Should you say, “I’m sorry” to divorce announcements?

My son Lucas is going through a phase when he misses his dad a lot. When he stubs his toe, or is trying to unwind at bedtime, he calls out, “I want Daaadddy.” There is an uncomplicated and raw sorrow there that is different than the other many times he cries in a given day. I imagine during these moments he thinks to the comfort of his dad, who lives a mile away, and who he sees twice each week. Maybe when you’re barely 3, the sadness of not getting a sprinkle cookie bleeds into the sadness of missing a parent. I don’t know.

But I do know that it is sad, no matter what. Divorce comes with sadness.

Over the past few years I’ve had interesting discussions around the question, “Should you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ when someone reveals they’re getting divorced?”

Some argue that is not an appropriate response because you never know how the announcer feels about the split. If they’re thrilled at their new freedom, or blissful at banishing a bad spouse, why would a condolence be in order?

I hear that argument loud and clear. After all, I’ve written numerous times that I was surprised to find that I was am much happier outside of my own marriage. Despite the wrenching heartache, destroyed dreams and turning my life topsy-turvy, the net result of my divorce has been positive, I’ve felt.

But I fall in favor of offering up a polite, “I’m sorry,” as a pat response when someone reveals their relationship is over. After all, “I’m sorry” is always appropriate upon learning of the end of a life. It is the prerogative of the mourner to say, “It was a blessing — they were suffering,” or “It was quick, and we are grateful we can all move on now.” There is nearly always at least a note of sadness when someone dies. Custom and sensitivity call for condolences, no matter the feelings or assumptions of the person hearing the news. The same holds true for the end of a relationship. Even if the final result was positive, pain and grief are always part of the experience.

I was thinking through this issue last night as the kids were getting ready for bedtime. “Look,” I said to Lucas we stood in the kitchen, arguing over whether he had to eat the last bite of his banana. “Look at all the snow outside!”

I picked him up so he could see the large clumps of flakes fall down to coat the street below. We pointed at the birds in the tree outside that window, and wondered whether they were cold, or if their fluffed-up feathers kept them warm. Something in this sleepy moment, maybe feeling vulnerable in the weather or sensing a call for a cozy embrace, Lucas cried out as he does. Cried out for his Daddy. His dad moved out before Lucas was born, but who hasn’t felt that dull ache of missing someone you love?

And so I held Lucas to me and he quickly nuzzled his head into my neck. Tristian Prettyman’s “All I Want is You” came on the radio, and as I swayed to the sweet melody and silly lyrics, I could see Lucas and my reflection in the window. Behind us was the gold glow of our warm apartment. I had one of the moments I sometimes have – moments when I well up with the feeling of being a proud and confident mother lion, presiding over the safe den I’ve created for my babies. But in that image of that strong mom was also my hurt child.”I’m sorry,” I said. Lucas let his body hang heavy in my arms as I swayed and swayed. “I’m sorry.”

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

8 thoughts on “Should you say, “I’m sorry” to divorce announcements?

  1. Very touching. Oz is doing the same thing. I wonder if it is the age? I’m hearing from “the other side” that he asks the reverse: when he’s at dad’s house, he asks for Mommy. (Just in case you aren’t hearing the same report, I’m sure that is happening with Luc too).

  2. Man, you can write! You had me all choked up there at the end…

    On a lighter note, I appreciated the couple “That sucks” comments I got. No, it’s not as polite. But it sounds less like pity to my ear and acknowledges the fact that no matter who wanted it, whether it’s actually for the best, etc., getting divorced just SUCKS in many many ways.

  3. Funny! I must be the age. I did a post about my 2 1/2 yo son doing the exact same thing “I want daddy”…

    I typically go with “oh, no!” But no one has told me since I started mine so I don’t know what to say now…. Maybe “good or bad?” ?

  4. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ feels right when I first hear of the divorce or separation. You are right – it is a kind of death or ending of a relationship. That ending deserves its condolences. But when I hear that the divorce is final, I let out a whoop and a ‘Congratulations!’ Because the divorce process sucks and once it is over, you deserve a gold star.

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