Ask Team Practical: Supporting My Friend’s Marriage

Not marriage at all costs, but healthy and good marriage

Ask Team Practical: Supporting My Friend's Marriage | APW

Q: My dearest friend in the world is going through a bit of marital crisis at the moment. It’s the sort of thing where something she and her husband had been glossing over for their entire relationship (both pre- and post-marriage) is suddenly very real, and ignoring the issue isn’t good enough any more. My heart aches for both my dear friend and her husband. They are both wonderful people, and love each other so much, and I hate that this thing wasn’t able to just be comfortably ignored. They’re doing a lot of talking, a lot of thinking, and are finally seeking out couples’ counselingsomething they’d rejected in the past.

In the meantime I’m having long talks and late night texting marathons with my friend, and I’m at a complete loss of how to be supporting her right now. As her best friend/basically-sister/objectivity partner (“Tell me if I’m being crazy right now!”), I want to be vehemently on her side. Regardless of objective criticism of the situation, I’m on her side, and even taking into account an outsiders’ view of The Issue, I’m still on her side.

But as the maid of honor at their wedding, and as someone who witnessed their union and promised to help them nurture it and grow, I want to tell her to step back from the ledge. They made promises and vows to each other, and it’s sort of my job to help them fight for their marriage, right? To be encouraging them to keep it together, whatever the cost? I’ve been thinking of how I’d feel if my husband’s friends were encouraging him toward the flight, not fight, option if we were having marital issues, and it doesn’t feel very good at all.

Where is the line in supporting a marriage? When is the time to encourage them to cleave to each other, and when is the time to counsel self-preservation? It’s not an abusive, dangerous, or even a star-crossed union. Just one with a lifestyle chasm that seems to be widening ever deeper. I’m hoping the counseling will help them, but I’m deeply afraid of the slightly more likely chance that it won’t, and how I can be true to my friend if she asks me the dreaded question: “What do I do?”

What do I do?


A: Dear Anon, 

There’s a whole ton of overlap between “supporting my friend” and “supporting her marriage.” Really, a lot of overlap. She picked this spouse, she said these vows, and helping her to continue to value the things she already values (spouse, vows) are ways that you’re a friend to her, ways that you’re supporting her.

“Stick with this person for forever” is a really lofty goal. And how do you help any friend who sets any sort of lofty goal? You cheer her on. You remind her of all the reasons why she committed herself to this big, sometimes tough, thing. And you encourage her to seek out resources that’ll help her healthily accomplish that goal (so glad you mentioned counseling!).

Think about what you mean when you say that it’s your job “to help them fight for their marriage.” When you really, really think about that, you don’t mean that it’s your job to make sure they stay together no matter what. Nope. You get to help make sure these folks as a couple stay healthy and growing and moving in a positive direction. That’s what you’re supportingnot marriage at all costs, but healthy and good marriage (with some admittedly rough patches). What’s going to help these two continue to grow together in a positive way? Maybe some counseling, maybe some dramatic changes, maybe a new way of speaking to one another, of handling a specific situation. Once you get to that point where the answer is, “Nothing,” that’s when you start to worry.

Luckily, that’s not your call. Meg, having been through several friend divorces, points out that usually with these sorts of big things, friends aren’t really looking for “What should I do?!”s or advice or helpful tips, so much as they’re looking for a good listening ear. You can do that. You can listen without encouraging your friend to continue to make herself miserable in something that maybe isn’t working, and without pushing her into a divorce lawyer’s office. Listening is something I’m not very good at, so when I’m trying to squelch my internal drive to fix everyone’s life, I replace my statements with questions. I know I’m not going to be able to shut up completely (God, if only I could), so instead I try to keep my opinions to myself by asking, “What do you think that means?” and “How do you think you’ll respond?” (while trying not to sound like an armchair psychologist douche). I know, I know. You want to fix everything for her. You want to say the exact magical words that’ll make it all better. But, you don’t have those, and when that’s the case, it’s better to just shut your yap and listen.

