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’ counseling—something 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 supporting—not 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.
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!