When should you speak your mind on a friend's awful marriage?
January 5, 2009 2:10 PM   Subscribe

How do you cope when a loved one, married to someone you can't stand, reveals during a crisis that everything is as awful as you suspected? But then turns around and decides to stay in the marriage, when everything that you have seen points to a relationship that is somewhere between self-destructive and unworkable?

I've seen this happen twice this year, to one friend or another, and am not sure what you are supposed to do in these situations.

Case 1: From the first time you met her, when she showed up to lunch late and chewed out the waiter for bringing a teapot with bad feng shui, you had a bad feeling about your old friend's new fiance. Your friend has some issues of his own. But by the time you were best man, you had discovered enough red flags about her that it was hard to raise a glass to these nuptials. To be a good friend, however, seemed to require that you put aside your doubts as to your friend's choice of a wife. As they say in Mexico: "For every sheep, its mate."

Then, after the honeymoon, she spends a week Twittering about how "life is a cruel joke, cruel cruel cruel!" So you check in out of concern. You find out that a firestorm had been triggered when it was discovered that he had kissed another woman. She had reacted by biting him, buying a bottle of sleeping pills with the stated intention of committing suicide, and finally phoning him from a railway station claiming she was about to throw herself in front of the 6:15. "I want you to hear the train as it hits me," she said. She hung up, so as to let him think, for three hours, that she was lying dead on the rails.

"Don't lose faith in her," your friend asks you after telling you this story, all teary. OK, you say, staying neutral. Later he says they're patching things up and making love and everything is fine again. You wonder if you should say something.

Case 2: Your brother is in a shotgun marriage. One day he admits to you that they never liked each other, let alone loved, and will be divorcing. He reveals other details about his wife's troubled psyche that leave you with no doubt it's best for all if the husband and wife go their separate ways. Your family breathes a sigh of relief because your sister-in-law's experimental parenting methods always leave your mom in tears. You are convinced the loveless, chilly marriage has been harming the childhood of your nephew, whose own mother admits to being puzzled as to why the child doesn't like her.

So the family drives across the country to help the brother with his divorce. Now that he has lifted the veil on his bleak, fruitless relationship, and his spouse is openly developing a strategy for winning his assets in a divorce, it seems like everyone is united in one purpose. She changes her Facebook status to "single" and some guy from her past posts, "congratulations!" Then your brother changes his mind and decides he's going to stay with this person, even if they don't like each other.

In both cases, it's someone else's business, and marriage is a private thing. But when you care about someone, and after they have approached you with alarming details, do you reach a point where you owe them a friend or brother's duty of speaking your mind, even if it's not what they want to hear?
posted by Kirklander to Human Relations (28 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Some months ago, a friend of mine found the courage to tell a friend about to tie the knot he was making a mistake. There was no wedding. But every case differ I think.
posted by Baud at 2:20 PM on January 5, 2009

Despite the seeming stupidity of these people's choices, it is THEIR choice to make, not yours. As a friend/loved one/family member, your job is not to try and talk them out of it; your job is to be there when they need you.

It seems to me that both the above stories are just prolonging the inevitable and things will work themselves out; however, if either of these reconciliations are actually permanent (perhaps there is counseling behind the scenes that you don't know about, etc) then you will forever be the one who tried to break up their happy marriage; their happy home.

In cases of drug abuse, physical abuse, child abuse/neglect, etc. then you stage an intervention, get police involved, etc. But for just poor judgments? Support their decision, even if you really don't agree with it, and then when things fall apart, be there for them (and for god's sake, never utter an 'I told ya so')
posted by arniec at 2:25 PM on January 5, 2009

When should you speak your mind on a friend's awful marriage?

Its not your marriage and you weren't there, and don't know how much is spouses fault and how much both are to blame. Offer a shoulder to lean on, if you must, but if you want to stay on good terms with these people, leave your opinions out unless they ask for them. Even if they're thankful at first, if things patch up, they'll resent you later for not only criticizing their spouse but their judgment.