There are a lot of big, devastating, hard things that can happen within a marriage that can sound impossible to overcome, but that people manage to work through just the same. Things like affairs and near affairs and mismatched sex drives and long-distance stints. Sometimes, there are even problems that could’ve maybe been predicted in advance. Just because there were warning signs at the outset doesn’t mean they were warning signs indicating certain doom. People can sometimes still get through those, once they’re done glossing and start acknowledging and adjusting. My husband and I still have variations on the same argument we had years ago (we’ve just gotten better at the resolution part, after so much practice).

The important thing here is to make sure she knows that you’re sticking around no matter what happens next. She needs to know that you think she can get through this, no matter how she makes her way through.

Team Practical, how do you support your married friends during rough times?

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!

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  • Cathi

    “She needs to know that you think she can get through this, no matter how she makes her way through.”

    Oof. Yes.

  • I think this is spot on. I always try to approach my support as a friend from the perspective of supporting the choice the friend is currently making (assuming no abuse or other extremes). If she’s working through the difficulties of the relationship but is still mostly in it for the long haul, I support that. If she’s clearly wanting to get out (or has decided to get out) then I let her know I am there for her through the transition. Ultimately I don’t feel like it’s my place to put too much of my own opinions into what my friends should do with their lives, I am there to stand next to them as they do it.

  • Anon for this

    Echo the advice for listening, not really offering advice. Unless we’re talking about behavior that endangers someone.

    I have a friend who tried to help some friends through rough patches in their marriage, and even though she really, really fought against offering advice, her efforts to say cautiously “if you really feel you have to divorce, I’ll support you” ended up being used against her — wife told husband “friend says we should divorce,” then a couple years later husband ended up telling wife “friend says we should divorce.” And in both cases, the person hearing this from their spouse was mad at her, and in both cases, she was like “that’s not what I was saying AT ALL.”

  • macrain

    “Think about what you mean when you say that it’s your job “to help them fight for their marriage.” When you really, really think about that, you don’t mean that it’s your job to make sure they stay together no matter what. Nope.” Yup, Liz is spot on right here. And not only is it not your job, but it’s very unlikely that your input and involvement will make or break this marriage. Though, as we all agree here- your being there for your friend is invaluable.
    I always think it’s important to remember self care in these situations too. This shit is no joke. It’s intense. If you need a night off from late night texting, take it. Getting involved in a situation like this can take it’s toll. You’ll be able to be a better friend if you take care of yourself first.

    • Alyssa M

      “but it’s very unlikely that your input and involvement will make or break this marriage”

      It can seriously effect it though. Having that little birdie in your ear constantly bringing up negatives about your spouse/relationship can make it harder to work through problems… and countless people have stayed in bad relationships because of pressure (or perceived pressure) from loved ones. I’m sure we’ve all seen both happen. Which is why I have to agree with what Liz said “it’s better to just shut your yap and listen.” I would hazard a guess, though, from the letter itself, that Anon is probably more careful about her input than to be in either of those two situations…

  • Roselyne

    Oh, this advice is absolutely spot-on.

    In terms of friend-help: this depends really strongly on the person, of course, but I tend to excuse, brush off, and put up with things way beyond where they should be put up with, and sometimes it’s really really valuable to be able to talk through the situation with someone non-involved and be like “X happens, he does Y, I feel Z, Z makes me feel REALLY CRAP, here’s how I’m trying to deal with Z, but maybe Z isn’t such a big deal and I should excuse it and lalalala…” To have someone just say, no, if Z makes you feel like crap, it’s not ok, and not feeling like crap is a Valuable Goal regardless of reason, so brushing it under the rug is Not An Option, go deal with it – so, so helpful.

    I love my husband like crazy, and we’ve got a really good relationship, but sometimes, someone outside the relationship giving me a “your emotional needs are valid and they MATTER TOO” speech is really what I need to productively go address the issue instead of feeling guilty for feeling crappy and then ignoring the issue. Much more productive in the long run. :)

  • Meg

    I think one thing you should let her know is that you are there for her as HER friend first, but also are dedicated to supporting her marriage. A lot of the time you feel like you can’t ever vent about a significant other to your friends or family because then that will just always ruin their view of that person. When you’ve gotten over the issue together your friend still has him or her on their shitlist. Let her know you’ll be there to listen, but then when they do patch things up and get past this (if they do) you’ll be ready to “forgive” her spouse with her. (within reason!)

