You can see how one of your close friends’ marriages are going under. Should you intervene, or not? Some people believe that you need to stay out of other people’s business. Others believe that you cannot look the other way when those close to you are in distress…
“My brother, Jaco, and his wife, Elsabé’s marriage was gradually deteriorating,” says Carli. “I remember that when we visited them once, there was a tense atmosphere. They sat next to each other, but they didn’t hold hands as usual. They also didn’t make eye contact at all. In the car on the way home that night, I told my husband, Peet, that I think there is a war going on.”
When Jaco and Elsabé visited Carli and them a week later, it was the same story. It was clear that it wasn’t just a fight, but a much bigger problem… Carli explains that she and her sister-in-law has a very close relationship. They were friends even before they became sisters-in-law and Jaco had met Elsabé via her.
Carli and Peet (who have been married for more than a decade and who have also been through difficult times in their marriage), immediately saw the danger signs flashing. “I have known Elsabé for a long time and I just knew that that there was big trouble. But she is very private and likes to put the best foot forward. It was a very difficult situation. After three months, when things did not improve at all, I told Peet that I felt it was my duty to intervene, but that I really wished she would speak to me first. I wasn’t sure if I could confront her about it.”
To step in or not
Many of us are in the same position. Is it up to us to offer help, advice or guidance when we see that people close to us are struggling in their marriage? *Research shows that 73% of adults act as confidants to a friend or family member struggling with marital or relationship problems. And 72% of divorced adults say they have confided in someone (other than a professional) before their divorce.
Once you have identified a friend’s wavering marriage, chances are she’ll hide their problem. After all, we are conditioned to feel that marriage is private and that we have to sort out our affairs between us and our partners. In addition, many experts believe that you should not involve a third party in your marriage and that you should rather say what you want to say, to your partner.
Chances are, though, that she will start talking to you on her own. It may even happen that she initiates such a conversation when you didn’t even suspect that anything was wrong! What should you do?
Family therapist, Dr Bill Doherty (director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project), believes that we weren’t made to tackle marriage alone and that we need the support of family and friends – not just when a marriage ends, but also to prevent a marriage from breaking up.
On SmartMarriages.com he writes: “We generally launch marriage with public fanfare and then we live in solitary marriages. That is, we know little about the interior of one another’s marriages. We tend to suffer alone in our distress… we don’t have communities to rally around us when our marriages are hurting.” He believes it is difficult for a marriage to survive without the support of a community.
But communities and individuals can do great harm, and if you, as confidant, don’t give the right advice or support, you can simply aggravate a bad situation…
There is also truth in the fact that divorce can sometimes be “contagious”. We learn what is normal and what aspects we need to work on from friends, by watching their marriages and talking to them (about marriage). And if they divorce, we are more likely to do the same.”
Being a confidant
When your friend confesses her marriage problems to you, you feel flattered. She trusts you and values your advice. But it is not that simple. In a Wall Street Journal article by Elizabeth Bernstein, published on 9 February 2015, she writes about a programme offered by the University of Minnesota. This programme seeks to train individuals in “The Art of Response”.
In fact, this is how Dr Doherty, in collaboration with his daughter (also a therapist), founded the very first Marital First Responders boot camp. Through this initiative, Dr Doherty teaches couples how to act as confidants: How to listen correctly, offer emotional support, help a friend understand his/her role in the problem and to also see matters from his/her partner’s perspective. He strives to create so-called “citizens of marriage” to act as the first line of defence against marriage breakdown.
You may think that it is easy to act as a confidant. You offer a shoulder to cry on and you comfort your friend when she needs you. The reason why she confides in you, is two-fold: She feels close to you and trusts you enough to be vulnerable in your presence. And she knows you will take her side and support her opinion because you are her friend. And yes, you are going to offer advice by saying: “Don’t just accept it!” It is in your nature to want to take your friend’s side and criticise her partner (after all, you hate it when he hurts her!). And you may think that you are doing the right thing – you just want to help them (or at least her). But this is wrong and can contribute to the breakdown of a marriage that could have worked…
What you shouldn’t do:
- Don’t assume that she wants your help and don’t pressure her to open up her heart towards you. She will do that when she is ready. You can, however, say something like: “You look a bit down. Remember, if you want to talk, I am here to listen. Even if you don’t want to talk, I am still here for you.”