If you don't want to stay on good terms, then just stop talking to them now, because you'll just be pissing in the wind.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:29 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

People who are suffering marital abuse should be politely, and gently, offered any support you can give them-- and then you should be prepared, in turn, for them to turn it down and keep trying to fix their marriages. The psychology of abuse is pretty complicated stuff.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:32 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

In these you situations, you should pull your friend aside and quietly, with love, ask "What the hell are you doing?" with all the love you have for

If you saw them about to accidentally fall off a cliff, you'd certainly say something, as opposed "Hey, it's your life," so I don't see why a situation where'd they'd be alive but wishing they were dead would be different.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:34 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

When should you speak your mind on a friend's awful marriage?


Really? I would hope to christ that if someone who loved me thought that I was being abused emotionally or physically, they'd say something to me. How sad to have everyone turn their backs because it's "none of their business".
posted by tristeza at 2:38 PM on January 5, 2009 [7 favorites]

I second Brandon Blatcher. While it is their choice, if you feel this is really the wrong thing to do, you should tell them so.

There are ways of telling a person what you think without fracturing your relationship with them. Be clear that you love them and you will be there for them whatever their decision, but let them know what you think is the best course of action.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:41 PM on January 5, 2009

You can help, but not in the sense of "dump that psycho immediately!!!" but in the sense of "well, I want what's best for you, so if you ever need someone to talk to, let me know."

I would not be too judgmental, at least not openly--it makes it seem like you're judging your friend and HIS decisions, and makes it harder for him to turn to you when he needs help.

Best of luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 2:46 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Really? I would hope to christ that if someone who loved me thought that I was being abused emotionally or physically, they'd say something to me. How sad to have everyone turn their backs because it's "none of their business".

This, a thousand times, this. Hating someone's SO because they're a loud drunk is one thing, but it is the prerogative of friends and family to voice concern over catastrophic life decisions. We are not friends with people so we won't get stuck with leftover dip at Superbowl parties--we're friends with people because we trust that their forbearance has a limit when we truly need their perspective. Loyalty means summoning the guts to tell someone they're in spiraling into a really bad place, even when it risks making things awkward, or garners their resentment. If someone you love is in an emotionally abusive relationship and you don't say anything to be politic? Well, I certainly wouldn't want you at my Superbowl party.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:48 PM on January 5, 2009 [13 favorites]

I don't see why a situation where'd they'd be alive but wishing they were dead would be different.

It's not that it's wrong to interfere, it's just ineffective 90% of the time so sometimes it's better to hold back a little bit so they won't feel uncomfortable coming to you when they need to.
posted by sondrialiac at 2:48 PM on January 5, 2009

I don't know if there's really any way to win in this situation. I know people who still insist on characterizing a toxic mate as "misunderstood" years after their lives have been left in tatters. While you have every right to try to talk to them about it, don't be surprised if they end up turning on you.
posted by bunji at 2:50 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I guess I am in the minority, or maybe I'm just a busybody, but I think you could say something.
Not: "You've made a huge mistake! Why did you ever marry her?"

But if these guys are talking to you about the situation, it could be appropriate to say "Do you really think you want to go back with her considering xyz things she's done?"

If they say yes, then end of discussion and you are back to being the silent supportive friend, but if they want to talk about it more, you could gently remind them that they deserve more.

As long as you're not attacking your friends for making their decisions or insulting the women they chose (don't do this, especially because they will probably go back to these women for at least a little while), I don't think there is anything wrong with helping them question their decisions.

But you only have one shot and then you have to shut up, so think of all the things you want to suggest and then think of the nicest possible ways to put them that are all about your friends and not about their spouses.
posted by rmless at 2:53 PM on January 5, 2009

Your brother is one thing, a friend is another. Your brother is your family and your blood and you should be able to let him know that he's making/made a big mistake and the sooner the mistake is fixed, the better. Especially because there's a child in the picture and growing up with an abusive and spiteful parent leaves very, very long lasting scars.

With your friend in the situation, it depends on how important the friendship is to you, how long you've been friends, etc. They may be ready to break it off but just a little emotional support from you and other friends.

Life is too short to be miserable all the time and while breaking apart can hurt in the short term, it is healthier for everyone in the long term.