  • anonymous

    I’d like to flip this question, if I could. Where does the APW community stand on discussing marital issues with friends? This was actually one of the most awkward moments of our obligatory pre-marital counseling. We had to fill out a little bubble test asking our position on certain subjects, and I answered “Yes” to the question of whether I would talk about personal issues I was having with my husband to “someone outside of the marital relationship.” The priest and I then had a good 10 minute argument on the subject … His argument was that the only way to resolve the issue is by talking about it with your partner. Talking about it with someone else, who will likely take your side (because they’re your friend and that’s what friends do) is basically just a sneaky way to exacerbate the problem and sabotage your marriage. My argument was that not talking about marital issues with your friends was a good way to make your marriage feel more isolating and oppressive.

    • Sara

      I think it depends on the friend. I can see your priest’s point – if you ask one of your yes-men, then it could turn into you venting and them egging you on, which could lead to you getting angrier about something minor. If you choose a friend that you know will help you think or sort through feelings without blindly agreeing with you, I think it helps. I find that when I have problems with people, I need to talk them out with people that are unrelated to the problem. I need to sort out my feelings without the other person getting angry because I respond rashly.

      • KC


        I have a friend who will always agree/support someone’s stance verbally (even if she then disagrees with them and/or says she thinks they’re nuts after they leave). She’s a really lovely and intelligent person, but she has been really strongly socialized into total-agreement or “oh your new haircut/scarf/etc. is gorgeous!”. She would be a great person to let off steam to if all you need is someone to totally agree and then you’ll come back to your senses, but a horrible person to get an outside perspective from. (I tend towards basically the opposite with relational issues – “well, maybe they responded that way because of something else going on in their lives” or “hm, I see where they’re coming from”, which is *also not helpful all the time* and I’m trying to work on that.)

        I’d also add that what your partner is comfortable with you sharing and with whom is an important facet here, as is confidentiality. Some people are very private, and sometimes especially sensitive about certain things; others aren’t; it’s important to reach agreement on what’s fair game in a relationship and not mess with that [if it’s important to your husband that No One Know that he likes pink lemonade because he’s embarrassed about it, then *don’t tell anyone*, *especially* if you’re mad at him. Doesn’t matter if it’s a silly thing to be secretive about.][obviously, harmful/potentially harmful things are in a totally different bucket here; if he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s punching you, then he should not punch you, for instance].

    • LM

      Interesting…my take is that it’s generally fine to talk with friends as long as I am also talking with my spouse. I agree that you don’t want to feel isolated and that you *can’t* talk with others about serious things going on. That said, I am more careful than I thought I’d be about discussing some marital issues with friends. I think part of that is respecting my husband’s privacy and part is believing that committing to our relationship [usually] means hashing things out with him first.

    • I agree with the priest to some extent. One of the big takeaways from our pre-cana was to “honor your spouse.” And not in a “do everything for them and be a slave” kind of way, but to always be respectful of them and your marriage when talking to others. I’m sometimes cautious to discuss problems with others because once you tell someone something there’s no taking it back.

      That being said, I have one close friend who has a very similar view of marriage to mine and she acts as a good sounding board without any spouse bashing or negativity. Discussing marital problems outside of your marriage can be good if you find the right person to talk with (and if you’re also actively discussing the problem with your spouse).

    • Teresa

      I have just a couple of very close friends with whom I will talk about issues within my marriage. I chose these people very specifically because they also know my husband, they are smart and kind and rational people, and I know that they will support me and would not throw those things back in my face. That being said, I see where it could become very damaging, mostly if you are talking to those friends and not your spouse about the issues. Or, if your talking becomes more bashing of your spouse and they join in or take that information and gossip. Those situations are more toxic than supportive. I do feel like I need people outside of my marriage and usually, I wind up talking to those close friends or my mom, whom I trust to give me truly objective advice. Finally, I feel like the forum of smart (mostly!) women that APW has become is a very safe space to talk about these things without necessarily feeling like you are betraying your relationship (hooray for the relative anonymity of the internet!) and it is a place where I typically walk away from feeling like I am not alone in whatever I am going through. So, choose the people that you share things with carefully and protect your marriage and your spouse.

