I'm pretty sure the answer is never...
March 12, 2019 1:16 PM   Subscribe

When do you offer unsolicited relationship advice, or at least, observation? My general rule of thumb is never, but I've got a friend who has been really unhappy for a really long time. Should I gently share that perspective, and, if so, how?

We've been close friends for over ten years. With work, family, etc., we don't see each other all that often but do keep in touch, get occasional dinner/drinks, etc., and every time I see them, they tell me how rocky their marriage is, always on the brink of divorce, and always 'just trying to make it work' for their kids. My friend has never asked me for advice, but has shared how troubled they are by how poorly their marriage is going. (I should add I don't believe there are any safety issues). I don't think that they're exaggerating or just venting to me. And while I generally think it's good to hold your tongue if no one's asked for advice, in this case, I want to tell them, "For as long as I've known you, you've been unhappy, and that is almost the entirety of your marriage," as a sort of way of supporting them but that of course feels very fraught, and they've never actually asked me for my opinion.

I should also add I have no designs on this person, nor do they for me, but my concern comes simply from watching a friend be really, really unhappy for over a decade. I get the impression that my friend subscribes to the 'marriage is hard work so I guess I have to struggle all the time' school, or at least the 'I like and admire and probably love this person so I guess we should stay married' school. My gut tells me to leave well enough alone, as they are adults figuring out their own marriage in their own way, but at the same time, it's hard to watch a friend be so unhappy for so long. I suppose I wish I could give them anonymous internet stranger permission to leave the relationship, but of course that's not a possibility! What would you do in this situation?
posted by stillmoving to Human Relations (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So, I'm a fixer by nature. I struggle with wanting to give advice because my assumption (false, I realize!) is that people wouldn't be telling me their problems if they didn't want my take. Anyway, that is just to say that I pay a bit more attention to general Facebook-meme-level advice on this topic than the average bear, and what I gather is that if one finds oneself listening to a loved one talking about a problem they are experiencing, one should first compassionately ask, "Do you want to talk and get it off your chest, or are you looking for advice/counsel?" Both answers are valid! And then you can take it from there.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:27 PM on March 12 [41 favorites]

I think this is a service that friends do, close friends. You don't need to put them on blast or even be terribly specific, just offer a gentle push-back, from the perspective of "this is clearly making you unhappy, and I care that you are unhappy, is there no resolution for you in this?
How much can you take?"

That question might not even have an answer. Or not yet, anyway, but you asking it might cause them to work on figuring it out, asking themselves some harder questions.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:30 PM on March 12 [25 favorites]

I think it's ok to ask "after all these years of hearing about this, I wonder why you stay." Her response may give you a clue as to whether she wants advice re changing the status quo, or not really.

She may not even realize she's given you the impression that she wants out or would be better off out of her marriage.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:36 PM on March 12 [11 favorites]

I just want to nth soren_lorensen's advice.

Ask. A lot of people just like to vent. Maybe they don't even realize they've told you more bad than good!

And then, even if they want advice, never give them advice about them. Just say "when I was in this situation, I did this". That kind of level of advice I've found is both the most gentle, and the most helpful/action oriented.

In this case, I think it would go like "When I am feeling frustrated with my spouse, I just need some space for a few days to get my mood back in shape. That works for me!"

Honestly, they know their situation sucks and they've made a choice for their kids that will make them unhappy for a decade. "I've noticed you're unhappy" probably won't be very helpful, because they "don't have a way out".

So again, ask. "Are you venting or do you want my take?"
posted by bbqturtle at 1:43 PM on March 12 [11 favorites]

"For as long as I've known you, you've been unhappy, and that is almost the entirety of your marriage”

This isn’t even advice. It’s active listening and an observation. This seems well within the bounds of a healthy friendship to me.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:58 PM on March 12 [32 favorites]

To you, the marriage is the source of the unhappiness. To them, it may be something else, being expressed in relationship venting. It's worth noticing that they are unhappy, worth asking if they need support or advice, it's another thing to suggest someone dump their spouse. You are feeling torn because it's a tricky ridge to walk. Good on you for caring about your friend!
posted by freethefeet at 2:17 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

The answer is never. Never offer unsolicited advice, especially about a marriage (unless someone is being abused.)