Good luck and try to make sure that your intentions are for their best interests.
posted by fenriq at 2:55 PM on January 5, 2009

How do you cope when a loved one, married to someone you can't stand, reveals during a crisis that everything is as awful as you suspected? But then turns around and decides to stay in the marriage

I'd venture to say that I wouldn't place this much identifiable detail into an online narrative of the situation(s) unless I was equally comfortable expressing my concerns directly to the friend/brother.
posted by availablelight at 2:57 PM on January 5, 2009

Take them aside, and say: "I need to tell you, just once, how I feel about this relationship and from then on I'll support you in whatever you do."

Make sure you mean it.
posted by tkolar at 2:58 PM on January 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

I've seen this happen twice this year, to one friend or another, and am not sure what you are supposed to do in these situations.

Be a good friend. Listen. Offer advice IF ASKED for it. Be honest, but diplomatic.

I went through a divorce a little over a year ago, and the WORST friends, the absolute WORST were the ones who tried to convince me that I was better off and that instead of trying to fix my marriage, I should just get out, and kept pushing the envelope asking me "When would be bad enough?" As in, what would actually get me to GIVE UP.

The. Worst. In the end, they were right that the relationship couldn't be salvaged, but I needed to find that out for myself. I had committed fully to the marriage and there's no way I would have ever stopped fighting for it, taking that whole "'till death do us part" bit pretty seriously. This is certainly not true for everyone (see for example, my ex), but a lot of people just aren't in the mindset to stop trying, even if perhaps they should. And as humans, these people (see for example, me) become increasingly stubborn when told what they should do. I felt like I had to work TWICE as hard to prove my friends wrong. Fat lot of good that did - for anyone.

If your friends ask, give your 2c. Until then, just nod and say that you're there for them. Offer support and distraction. Talk about anything else. Go to a movie. Whatever. But it is absolutely 100% totally unhelpful to hear "The Truth" as interpreted by a third party.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:59 PM on January 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

When to speak your mind about their marriage? When asked. Unsolicited advice is never welcome and seldom heeded. You can do far more for your brother and friend by being on good terms with them if and when they see the light.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:19 PM on January 5, 2009

Speaking as someone who was in a horrible, self-esteem-destroying relationship who finally managed to get out: Say something.

My turning point was when someone asked me, after I'd spoken about how badly the relationship was going, "How did you feel about yourself before this relationship?"

That spawned a whole series of thoughts that ultimately led to my packing up and leaving.

Before the relationship I'd been lonely, yes, but I also felt good about myself and my life. In the relationship, I felt broken, undeserving of kindness and very, very small.

I realized I'd rather feel good about me and be lonely, than be with someone and feel so terrible.

Reach out, be kind, be supportive and be ready for when your friend is ready to leave. Put them up, help them pack, and tell them daily how much you care about them. If they don't leave right now, stay supportive and let them know they have someone outside the relationship they can turn to.
posted by burntflowers at 3:23 PM on January 5, 2009 [7 favorites]

I think it's perfectly appropriate to state your feelings once per-drama. Each time she comes to you with marriage problems you could say, "you need to get out of this." Simple, don't belabor, be consistent, and do it up front so she knows that's (still) where you stand. Unless she's coming to you with real ideas on how to really fix the marriage, she's only saying (in not so many words) that the marriage is only problematic for her.
posted by rhizome at 3:46 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's really hard to do this. I've been in this position a few times, though not to such a degree, and I've gotten more "Why didn't you say something?" responses than "You should have kept your mouth shut" ones though in one situation I'm not friends with the friend anymore because she chose to stay in a relationship with someone I couldn't really abide by. Most people have said variants of what I'd have to say, so here's me restating a few good points.

