How to talk to a friend who is considering leaving her husband
June 3, 2010 8:18 PM   Subscribe

My friend has asked me to have a conversation with her about whether she should leave her husband for a new man. I have a strong view: should I tell her and can I do so in a way that is constructive? What else should I consider about the content and format of what I say?

My friend has been married seven years and has three children. She has recently completed a professional qualification and fallen for a fellow student. He has told her he loves her and wants to be with her. They have not kissed or done anything else physical (I am told and believe).

My friend finds her husband boring - he doesn’t do much except work and watch television - and resents him sometimes being angry with the children. The new chap is better educated and seems much more exciting to her. He says he would be prepared to take the children on too. She accepts that it may partly be just the novelty of him that attracts her. Her husband doesn’t know about him.

My own views are that: it would be very sad for the children to lose their father; that my friend should try to improve things with her husband before giving up on him; and that someone who propositions someone who’s married is lacking in a degree of integrity.

Given that she wants to discuss what she should do, I would like to tell her my views if they are at all likely to help her. Are there better ways to do this than just telling her what I think? What haven’t I considered? What points or framings have been helpful to you in similar situations?

(I do know that people mostly do what they want to do in the end, regardless of advice!)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total)
Be a good friend and listen to her, but stay out of the decision making process - whatever you say can and will be used against you when her decision, which is ultimately hers to make, has problems. Don't be the fall guy here, she's playing with fire.
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:28 PM on June 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

If she is unhappy in her marriage, she should talk to her husband about that. If they can't come back together (counseling, etc.), she should leave him regardless of whether or not she has someone waiting in the wings for her. And about that: she should, under no circumstances, bring this new man into her life (and especially her childrens' lives) the minute the ink is dry on the divorce decree. She should (but that's not saying she will) be solitary for a bit while she and the kids get used to the new situation.
posted by cooker girl at 8:30 PM on June 3, 2010

Oh, I meant to say, if you must give her advice, frame it as a "here's what I would do" thing. No way should you say, "this is what you must do."
posted by cooker girl at 8:30 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good lord, don't let her talk to you about this. Tell her that you love and support her in her decisions, but this is something that you have no business getting involved in and that she and her husband should go to counseling.

Always help if someone is in an abusive relationship. Never get involved in someone else's relationship drama otherwise. This sounds squarely in the second category.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:33 PM on June 3, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think you should tell her what you told us. I don't think there's any great way to frame it, except perhaps as cooker girl suggests. Still, she might react badly; even so, given the moral issue at stake, I think you have a duty to tell her what you think.
posted by smorange at 8:35 PM on June 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you can, make sure she feels truly heard by you, and that you show that you truly understand how strongly she feels. But you can also paint a vivid picture of how she will likely feel later, as well as the emotions of the other people involved: her children, her husband, maybe even the stress of her new guy under hypothetical future situations.
posted by amtho at 8:49 PM on June 3, 2010

The way to help if she wants to have this conversation is to prepare yourself by completely holding back any advice you might be tempted to give her and to think as thoroughly as you can about all of the questions she will actually be facing and ask her the questions in a very non-confrontational way so that she can begin to include some clear-headed thinking to counteract her emotions about this.

Don't be emotional, take sides or give advice. Just help her think of questions to ask herself. About living arrangements, childcare, money, property, in-laws, mutual friends, affiliations, custody, lawyers, how long a divorce will take and what her plans are for seeing this new man during the interim, if they would marry, what family and friends he has, if she has met them, how well she likes them?

You know more about your friend's circumstances and can doubtless think of better questions. What is crucial is taking the possibility seriously and helping her examine how she will walk through the likely choices and adjustments she will be making in this enormous step.
posted by Anitanola at 8:55 PM on June 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'd be very clear about the fact that you're not offering advice, but are happy to be a sounding board for her, to help her work through the issues (plural).

And there are two issues. The first is whether she should leave her husband. The second is that if and when she is single, should she start a relationship with the other guy. Framing it as a single issue (should I leave X for Y) is the wrong approach.

Your views are clear, and you clearly have her best interests at heart, but she needs to work through this herself. If the only thing you do is help her separate out the two issues, then you've done your work as a friend. That and being there for the fallout!