I guarantee you they know how miserable their situation is. Pointing it out to them will just make them defensive. Listening for all this time without offering advice is providing the best support, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by lyssabee at 2:18 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]

If a close friend of many years had been telling me, for a plural amount of years, that the same thing was consistently making them miserable, they didn't seem like they were working on changing things, and it was coming up often enough for me to be thinking about this in the way that you seem to be, I would speak up.

In fact, I have a less close friend who I've known for a few years, and who has been complaining in a similar way about a different area of their life for 6+ months, and I have considered just saying, "Every time I have seen you for at least the last 6 months, you have griped to a memorable degree about X. Would you like to hear my thoughts about X?" I'm pretty amazed that it's taken you almost the entire life of this person's marriage to think about speaking up.

I feel like when someone complains this intensely and this often about a thing that people frequently offer up advice about, they should expect some kind of response. If they seriously don't want to talk about the thing they are complaining about, they should consider not bringing it up all the damn time.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 2:18 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]

I would want someone to tell me, and have previously benefited from people telling me difficult things about relationships. Sometimes it's really hard to see what's in front of you, or to name it, or to understand how serious it is because you're just too close to it.

Tell them. Other people have given great advice on how to ease into this.
posted by bile and syntax at 2:35 PM on March 12 [7 favorites]

How about this script:

Them: "Complain...complain...complain..."
You: "That's terrible and stressful and has been happening for a long time. How do you plan on addressing the issue?"
Them: "I don't know" or something to that effect
You: "You should consider therapy either by yourself or as a couple"

And then never bring it up again unless they do.
posted by mmascolino at 2:36 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

Recently a friend of mine just said "you've been saying that for ten years. No pressure, but you know, you have." Then he let it go and gave me space to talk about that fact. That was really helpful.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:45 PM on March 12 [35 favorites]

That question might not even have an answer. Or not yet, anyway, but you asking it might cause them to work on figuring it out, asking themselves some harder questions.

I had a good friend who was in a bad relationship. Nothing terrible, just she wasn't right for him and it didn't seem to be set up to be a long term thing yet they were together for a while. Once they had split up (and not before) I was like "Yeah you guys didn't really seem right together" and he was like "Why didn't you say anything?!" Now, granted, it was not my job to say anything, but I think it would have been useful information for him to know that things seemed off, especially if I could have said it without being or sounding judgey. Some people know their own hearts and other people maybe don't? It's really highly variable.

So for me when I am dealing with someone like this, often I feel that the person may not know "Hey from the outside it really looks like this relationship is making you unhappy a lot of the time" but they also don't know "And while I'm happy to be a supportive ear, it seems like you've been really unhappy about the same thing and I'm not sure I've got anything new to bring to the table"

Because for my partner or my sibling, I am an endless well of "Oh man, your boss was a jerk AGAIN, that must have been tough..." but for everyone else, no. And sometimes this is a problem. Meaning they would like me to be there to listen to how their mom STILL sucks or how the supermarket STILL has a crappy parking lot. But, that's not the sort of friend I am. Other people are maybe that sort of friend and that is great.

And in your situation where it seems like your friend may be of your preferred gender and they yours? I'd tread super lightly, because I Have Opinions about sad sack people who loudly complain about their relationships to their gender-perference person and even if neither of you have designs on each other it can go south super quickly if that person's partner makes a thing of it. SO I think it's fine to mention it it's fine to find your own boundaries, and it's also fine to not mention it.
posted by jessamyn at 3:22 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


“Hey, do you happen to be interested in my viewpoint?”

If yes, you know what to do. If no, you know what to do.
posted by MountainDaisy at 3:44 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

I don't think the answer is "never" when it's a close friend, but only you know your relationship with them.

While I was in an unhappy marriage, someone asked me, "Can you live like this for the next 40 years?" That was a real wake-up call for me. It was a turning point. So rather than advice, maybe all you need to do is ask some probing questions.