    • Jennie

      I think it depends on the issue. Things that are really deep, personal, and/or potentially embarrassing about my husband or our relationship, I do not share with outsiders. On the other hand, I’ve been known to overreact to small things and as with most couples, we have things (ahem, timely-ness) that we are just never going to see eye to eye on. For those things, I feel safe in venting to a selected friend or two. We discussed who it was okay to vent to before we got married, so he knows who I may vent to and that I will in fact vent at times. I could also talk about most issues for twice as long as my husband needs to, I process/think out loud and he does not. In those cases, I usually feel calmer and more level headed when I’ve talked to someone else about how I’m feeling and can come back to my husband and have a reasonable conversation, if one needs to be had.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      The problems in my marriage stem from medical/psychiatric diagnoses. Obviously, we talk about those with our medical teams. But a lot of the emotional pain following from our physical and psychiatric pain is the isolation. My husband doesn’t want me to discuss his conditions with my friends or family because of the stigma attached. I respect that, but I told him he had to give me SOMEONE to talk to, ’cause his conditions affect me, but I can’t really work through that with him – it sounds like I’m blaming him and/or whining. He found me a support group for loved ones supporting people with diagnoses similar to his, and it was helpful.

      But I also wouldn’t rule out seeking non-professional help in situations where there isn’t an “underlying diagnosis.” “I want to encourage my husband to exercise more without being a nag.” “I’m concerned about our finances, but I don’t know how to start the conversation with my spouse. Any tips?” Not every problem requires professional help. Sometimes it just takes friendly advice from someone who’s been there.

    • This link explains (at point #4) the concept of windows and walls in your marriage: I think it’s important to share *some* things with people who you trust who are outside your marriage, but I think it should be people who can be somewhat objective and I think it’s crucial that you and your partner are on the same page about who can be trusted and what kinds of information can be shared. As with most things, it doesn’t matter much where your lines are, just that the lines are agreed upon within your relationship.

    • Marguerite

      I agree with you. For example, my BFF has a very happy marriage and a good relationship with her stepson. But she also feels that her husband caters too much to his son and that bailing him out all the time will only lead him to struggle more later. She has discussed her reservations with her husband but it is not something to be easily solved. So when she sees me, she vents. Not in a mean-spirited way, but just enough to let off steam. Sometimes she needs an outside affirmation that her stepson really is old enough to handle the things she thinks her husband should have him do for himself.

      In the same way, when I was having some problems with my MIL, I talked to my BFF about it. I needed to vent too. I found out the hard way that venting to my husband about this was a BAD IDEA. Of course I discussed the issue with him in a mature manner and we found a resolution, but there are times when you need to talk things over with a friend. I think as long as you do so in a way that is respectful of your partner, and as long as the venting doesn’t take the place of discussion WITH your partner, it’s a healthy and necessary thing.

      • K.

        PREACH about in-law venting. With changing family dynamics, it’s only natural that there’s going to be some tension every now and then (hopefully not often, like in my case). But when your FBIL makes yet another possibly-maybe passive-aggressive comment, sometimes your fiance isn’t the person to talk to about it because he’s just going to get defensive of his little bro. In the same way, I would prefer that he bitch about my family doing Minor But Annoying Things to someone that isn’t me because I’d feel equally annoyed if he made a mountain out of a molehill. I totally get that his family and my family have different family cultures, so certain things will bristle and even deeply annoy, even if they are things reasonable people just need to learn to live with. We each need outlets for the small things so we don’t confuse them with the important things.

        Of course, my thoughts on that violently shift when it comes to parental/extended family boundaries/Major Things, but that’s way different than, “Ugh, FMIL is driving me up the wall because of [insert Minor Thing in The Grand Scheme of Things]!” In that case? Trusted friend, brunch, mimosa, bitch, let go, repeat.

        • Liz

          Yesss. And not just because he gets defensive, but because I don’t want to embitter him toward his family as I adjust to making them my family.

          • K.

            YES. So true.

      • Emily

        I think this is really necessary with step children (I have three). I regularly vent to one, close friend about my parts of my step-children’s behavior, etc, that I am powerless to change because their parents (one of which is my husband) disagree with me. The venting helps me hugely as a stress relief valve and my friend and I both know that it what it is. She listens and laughs and then we move on.