You need to show that your loyalty is to her rather than to her husband. There is a risk that if you tell her that you think she should stay with her husband, and she decides to leave him and start a relationship with the other guy, then you may end up in an awkward position, and lose her trust.
posted by finding.perdita at 9:00 PM on June 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

On preview, amtho and Anitanola's comments are great. (I deleted a lot of what I wrote because they said it better.)

To be as constructive, respectful, and non-judgmental as possible, reflect on all the differences between your life and hers. Think of the many details that you don't know about her marriage. Consider that she'll be living the consequences of her decision (as will her child) for the rest of her life, whereas you'll be off on your own. Think about the shades of gray (e.g., what are the circumstances in which you DO think leaving would be appropriate?).

When you do want to express your own thoughts, it will be a better relationship if you can change them from sounding like a judgment back into feelings and personal differences. "I have to admit, I'm worried about [child]" or "I'm concerned about how you'll feel if this doesn't work out" or "I guess I'm different from you in that I'd get a huge guilt complex if I tried to leave without knowing I'd tried everything to make it work," or "Can we take a quick time out? I'm having trouble talking about this because I'm suddenly feeling again how angry I was at my parents when they got divorced."
posted by salvia at 9:03 PM on June 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Whoops. "it will be a better relationship" should read "it will be a better conversation."
posted by salvia at 9:04 PM on June 3, 2010

I have a very simple rule of thumb about this kind of situation. Do not advise people to leave (or stay in) their relationships, except in the case of abuse.

In all such situations, you will lose. If the friend leaves, it is partly due to your influence, or will be blamed on you. If they don't, then the situation gets very awkward.

If the personal consequences (i.e., likely losing a friendship over this) doesn't convince you, then try to think about how you would feel, from both of the couple's perspective. Ugly, eh? Skip it. Even if they ask, it is not your business, stay out of the advice game here.

I recommend skipping *any* advice in this situation, but if you are good friend you could be a sounding board. In that case, you should start any "sounding board session" by reminding her that you cannot give advice on this one.
posted by Invoke at 9:21 PM on June 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

I have a dear, dear (female) friend who once said to me, "You can't tell women nothin bout their men. You can't tell them dude is a crazy asshole, you can't tell them dude is SO awesome....all you can do is listen." Frankly, I've never improved upon that advice. But it's not your man, OP, so I feel like I can try now ;)

When I read the question, the phrase that jumped out at me was "for another man." As in, should she leave her husband (well, maybe)... FOR ANOTHER MAN - no. This is what 15-year-olds do. If she is genuinely that miserable in her marriage, then I'm the last person who is going to point the finger of blame at her for leaving it and striking out on her own to live her life the way she wants. But this isn't what's going to happen, judging from your question. She thinks she's bored because "he doesn't do much except work and watch television?" What's she going to think when this new dude "doesn't do much except go to bars and pick up women because he's sick of dealing with three kids that aren't his?"

I don't mean to be harsh here. But your friend really needs to ask herself if her boredom is all hubby's fault, or if there's maybe something that she could do to alleviate her own boredom. And the thing is, I'm NOT saying she should stay in this marriage if she is genuinely miserable and has personal goals that she cannot meet within it. I'm saying that if her personal goals consist of getting this new guy and that's it, then she's in for a world of horrible, terrible trouble.

I think, in answer to your actual question, that if you really want to help this woman a good way to start would be by ascertaining whether she has any kind of plan besides "new guy." DO NOT let her go into the spiral of relying upon him (on her children's behalf!)...make damn sure she has something to fall back on. This will be the kindest thing you can do, both for her AND those three children. If she doesn't, then you have every right to tell her that's something she needs to work on before she takes a life-changing step like this. It's not passing judgment, it's not ripping on her or either man - it's just honest advice. I wish you all the best, and your friend too.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 10:30 PM on June 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

I personally would say, in this situation: "I can see why you feel the way you do. If I were in your situation, I think I'd start by getting into counseling with your husband. If you can fix things, then everyone -- including your kids -- will be better off, and if you can't, then you'll be free to make bigger changes without having to feel guilty."
posted by davejay at 10:38 PM on June 3, 2010

And there are two issues. The first is whether she should leave her husband. The second is that if and when she is single, should she start a relationship with the other guy. Framing it as a single issue (should I leave X for Y) is the wrong approach.