- Make sure you state your concerns in terms of "I care about you and I've noticed that this doesn't seem to be good for you" and not negative things about their partner or generalized "You're an idiot" types of things. My general feeling is that if I love my friend and they love this person I dislike then there may be something amiss in my assessment of this person, my assessment of my friend, or just a difference in priorities I hadn't noticed before. For example: some people value a stable relationship above and beyond how well they get treated in that relationship so the stability may mean more to them then how they're treated. This is tough to see as a friend but is an adult choice to make, just one you may not agree with.
- Greg Nog's idea about being prepared to be the asshole. If your friend is really adrift and needs someone to tell them "You need help, let me be your excuse" that's often a helpful thing to do. However if they reconcile, you may be out in the cold as the person who tried to split them up.
- People CAN change. This is especially true with people with undiagnosed mental illnesses, people who have one-time stress that they deal badly with or a variety of other reasons. I think of this in terms of Case 1 you mentioned. It's okay to be concerned and even mention it, but it's possible there's been a real change. Of course after a few "there's been a real change" discusisons where nothing seems to be changing, I'd stop paying attention to this one as closely.
- You can also set guidelines for yourself and/or your friends and family. This is hard to do, but especially important if someone has some sort of personality or problem that impacts your time together. Someone's a terrible drunk? Totally okay to not engage or not invite them to whatever event you're having. Someone's been mean and crazy with you in the past? Totally okay to try to have some one on one time with your friend. They may refuse for their own reasons but you can ask and say why in a caring and polite way that is about YOU but can also get the point across about how you view the relationship. Your starry-eyed friend may not know that their new girlfriend is a bitch to you when they're not around unless you (politely) tell them.

I think you can say "I'm alarmed" and "I care" and "I want you to be happy" in ways that don't equal butting in especially when it seems like you're in situations where you're already having conversations with these people.
posted by jessamyn at 3:55 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

If your friends ask, give your 2c. Until then, just nod and say that you're there for them. Offer support and distraction. Talk about anything else. Go to a movie. Whatever. But it is absolutely 100% totally unhelpful to hear "The Truth" as interpreted by a third party.

I totally agree. Like you said, a marriage is private; there's a lot that you don't and can't understand. The most important thing is for you to be there for your friend. Or not- honestly, I'm not sitting there holding my friends' hands when they make their 150th bad decision with that guy or that girl. I support from a distance, because that's all I can do without punching them in the face. The only exceptions would be those of "drug abuse, physical abuse, child abuse/neglect", as said above.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:59 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't make statements - ask questions. You're not trying to "talk them into" or "out of" something. Their decisions are theirs to make. What you want to do is have them a) pay attention and b) know that someone else cares about them. Questions can do that without being pushy or intrusive. They'll let you know if they don't want to answer. Just ask "So how do you feel about X these days? Is all that trouble over, or are you still working on it? Do you think it's going to work out long term? What's it like when it's going well? What's it like when it's going badly? Do you have any doubts? Do you ever wish you could get out?"

Let them expound open-endedly. This is the genius of talk therapy - when people hear themselves talking to you, they learn. You might learn, too. But asking questions is a way to keep the channel open without suggesting to them that you assume you know what's best for them. You really don't, but you want to know that they're okay and that they have choices. You can do all that with gentle, friendly questions rather than confrontations or dire warnings - which, when I've gotten them, basically just cause me to shut right down.
posted by Miko at 4:06 PM on January 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

@several of the posts above: Regarding the tragedy of adopting a "it's none of my business" attitude... for the most part it isn't.

Unless someone is actually being beaten and you walk in on the actual beating... there isn't a whole lot of recourse of dealing with a friends stupid decisions.

I'm not advocating hiding your feelings and telling your friend that their psycho spouse or fiance is a good idea. But you're not going to get very far arguing the point. People who tolerate abusers, losers, selfish spouses, etc... have deeper fears and psychological issues than you can likely imagine.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 4:28 PM on January 5, 2009

People who tolerate abusers, losers, selfish spouses, etc... have deeper fears and psychological issues than you can likely imagine.

I ended up in an emotional abusive relationship, not because I had deep fears and psychological issues, but because my partner did and used an arsenal of "I do these things because I love you" and "I just want to help you" to justify his actions which slowly undermined my self-esteem, friendships and relationships with family members over months and months.

It's like a lobster in a pot. I didn't jump into an abusive relationship. The heat started low and increased over time.

I suspect this is the rule, not the exception.
posted by burntflowers at 4:42 PM on January 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

When I was in a difficult relationship (but certainly not as difficult as these), I had several friends who attempted to tell me that I deserved better than this guy, how awful he was, "you know this is the wrong situation," yada yada.

