks your sympathy, remember how you felt at that age. Love hurts, as thousands of songwriters have found out to their profit. A note, card, text or email needs to show that you understand, without relating that to an older person’s point of view.
Writing to a friend whose relationship involves children
This is where relationship/marriage breakups become especially painful. As a friend or family member, writing a note or email to someone experiencing this is quite delicate, given that however tumultuous the parental battles might be, everyone needs to put the children’s interests first.
No matter how strongly you may feel that parent A has been made to suffer by parent B, when you write to them (and you care) simply try to offer them a little respite that might help them … e.g. an offer to take their kids out for the day, an offer to bring them a prepared meal when they’re on their own with the kids, help with the school run, etc.
Much as we want to share our views on what’s right and wrong in parenting, it’s always wrong – in my view – to write about those opinions to others, especially when those others are going through a painful relationship breakup. Save it for later, if at all.
Writing to a friend when his/her relationship has broken up due to bad behavior
Was one of them unfaithful? Was one of them violent and abusive? Was there abuse involving the children? Were criminal activities involved?
No matter what you might discuss with your friend or relative over the phone or face to face, never forget that what you put in writing … and that means electronically, too … possibly could be used as evidence if ever the whole nasty mess should come to court.
If you find yourself in this position with someone close to you, be sure that your written communications remain as bland as possible. Much as you would like your writing to help comfort that person, bear in mind that legal issues involving relationship breakups can be very unpleasant and no matter how innocent your comforting emails may be, they could be used in ways you haven’t even dreamt of.
What to write if a relationship has broken up due to gender issues
This is a very difficult one to deal with, and if your friend or family member has experienced a break up because their spouse decides s/he is gay or transgender, you need to be aware that the emotions involved are very different from those of a “conventional” heterosexual split.
Most people who find themselves in a relationship with a partner who experiences and/or manifests major changes in their sexuality will feel bereaved, because initially they feel that the person they fell in love with doesn’t exist any more.
However, once these “bereaved” partners understand their circumstances better, they often don’t feel as deprived as they might have. When you write them a note or an email, it’s often worth stressing the fact that they should not feel threatened or jealous; what they need is to come to terms with something that they could never have prevented.
As their friend and/or relative, you can help them come to terms with that in your writing of correspondence, whether digital or on paper.
When a relationship has broken up, your writing should offer open-ended support
As always, when anyone suffers from a major trauma what matters most is receiving messages of support … and, apart from rare circumstances, that means unqualified support – rather than support that runs on to suggesting how they should proceed from here on.
Much as you may want to help your friend or relative, allow them the time in your written (and spoken) messages to deal with their relationship breakup, one step at a time.
What experience do you have of writing to people about their relationship breakups?