This is the most important advice she needs to hear. These decisions need to be evaluated separately. She's the one who will lack integrity if she leaves because something better came along. She's talking about long terms relationships and she isn't really present to such a commitment and its accompanying demands if she's keeping an eye out for something better. Leaving her husband is a big deal. She is much less likely to have regrets over doing so if she believes that being a single mother is better than being married, instead of hoping that her new crush will prove to be a better companion than her husband.
posted by BigSky at 10:43 PM on June 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I disagree with most of the comments here. Be completely honest. You have a strong opinion; tell her your strong opinion. Tell her what you told us. She's an adult; it's up to her to decide what to do after hearing your views. You won't be held responsible for what she does, but you can help by giving advice.

It might be different if you were considering giving unsolicited advice, but she wants your advice. You don't need to disingenuously frame everything in terms of just "This is what I would do." You're entitled to have an opinion of what she should do and to express this to her.

I don't understand these comments that insist on you being totally amoral and nonjudgmental. This is a really important decision, and it makes sense to express a strong opinion about it to your friend who is apparently open to hearing your opinion. Remember ... there are children involved.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:55 PM on June 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


Depends what kind of person you are. If you're the strong-advice-no-holds-barred person, and she knows it, then go for it.

If you're the "how do you think your kids will feel if they are separated from their father?" kind of person, keep being that person.

Simply, be the friend she knows and trusts, instead of using a strategy in an attempt to manipulate her to stay in her marriage. I know you want very badly for her to do the right thing by her children and husband--and I respect and admire that--but realistically, you don't have the power to make her do what you want. Twisting yourself into pretzels in order to achieve a goal that is largely outside of your control is stressful and unproductive.

One thing you can do, if you want the seriousness of the situation to penetrate the new relationship energy craziness, is ask her questions about practical pain-in-the-ass divorce things. I have found that discussing custody fights and schedules, mortgages, choosing and paying divorce lawyers, moving house...are really effective at getting people motivated to stay in their marriage/relationship. Sad, I know, when compared to the real emotional issues.

But this is in NY where it is very difficult to get a divorce.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:07 AM on June 4, 2010

He says he would be prepared to take the children on too.

Yeah, that'll last. Honestly, pointing out reality is the biggest favour you could do her, if she's interested in actual feedback (as opposed to merely wanting endorsement). She isn't going to be able to wave a magic wand and make her husband disappear. There will be custodial arrangements and handovers and he's going to have a say in where the children go to school and all those good things. Even if he's the most civilised person in the whole universe, there's still years and years she's going to have to work with him.

If he wants to be difficult, well...

So, yes, get her thinking about reality.
posted by rodgerd at 2:01 AM on June 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Lots of good advice upthread, but I just wanted to add that I think any advice/input/feedback/guidance you may give her will have much more force and credibility if you stick to what you personally know. I'm sure she's considered in the abstract all the points you want to mention; can you say anything to give them personal, experiential force for her?

For example, have you yourself been divorced, or are you the child of divorce? Have you had other life experiences that make you particularly passionate about your friend's situation? Instead of of saying, "You know, this seems really bad for the kids," perhaps you could say, Well, my parents divorced when I was 11, and it was completely devastating for me; here are some ways it's affected my future life , etc? You get the gist-- try telling her your own truths (or, at most, those of close relations you know and love) instead of attempting to infer what's true for her.
posted by Bardolph at 3:44 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

In general leaving one person for another is a recipe for disaster. If she has issues at home those should be addressed on their own merits without bringing another potential lover into the picture. The grass often seems greener on the other side, but once you get there it rarely is. That being said I know a couple that formed in about 1966 when they both left their spouses. They are still happily married. All relationships seem wonderful when new, problems have yet to arise, differences are minimized, excitement overpowers any potential negatives. What are the long term prospects for your friend, and her children? These are fertile areas of discussion. Unless the current relationship is irretrievably broken, trading it in for a new one seems unfair to the children, unfair to the current husband, and probably unfair to the new guy. Irretrievably broken does not mean, bored, unfulfilled, petty arguments etc. Those are just all signs of the seven year itch.
posted by caddis at 3:55 AM on June 4, 2010

I would encourage her to educate herself about the situation so that *she* can make an informed decision. Because you can tell her what you feel and what you've heard, but I think people have a slightly better chance at stepping onto the clue bus when the clues come from a published book or someone with a framed diploma on the wall of their office (marital counselor, divorce attorney).

