5 Ways to Be There For a Friend Who Is Having Marriage Troubles
Yes, you can offer support in a constructive, non-messy way.
We’ve all been there: You’re out for girls’ night and one of your friends is complaining about her husband. Or, worse, she’s on the phone with you describing how her marriage is currently in a freefall and begging you for some advice.
Being there for a friend who’s having marriage troubles is tough. You want to be supportive, but you also may feel inadequate commenting on such a private matter. Plus, if you give your unfiltered and honest opinion, it can bite you in the butt later.
I remember a time my friend called and said she was done with her guy. I cheered her on and threw him under the bus… only to have her not leave him at all. It felt like the deliciously cringe scene in Almost Famous where the plane is going down so everyone said their real feelings, but then the plane never crashed. Yikes.
According to some relationship experts, these awkward moments are worth it if you’re telling your friend what she or he needs to hear. As Tracy McMillan, relationship expert and host of OWN’s Family or Fiancé says, “Sometimes, staying neutral and not giving an opinion is not being a good friend. Friends need a sounding board, an external hard drive, someone to tell you the hard truth in a way you can’t hear from yourself or anyone else; someone to show you what you’re not seeing.”
So, perhaps the best way to be there for a friend who’s having marriage troubles is to find a balance between being radically honest and neutrally supportive. Here are 5 ways to get it right:
1. Be an active listener
Validate your friend with active listening—aka you can acknowledge what is being said without taking sides, and come from a place of wanting the highest good for their partnership.
Example: “I’m so sorry this is happening. That sounds really hard. Whatever happens it will be okay. I love and support you both.”
Remind your friend that everyone in this situation deserves to be happy. Refrain from colluding, commiserating, gossiping, or demonizing her partner, because these feelings can be toxic and unproductive.
To avoid advising or giving a bunch of unsolicited advice, first assess the sitch, then ask, “How can I best support you? Would you just like to vent or would you like to know my experience?”
If they do want to vent, your job is to then hold space, non-judgmentally, and be a witness to your friend working out their thoughts. You can simply reflect back to them what you’re hearing.
2. Affirm that they’re doing the right thing by speaking up
Leaving a toxic marriage can be very difficult. Instead of bringing up the past, which can lead to a lot of blaming and shaming if you keep reminding them what happened last time, affirm what they’re doing well. “I’m glad you called me and are asking for help.”
3. Normalize relationship bumps and offer tools
I can’t tell you the relief I felt when my boyfriend and I argued and I called a friend who did not judge or tell me what to do. Instead, she normalized arguing in relationships and offered some tools that helped her.
She suggested removing myself from the situation when things are heated because one or both partners may be triggered to childhood trauma and, at that point, it really just becomes “two children fighting over a juice box.” Keeping the fight going can put both partners in danger of saying things they’ll regret or escalate everything to a breaking point.
Instead, my friend suggested taking space when things are heated, and returning only once my partner and I have cooled down. It’s a good tactic that you can also offer up to your friend.
4. Have your friend consider if there are lessons to be learned from this experience
While I would never encourage anyone to stay in something that feels toxic or abusive, I do feel like people come into our lives for a spiritual contract, and until we receive the lesson, they (or a version of them) will just keep reappearing as new partners or new undesirable relationships.
Some relationship troubles can be a great opportunity to work through some deeper issues in order to address them for good.
Personally, something that has helped me was looking at relationship troubles as an opportunity to work on what I can control: being the best partner I can be and committing to that so that I can attract and sustain the kind of partnership I want to be in—whether it ended up being with that person or not.
Practices like meditation and journaling can help get these types of feelings and revelations out in a safe space to help your friend process them.
5. Allow your friend space to make their own decisions
Instead of pushing an agenda, giving your friend space to choose what they do next allows them the dignity of their own path.
That said, if they are in real harm or danger, like there’s a potential of physical abuse or someone’s cheating, urge them to go to more qualified experts ASAP.
Say, “I don’t have any experience with those things, but I’d suggest talking to somebody who does, or perhaps calling National Domestic Violence Hotline, working with a therapist, or joining a 12-step support group. I support you in doing whatever is most self-honoring for you.”
Remember: Your job is not to try to fix, save, or change their situation, because you’re not that powerful. If they’re asking for your experience, you can share some things that have been helpful to you without going into counselor mode and they can take what they like and leave the rest.