        I’m way off topic, but APW (or Reclaiming Wife) I’d love to see some writings about being a step-parent. I’ve been feeling very isolated in that lately. I feel like I do the “Mom” half of the parent work (the kids live with us) but I get no credit. In fact I get a lot of “this is so unfair.” It’s hard. I’m going to leave it at that for now.

        • Victwa

          Yes. Yes to this.

    • Liz

      I’m firmly, 100%, constantly, always, annoyingly reiterating my stance in the SHARE STUFF camp. Marriage is the only really big, important thing that our culture suggests you need to shut up about and not share with loved ones. Outside perspectives are incredibly healthy- little marriage bubbles where no one can discuss with outsiders can be a breeding ground for unhealth. Also, other married folks have often worked through the same things- why reinvent the wheel?

      I GET IT, that you shouldn’t just sit around bitching to friends without seeking a resolution first. So, yeah. Talk to your partner about things, work through them together, and when that’s not working, ask a wise and objective and honest friend (not just any old shmo).

      Someone above or below or somewhere nearby mentioned respecting and honoring your spouse. The way I see this happening is by having an understanding that sometimes, yes, I’m going to talk to friends about our ish (and sometimes he should, too). Setting parameters for expectations is totally respectful and honoring of your relationship.

    • Mezza

      From the other side – two of my very good friends are a couple, getting married in December. Maybe a year ago, they were seriously on the rocks and they essentially broke up one day. The guy, normally a very emotionally reserved person, came over that night and talked to my wife and me about the problems they were having. They ended up getting back together, starting couples’ therapy, getting engaged, etc, and to this day they BOTH bring up how helpful it was that he talked through things with us as friends. I also think it was useful that we were friends with both of them, so we already had a lot of insight into them as people. I can definitely see how talking about problems with friends could go off the rails, but in some situations it really can work.

    • Gina

      I agree with Sara that it just depends on the friend. I have one friend I go to whenever my husband and I are in a fight, and I can trust her to say “dude, you’re overreacting” when I am. You don’t want someone who will just tell you you’re right, regardless. But it’s also important to have perspective sometimes, and–for me at least–it’s easy to be too upset to have perspective. That’s what friends are for!

    • Rachael

      Good question. This advice of keeping our problems between us was given to us by my MIL as well. But in thinking about it, I don’t follow that at all. I think for me talking out some of my marital issues with a very select couple of friends is a way to explore my own feelings and reactions as well as those of my husband’s. My friends, though, are pretty tough love and will totally call me out or play devil’s advocate. It also helps that one of my friends relates better to my husband’s stance on most things than my own. I think talking with friends about our issues really helps me see outside of my own perspective and makes me more aware of my actions within my relationship.

      I will say, though, that I think we have to be very careful that we don’t just let our disclosure session with friends act in lieu of actually addressing the issue within our partnership. I usually only talk to any one of them about anything after I’ve given myself a chance to really hash it out and after my husband and I have at least approached things.

    • Caroline

      We both come from households where family secrecy came from a history of dysfunction. “Don’t tell anyone outside the family” about this thing going on inside the family was a firmly held rule passed down through generations of substance abusers. So for us, we have a very firm “no secrets” policy. If there ever were a moment of “don’t tell anyone”, that would be a BIG red flag to the other. It’s not to say we don’t have things we keep private (like our sex lives) but our general rule is openness. If one of us feels the need to talk about the relationship with friends, a therapist, a rabbi, etc, they should.

      We do try to not bad-mouth our partner and to talk them up in front of others, but our general policy is one of airing out very musty family curtains.

    • still anonymous

      See, this is why I love you guys. Thanks for all the thoughtful, nuanced responses. Fortunately, this isn’t something I’ve really had to deal with yet (we’ve only been married for a couple of months, and it’s been pretty smoothe so far). But that conversation really got me thinking about when it might or might not be appropriate to discuss problems with friends and family. Oh, and I’d also like to take this as an opportunity to recommend some kind of marriage prep, religious or not, to engaged couples out there. Even if you don’t agree with everything your priest or counselor says, it’s a great way to start a conversation about tought subjects.