The other trick that is important to remember when you're interested in influencing someone else's decisions is to focus on getting them they want. Right now she's thinking very selfishly, so use that to an advantage. Encourage your friend to think about all the unwanted effects a divorce would have on her and to explore ways to create the life she wants without so many downsides.
posted by drlith at 4:19 AM on June 4, 2010

Lots of good advice here. I was going to suggest separating the "leaving the husband" piece from the "starting a new relationship" piece as mentioned above a few times. I will add that a good question to ask her is what she do/feel if six or eight months down the road with the new guy the whole thing falls apart. The stress of a marital split is murder on a new relationship. This is why she needs to separate the two issues (well, one of the reasons.) The relationship she has with him now is based on fantasy. The mundane administrivia of day to day life in a relationship with two kids and marriage being dismantled is.... not so romantic.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:07 AM on June 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

She seems pretty certain that she'll get custody of the children. Somehow, I doubt this would be the case.
posted by schmod at 6:45 AM on June 4, 2010

I don't know if you should give her advice or not -- there's negatives to both sides of that. But some things she might want to consider is that she also made a promise to herself when she married her husband -- she promised herself that she would be a faithful person. As she's currently deeply engaged in an emotional affair, she's breaking that promise, and that hurts her own self-respect. One could say that tacitly included in the marriage promise was the promise that, if one day there were children involved, she would be respectful of their family unit (barring abuse, etc). And she's hurting herself there as well.

It may be that she needs to leave her husband, but that is unrelated to the other guy. What she really needs to be respectful to herself, first -- either keep the promises she made or alert her husband that she's decided not to keep them.

And I think possibly you could talk to her about her own self-respect without giving advice, maybe. This guy wrote a great blog entry about it:

[ . . .] You need to understand, when you cheat on your wife, you’re not just betraying her, or any God you happen to believe in. The greatest problem with cheating is that it turns you into a liar; on a soul level, every time you sleep with another woman behind your wife’s back, you know you’re breaking a promise you made. No one can break his own promise and be happy.” [ . . . ]
posted by MeiraV at 10:08 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm late here, but...

A friend once told me she was filing for divorce. I told her I was relieved, because I thought her husband's behavior verged on abusive, and was getting worse with time.

She got back together with him.

There went that friendship.

Lesson learned: don't express an opinion about someone else's relationship when it's rocky.
posted by galadriel at 6:34 PM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try to get her to frame it as two separate decisions. The question she should be asking herself is not "Should I leave my husband for this new guy?" The questions she should be asking herself are:

1. Should I leave my husband? There are various answers to that, which include several shades each of yes, no and maybe, some of which involve the addendum of things she should do to try to either save her marriage or make that decision clearer.

And then, only if the answer to 1 turns out to be yes, should she ask the next question:

2. Is this new guy the right guy for me?

By helping her to frame her thinking, you're not casting judgment on her, her husband, her new man or any combination of the above, while at the same time getting her to reconsider the state of her marriage itself, instead of just in relation to exciting new guy.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:12 PM on June 4, 2010

I was put in that situation once (no children were involved, thankfully). Like you, I felt she should stick it out a little longer and see if there might not be some static left to the relationship. However, I came in with the stance that I was only there to listen. Only after she insisted on my advice did I give it. At which point, I did the "if this were my situation..." as well as advising her that, whatever path she chose, to think the benefits and consequences over very carefully. We're still quite close and she's working on her marriage. Not saying that's what will happen here, but I would say it's the best way to remain neutral while still voicing your point of view constructively.
posted by arishaun at 3:58 AM on June 5, 2010

« Older Planning a Solo Trip Part I   |   Looking for a hairdresser who can cut weird curly... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.