If part of the issue is that you're getting tired of hearing the same thing over and over with no change, it's ok for you to say that (gently, of course). You know the serenity prayer? Well, it sounds like this friend is neither accepting the situation nor making any real effort to change it. That can be tiring for the listener. Since this is a close friend, they should understand that as well.
posted by orange and yellow at 4:53 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

There is such a gulf of difference between offering advice and taking an interest in her well-being.

You should absolutely feel comfortable describing what you see in your friend. That they seem overwhelmed and not happy. You should show concern about the fact that this is all you've seen in a while. But you should also be open to the idea that maybe you're the safe friend who doesn't turn every cranky petty complaint into a Crisis of the Relationship - causing a distorted view of the situation.

You avoid giving advice because that implies that you have better insight into her life than she does. As her friend, you should trust that she is in a better position to know if it's time to leave or not.

While this may not be true, it is more likely to become true if her unhappiness is reflected back to her than if you minimize her feelings for your own.
posted by politikitty at 5:29 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]

I had a friend, R, in a relationship with a really bad dude. Not dangerous, but completely useless and dependent on her for everything. Plus he drank away a lot of her money. A few years ago, I talked to her about it. I don't remember what I actually said so it's possible that it was totally insensitive or preachy or bossy. She reacted angrily and told me "not every relationship can be romance all the time." I totally backed off and did not talk about her partner much after that, and we were fine as friends.

Last year, another friend of ours, B, was with R. R's situation had deteriorated somewhat. B very gently said "Can I make an observation?" and before she said more R began to cry. B expressed that she thought R deserved a full partnership, a better home, trust, etc. A month later R had left her partner and was doing much better.

My point is, maybe the time is right, maybe it's not. I think sometimes people do need that wakeup call, and if you offer it gently and back off if they react badly, it's ok and probably worth the attempt.
posted by Emmy Rae at 5:33 PM on March 12 [7 favorites]

How you feel about hearing your friend vent but not take any action over the long-term? If you're OK with it, then proceed. However, if you're feeling tired or frustrated, you can set your own boundaries. Setting boundaries is different than giving advice; the former is about saying what you need versus the latter of saying what you think they should do. If you want help setting boundaries and need a script, please let us know.

I think you're a good friend and mindful to ask first. Honestly, it's never gone well when people gave me unsolicited relationship advice nor has it gone well when I've given it. And when it's gotten to the point that either of us feels that way, it usually means the friendship just isn't what either of us wants anymore. Ultimately, you know yourself and your friend best and can choose accordingly. Not saying something doesn't feel right but finding the right thing to say also is hard.
posted by smorgasbord at 5:40 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

My friend has never asked me for advice, but has shared how troubled they are by how poorly their marriage is going.

Use your words, say "Would you like my advice?"

I want to tell them, "For as long as I've known you, you've been unhappy, and that is almost the entirety of your marriage," as a sort of way of supporting them

That's not advice, you aren't advising the person to do anything.

You can say supportive things when people are venting. You don't have to limit yourself to just "mmm, m-hm, oh, go on". It's ok to say something in response to what they said.

Whether your friend will feel supported to hear from you that the are unhappy is not something other people who don't know your friend can tell you.
posted by yohko at 7:55 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

"That sounds awful. Have you thought about making a change?" And then let Friend take that in whatever way it strikes him/her, which might be "get therapy" or might be "get out" or might be something else; it creates an opening for whatever Friend may not have been willing to voice. If Friend asks, "What kind of change?" then you can say, "Well, what would you like to be different?"
posted by lakeroon at 8:19 PM on March 12

I have a friend who is fantastic at making incisive observations without making the other person feel pressured. Perhaps you might take a page from her book and say something like “man, y’all just do not click do you?” the next time she starts venting. Just one sentence that’s pertinent and then totally dropping it. Letting the other person think and process on their own time. If asked a follow up question such as “what do you mean?” Essentially just restate what you said - “Just that - seems like as hard as you try you just don’t click.” No one needs a lecture. If she wants to follow down that path and ask more, you can be prepared for it opening a deeper conversation. But be mostly invested in planting a seed. A single outside observation can really stick in your mind.