    • mere…

      We each helped one another choose one friend who we could turn to for some marital ranting sessions. He knows who I turn to and I know who he turns to and we each trust those friends. Additionally, we went to those friends and explained their roles to them – basically asking our friends if they thought they could hear our complaints, but not hold them against our spouse at the end of the day. It’s been really helpful to have someone to discuss things with to get some of the in-the-moment, extra hurtful remarks that I don’t really mean or even petty grievances I have out of my system. I don’t dwell on them or hold them in to use against my spouse in an emotionally charged moment. And I love knowing that this particular friend actually knows how wonderful my partner is for me so she’s not changing her perception of him based on my occasional immature rants. Plus, since it’s only one friend I still feel like I’m respecting how I present my marriage and husband to the public at large.
      That’s what has worked for us. Combined with the understanding that we always come back to the issue and discuss it between ourselves as well.

    • Jules

      Another vote for the SHARE side. Friends can provide valuable perspective in three key ways: 1) widening your array of experiences to draw from, 2) providing perspective from outside the issue (things neither of you have realized), and 3) increasing your receptiveness. The child of divorced parents may be able to explain how your boyfriend’s anxieties about marriage may have nothing to do with you, observe that you are a chronic commitment-seeker, AND you may be more receptive to her/him because of their third party nature.

      Also, another vote for the “know who to turn to” side. Not everyone will provide the above. My oldest friend is an Agreer, taking my side immediately most of the time, so our conversations aren’t objective. [This is who I go to when I need a mimosa bitch-fest.] My best friend is an Asker. She gets me to reflect on my thoughts and actions in a non-judgmental manner by asking me questions and gently making suggestions about the other side’s point of view.

  • When I went through the long and painful process of considering divorce, separating from my husband, and dissolving our marriage legally, the most helpful thing my dearest friends did for me was to remind me that no, I am not crazy for feeling what I was feeling or thinking what I was thinking. They told me my reactions and responses were understandable. They did their best to empathize. They did not tell me what they would do, or what they thought I should do. They stayed present with me and helped me deal with my feelings and decisions as they happened, rather than trying to preempt or predict them. Liz’s advice to ask questions rather than attempt to provide answers is spot on. Support is often just presence: whatever happens, I’m here now, and I’ll be here after.

  • Sara

    I agree with Liz about turning advice into questions. I tend to be a enthusiastic fixer, and I found when I instead stop and flip people’s questions back at them, it helps me from steamrolling them. “What should I do” becomes “What do you think you should do?” or “What do you want to do?”. I try very hard not to give an outright decision making opinion unless someone is in harms way. I’ve burned a couple friendships that way unfortunately, and have learned from it.

  • ElisabethJoanne

    Everything Liz said, and:

    As someone who sees herself becoming the friend going through a rough patch, what I appreciate are the friends that can get me away temporarily – the people I can call Saturday at 11am and say, “I’m feeling down. I need to get out. Can we meet for lunch?”

  • MC

    This is timely. My fiance & I have friends that are getting married the weekend after we are, and recently one-half of the couple told me they were arguing about wedding planning so I offered to take her out for a beer and let her vent. And she asked me some tough questions, like, “Is it normal to be having doubts?” It was really hard to just listen and keep asking her questions back, because I had an impulse to want to give her all the right answers even though I don’t really have any. But I think having someone to vent to definitely helped. Thanks for reaffirming that I did the right thing, Liz & co!

  • Anonymous

    I just want to say thank you to Liz for answering this question in an intelligent, compassionate and to-the-point way. I have been experiencing a similar situation with friends and I find it so frustrating that there is almost no where to go to get advice on this. I came to APW a year ago because I got engaged and a friend recommended the website – but now I come to APW (daily btw) for the healthy conversations about ‘everything under the sun’ that no one ever talks about. I can’t thank you enough.

  • AnonNow

    So timely, APW. Thank you.

  • One of the best professional developments that I’ve ever done as a teacher was Cognitive Coaching. The facilitators told us that it would change our lives and how we interact with the people around us and to a huge extent, that was true. I don’t always remember the tenets of CC (the biggest of which is that you don’t offer advice – you help the person find the answer themselves), but when I do – when I’m paraphrasing and asking those questions that cut right to the heart of it, I find that it’s better for all of us. I don’t have to feel like what happens if I give bad advice? And they feel empowered because they realize that they knew the answers all along, they just needed help cutting through all the “stuff” that clouds the issues.