No matter how much their statements rang true with me, something always brought me back to him, and then I'd feel like the friend had somehow betrayed me. I felt like I couldn't come to them in bad OR good times because I knew that their mind was made up about our relationship. Furthermore, I felt like *I* must be stupid -- if he was so awful, what did that say about me staying with him or even choosing him in the first place?

After I got out of that situation, I had a friend who was stuck in a bad relationship herself. I couldn't help but be blunt with her and say some of the same things. However, I also made sure to tell her that I would be there for her no matter what -- if she stayed, if she left, if she planned to leave but it took a while, whatever. I gave her options -- people she could stay with who lived nearby, people she could contact if she went back to her hometown, etc. -- but also talked with her about making her day-to-day life easier.

Your friend and your brother need to know that whatever you say, you will be there for them. Giving them that sort of strength will help them find the courage to eventually break free, because they'll realize that you hate the situation, not them.
posted by Madamina at 6:50 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Look, a lot of people in these situations Just Plain Won't Listen and leave the SO. This is why some people on here, including me, wouldn't speak up in this situaiton. grapefruitmoon and Madamina have good examples of this and why they didn't leave at the time, and how they felt about "the messenger" saying, "leave, leave NOW." Heck, sometimes "the messenger" will get dumped as a friend because you're not supporting the SO.

If the brother/friend doesn't want to leave and wants to keep on suffering, you can't do shit about it. You just have to suck it up, pretend you "like" the SO when you have to deal with them (trust me on this, do NOT be openly "against" them), and wait it out until (if ever) the guys leave on their own. You stifle down your frustration, bitch behind their backs, and wait. That's all you have the power to do.

In the case of your brother, he may have decided to stay in it "for the child." (Though sadly, mommy will always be mommy and as long as mommy wants to stay involved in the child's life, the child will be emotionally damaged. Nothing that can be done about that, even if a divorce happens.) But in the case of your friend, if Crazy Lady isn't being treated for her crazy, this respite is only temporary, and odds are she's gonna snap again and again. When that crap escalates, you've got a better chance of getting through (especially if she starts to threaten your friend's life or something) than you would with a brother who's just unhappily matched to someone non-destructive.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:45 PM on January 5, 2009

I think it's worth remembering that most of us are not as good at disguising these sorts of misgivings as we think we are. Most of the time, the person in the dysfunctional relationship has a pretty good idea that his or her peers have concerns. Pretending everything's just fine is never very convincing, and it'll end up skewing all your interactions, isolating the very person you want to reach out to.

In my humble opinion, the most powerful positive influence you can exert comes when you position yourself as a loving and non-judgemental listener. I agree with previous posters that, in the case of actual physical abuse or severe emotional abuse, a blunter, more proactive interventionist strategy is probably merited, but otherwise, just providing someone with a safe place to talk can be a massive help.

If you want them to be open-minded when listening to your concerns, you at least should be prepared to do them the same courtesy. Don't assume you know the ins and outs of the relationship. You may, of course, be absolutely right in your assessment of its weaknesses, but even then, by taking time to listen to the person and clarify all the details, you're left in a much stronger rhetorical position for the moment when you tell them to DTMFA.
posted by RokkitNite at 10:47 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

My sister told me once that she would stand up and object at my wedding if I went through with marrying my then-boyfriend. She was absolutely serious. It didn't give me the courage to end the relationship at the time, but stuck in the back of my mind until I was ready to.

After a more recent less-than-great relationship ended, people came out of the woodwork to say that they didn't see it working out. Why the hell didn't they say something?! I might have had the courage to leave a lot sooner.

I now make it a point to check in with people and remind them that if they see something they are concerned about, to please tell me. I may not be able to hear them in the full blush of new love, but I hope something will stick in my mind. So far, it's worked well.

I agree with those who say you can say it in love without damaging the relationship. Bring it up ONCE, then make it clear that you will support them whatever their decision, and be prepared to do so when they need you.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:50 AM on January 7, 2009

« Older Skipping My Senior Year. Yay or Nay?   |   Which is faster? The hare on nyquil or the tortise... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.