Just make sure it’s not judgemental, preachy or attacking.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:52 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of people who stick with marriage because the worry what people will think of them; that they have a "failed marriage" (what a judgemental term!) and this may well be her, especially if you think she is of the "marriage is hard work I must stick to it" school of thought. You may be able to share your advice in a different way, by putting it as an offer of support. "You have been working so hard at this for so long, and it doesn't seem to be getting better. If you ever feel like you want to get out, you know you can count on me to be there for you. I hate seeing you so unhappy. It's amazing how much you've done to keep it together for the kids, but you deserve happiness too, and I'll support you if you need to make some changes to get there." You're not telling her to make a choice, but letting her know that she does have one, and that you'll respect her no matter what.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:29 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the responses so far. I am honestly surprised to hear so many people in favor of telling them what I see!

To clarify a couple of things: my friend and their spouse have seen counselors independently and as a couple. So they’ve worked on things but never really get anywhere. I’d say that 10% of the time, they’re “patching things up” and the rest things are not going well/considering divorce. FWIW, my friend never slags off their spouse to me or rants/vents about their relationship; these things just come up in the course of “How’s work, kids, etc.” So I guess that, given they’ve been going through the fight cycle for a decade now and keep deciding to stay together for the kids, that also drives my reluctance to share my opinion. And that they really don’t vent to me makes me also a bit ambivalent—it’s not that they’re always coming to me complaining or asking for help. Just that they’re always unhappy!

Jessamyn is right that part of my reluctance and desire to tread lightly comes from not wanting to tell someone (of the preferred sex) what to do with their marriage/relationship, and why I feel so ambivalent about sharing my perspective (even though, again, I have no interest in this person (not them in me) and I am quite happily married myself).
posted by stillmoving at 1:54 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

"May I offer what I see happening?"

"I have some thoughts and feelings about what you're saying, but they're specific to me - do you want to know them?"

and then, if they say yes,

"This is just from my limited perspective, and may not address the whole situation, but this is what I think..."
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:38 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Another tack, if it's natural for your relationship, would be to let them know that they are a great parent, and that if they do split up, you and your spouse would be there for them and would be happy to support them and their kid(s).

(It's key to mention your spouse so it's clear that it's not a come-on.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:57 AM on March 13

I’m absolutely with jessamyn about the wisdom of “treading super lightly” around “sad sack people who loudly complain about their relationships to their gender-preference person.” These folks tend not to have the qualities of loyalty and good faith dealing that I personally require in a friendship, but I digress.

On these follow-up facts, it sounds like the friend and their spouse have already done all the counseling and have reached some kind of detente. Therefore, I’d change the subject politely whenever the friend tries to speak ill of their spouse with whom they have actively chosen to stay after years of unhappiness, and both joint and individual work in therapy.
posted by edithkeeler at 6:09 AM on March 13

[One deleted. Quick reminder: Ask Mefi isn't for debating or arguing against other answers. Just give your own helpful advice that may be different, and the OP can work out what is most useful for them.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:48 AM on March 13

When I was younger and in a relationship that was not abusive but definitely not going well, but where I didn't have enough experience or perspective so thought that there needed to be something beyond "this isn't working for me anymore" as a reason for me to leave the relationship or that the problems were a result of some personal failing on my part, it was super helpful to have friends say something to me proactively. But the specific method is pretty important, too (suggested guidelines in the next paragraph). In one case, I was a little bit closer with the person-of-romantically-preferred-gender in a couple than with their spouse, but the spouse spoke to me on behalf of the couple. Is your partner close enough to your friend for this to similarly be an option for you?

As general advice which also works with friends who are in abusive relationships: it's generally better to express concern about a specific incident. Eg. "I don't like the way that he yelled at you about the way dinner was cooked." It's also better to observe than to give advice, and to express positive aspirations for your friends rather than critique their current situation. And its important to acknowledge your lack of expertise or use other techniques to keep the friend from shutting down from a defensive reaction. Eg. "You seem to be unhappy with your relationship pretty consistently. Maybe I'm just your sounding board, so am not seeing the whole picture. I think that you deserve a relationship that makes you feel happy and supported more like 90% of the time, though."
posted by eviemath at 7:00 AM on March 13

« Older New York City Legal Recruiter/Headhunter?   |   Password Manager for a Small Remote Team? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments