How can I help a friend in an unhappy marriage?
April 21, 2009 6:06 PM   Subscribe

My friend is trapped in a miserable marriage. Is there anything I can do to help?

I have been friends with Amy for about five years. She and her husband Jim have been married for about 15. No kids. He is not physically abusive, but he is mean, selfish, and very possessive. He used to go through her e-mail and check her phone records. For years she wasn't allowed to visit her family or have a job. They fought about it often.

Two years ago she left him. She told me it was the happiest she has ever been, and it showed. But Jim begged and pleaded for a second chance, and after six months she went back. Not because she wanted to, but because she felt she owed it to him. He is treating her better than he was, but he still makes her feel bad about herself, and she is just as unhappy as before - probably more. Jim does not believe they need couples' counseling, and I don't think he understands why she left in the first place.

Amy is on anti-depressants and seeing a therapist who is trying to encourage her to leave Jim, but she won't. She says she promised him she would never leave again. (I'm not sure why she agreed to this.) I have repeatedly tried to convince her that she needs to take care of herself first, but she says it's her own fault that she's unhappy, and she gets very upset when I try to talk to her about it. Her mother (her only surviving family member) also tells her she needs to leave, but she won't listen. Jim keeps her very busy around the house, and she doesn't have any other friends to talk to, besides me, who aren't his friends.

I've asked my friends for advice, and they all say Amy needs to make the first move. Normally I would agree, but... she is so very depressed. She told me she's given up on being happy again. I'm afraid that she won't make things better on her own.

I'm trying to be supportive. We talk often. Is there something else I can do? She is the one of the kindest people I know, and a wonderful friend. It breaks my heart to see her in so much pain.

Thank you for listening.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're already doing it by being a good friend and listening. As frustrating as it is to watch a dear friend flounder in a bad situation, the decision to make a change ultimately has to come from her. It's good she's in therapy and on medication. It's even better her support system extends to family & friends like yourself. I know this probably wasn't the answer you're looking for, but keep listening, continue talking, and do not hesitate to question the situation when she tells you about her bad marriage. Good luck to her and you!
posted by katemcd at 6:14 PM on April 21, 2009

I don't think she's ready to leave him, so I don't think there's much else you can do other than be there for her as a friend to talk with.

The reason I don't think she's ready to leave (other than the fact that she's still there) is that she's using some pretty faulty logic. When she got married, I presume she promised something like, "for better or for worse, until death". And much later she left. Now she's made another promise, and says that she wants to stay to honor that (second) promise. That just doesn't make sense.
posted by Houstonian at 6:16 PM on April 21, 2009

Trapped how, exactly? It doesn't sound like there's a threat of violence here, or any other sort of force. She is making this choice. It may be unhealthy, but she has the right to make crappy choices. You can't remake her life as you would like it to be. It sounds as if you need to find something else to focus on, for your own mental health.
posted by jon1270 at 6:19 PM on April 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well just be there to listen and if asked give opinions. But honestly you cannot know the reality that is created between two people in a marriage. Only those two people will ever really understand that reality in all of its complexities.
posted by tarvuz at 6:21 PM on April 21, 2009

I have a friend who is trapped in a miserable marriage as well. It's not just me who reads the marriage that way either; many other mutual friends see it as miserable as well.

We've discussed if we should get involved and in the end decided that it's not our call. They must make the first move. All you can do is be there for support and to listen. Anything else you do is just intererence and will probably not be seen as helpful by either your friend or her husband. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions.
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:33 PM on April 21, 2009

A few thoughts:
1. You can' t talk her into leaving the guy. You just have to let her know that you will be there for her if/when she ever decides to leave. Only repeat the offer when she says something directly related to the subject and don't get into arguments.
2. Practice patience. If life keeps sending us lessons to learn, this may be your chance to learn how to be loving, accepting and patient when a friend is making choices you don't like. I accept that you only have her best interests at heart but the bottom-line is still learning to support her while she makes her own choices.
3. Help her find activities that make her happy and/or add to her self-esteem. Make sure you give her some positive feedback about what she has accomplished around the house and elsewhere. Don't get committed to any one particular idea - she may need her husband to agree too - but help her create some space or time that is her own (for example taking an adult education class - maybe cooking or painting. Again, give her support and positive feedback on whatever she chooses. If you are friendly with her mother, you might suggest that the mother try to arrange regular mother-daughter outings (and try to avoid the topic of her marriage) This approach is more powerful than attacking the problem directly since, in the long run, feeling better about herself will help her to decide that she deserves better.
posted by metahawk at 6:36 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

No. You said you talk often. I assume when you talk about her relationship, if she asks for your opinion, you give it. She knows that people think it's a bad idea (her therapist encourages her to leave her husband, after all.) So she's well aware of what people think she ought to do. For whatever reason, she isn't doing it. You aren't aware of actual abuse taking place.

There is nothing further you can or should do. Just be a good friend, and be honest when and if she wants further advice. Any efforts to be more of an activist on your part will damage your friendship and hurt her chances at actually getting away from her husband. (Either because it will directly damage your friendship by hurting her trust in you, or her husband will catch wind of it and restrict her ability to see you.)
posted by Happydaz at 9:33 PM on April 21, 2009

You could give her this book: Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft.

And read it yourself, too - especially the part about how to support your friend. I know you have her best interest at heart, so this is going to sound unfair, but you have to realize that right now you (as well as her therapist, apparently) are trying to achieve what her husband's goal is, too: to influence her decision-making.

It sounds to me like there's nobody in her life who's willing to step back and respect her full autonomy to make decisions for herself, and that's probably making her feel even less empowered (and less likely to muster the strength and optimism to improve her situation). Hounding her may just make her feel weak, hopeless and ashamed.

As to how to deal with it better, I think metahawk's advice was spot on.
posted by sively at 2:26 AM on April 22, 2009

She left once before, and went back. That tells me that she knows what her life without him could be like. She's choosing to not have that life right now. Her reasons for this are her own. Speaking as someone who left a similar sort of unhappy marriage (down to the control and the email/journal hacks, keyboard logger & social control), when you leave a marriage like that, it's like escaping from a small box. The fresh air and freedom are so sweet, you'd never go back. For her to choose to go back, and to stay, she has to be convinced, deep down, that there's a very good reason to stay in the box.

The idea that she promised him she wouldn't leave him sounds a bit thin as an excuse to stay. I mean, she promised when she married him that it would be to death us do part, but she left him when it got to be too much the first time round. And what kind of therapist is this that is telling her to leave this guy? The therapists I know (and have seen) would be encouraging her to explore why she's staying (and went back), not telling her what to do.

There's information between married partners that you simply won't get as an outsider. Perhaps she feels that she just needs to love him enough and he'll change. Perhaps she thinks love involves martyrdom. Or perhaps, she wants to abdicate responsibility and ask you and her friends to save her from him (and herself).

When she's ready to go, she'll leave and never come back. For now, though, listen to her and be there when she's ready.
posted by Grrlscout at 5:55 AM on April 22, 2009

Your description makes it sound like she is in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship -- which can be just as debilitating as a physical one...I speak from experience. I was going to recommend the Bancroft book too as well as "The Verbally Abusive Relationship" by Patricia Evans. Both of those books helped me realize I was in such a relationship and needed to get out of a year LONG awful marriage.

The reason why these books are so helpful is because they explain the covert abuse that occurs and labels it as such. When you are in this type of relationship, your whole reality is questioned and redefined by the abuser. And it is really hard to recognize, let alone describe to someone else. But seeing the patterns set forth in both books is eye opening. I don't think it would be bad to pass either of these books along to her.

I agree with the posters who thoughfully point out (especially sively) that you are doing the right thing by just being there and not pushing her to leave. You will not convince her to do so and should not. All you can do is tell her you love and support her and she will find her way.

One more thing you might want to do is call a domestic abuse hotline and ask for advice. I now volunteer at a great one and the hotline support is there for everyone, including loved ones who don't know how to help. They are also extremely familiar with verbal and eotional abuse because in every physically or sexually abusive relationship, there is also the verbal and emotional abuse....ALWAYS.
posted by murrey at 6:07 AM on April 22, 2009

She had fun when she was away from the guy for an extended period of time, right? Try to recreate that. Take her out for fun activities as much as possible. If you can, take her on a weekend trip or off for a week's vacation - or more. Enjoy time together with her, away from her husband. Maybe she'll remember again what it is to live without him, and how wonderful it was. Maybe she'll independently decide to leave him. But if not, at least you've brought some more joy and happiness to her life.

Also, he keeps her busy around the house - maybe because this way he "needs" her help there? Maybe they can distribute responsibilities more evenly, or she can just stop doing as much for him, so she sees he doesn't need her as much as she and he think he does.
posted by lorrer at 8:15 AM on April 22, 2009

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