- Amy, a family life educator behind the blog FreshlyMarried, says that first and foremost you have to remember not to make any decisions on behalf of your friend. It is not your place to advise her to leave her marriage. Moreover, you don’t know all the details – only her side. Even if the situation sounds hopeless, we serve a God of wonders who can also make a miracle happen in your friend’s life.
- Your role in this situation is to be a pillar of strength. Allow her to vent and unpack her feelings, even if it costs you a late night, two bottles of wine and three boxes of tissues. Be the best listener you could possibly be.
- Don’t share experiences from your own marriage. You may know exactly what she is going through, because you were there yourself. But even if you feel that it will be comforting for her to know that she is not alone, keep it to yourself. Sharing your own problems in the finest details will make her feel as if you are downplaying her problem and it can start to sound like a competition. Focus on her and her emotions.
- Amy says: It is not your job to save your friend’s marriage. As difficult as it may be to see them battle it out, don’t take this strain and burden on you, because it has the potential to leak over into your marriage. If you get too close to the situation, it can hurt your relationship with your partner, your friend and her husband. Give your love and support and then refer her to someone who is equipped to help her.
- Don’t assume that your friend is without fault. Remember, every story has two sides and you are only hearing your friend’s side.
- Don’t make generalisations about his character. You may want to say: “He is a selfish ass!” Don’t. When you make a statement, rather comment on his behaviour instead of his character. Focus on your friend’s feelings and say for example: “It sounds like his constant criticism is hurting you. Receiving so much criticism from a spouse will make anyone feel bad.”
- Don’t offer solutions. Except when it is an emergency and your friend’s life is in danger due to domestic violence for example, in which case you will anyway have to convince her that it is not an acceptable situation. Do what you can to get her to the right people who can help her with this.
What you can do…
- Pray for your friend and her husband. Ask God to intervene in their marriage and also ask for wisdom so that you would know what to say and do. Pray with your friend (if that is something she is comfortable with) and also when you are alone.
- Don’t share your personal story, but you can say: “I know how it feels to get hurt like this. You are not alone.” And if you don’t know what to say, just say: “I am so sorry that you have to go through this.” (You can however share more if she asks you about it and if you see that it is giving her hope.)
- Stay neutral. Chances are that your friend has already decided whether to divorce or not and now she only wants encouragement or even permission to take whichever route. Your job is not to push her in either direction, but to lead her to someone who can give her the right guidance.
- Ask the right questions. Sometimes a friend just needs someone to help her see things from a different perspective. You don’t have to pass judgement or give advice, but by asking the right questions you can help her to get clarity about her situation. Ask open questions such as: “What was your reaction when he said that?” Don’t just ask things like: “Were you mad?” Also repeat her answers to her: “I can hear that you felt frustrated when he didn’t keep his word.”
- Put them in contact with a mentoring couple. Why can’t you and your partner not be their mentoring couple? Because you are too closely involved and not objective at all. Do you know an older couple in your church who have acted as mentors before? Put your friend in contact with such a couple who can walk a mile with them.
- Act as the middle man. If you are not a trained professional and an objective outsider, you probably won’t be able to give appropriate advice. What you can do is to recommend sources. Again: Be careful not to hand her a specific book that you know will convince to make the marriage decision that you think she should make. Rather refer her to experts who can support her emotionally and spiritually.
- Determine whether her problems include any of the following three issues: Alcohol or other additions, affairs, severe anger (physical or emotional). These are three issues that often lead to divorce and which definitely require professional help.
- Encourage her to actively tackle her problems. No marital problems disappear by themselves. They are either worked through or they are suppressed (only to appear again later on). Encourage your friend to work through the problem with her husband.
Always remember that you are not allowed to be the cause of your friend’s divorce. Your very first intention should always be to do no harm. In many cases it is difficult, because you often justify your actions (for example by saying: “I want to help her open her eyes, because this marriage is not healthy and will destroy her in the long run.”).
Each marriage is unique and has complexities that you will never be aware of (not even after you and your friend spent a whole week talking about it would you be able to fully understand the effect of childhood trauma on her husband’s behaviour for example).
Every couple has to make their own way. However, you can be an ear to your friend. Help her when you see that she is struggling to stay afloat, by offering to fetch the children from school, or to look after the baby while they talk things through. Just by being a good friend, you can help save her marriage – without having to say a word…
- The study was done by YouGov.com, an academically respected Internet research company. The panel included 1000 US adults between the ages of 25-70. For more information, visit www.maritalfirstresponders.com/research/
Article written by Annelize Steyn