It’s not easy to see your friends go through hard struggles, especially when it comes to such an important relationship like marriage. It’s also not easy to be the confidant, the person they choose to share their marital struggles with. Though I think you should try avoiding involving your friends in the personal details of your marriage, it’s a reality that friends will confide in you and you will confide in them.
I wrote an article awhile ago about what it means to be a confidant to someone, and how we need to take that role seriously. I also wanted to address though, the mistakes we can make in trying to help a friend whose marriage is struggling. So I’m addressing 4 common mistakes and what you can do instead.
4 mistakes we make when a friend’s marriage is struggling
- Rushing to the conclusion that they should leave their spouse, and telling them to do so.
- Feeling like you also need to share something difficult about your own marriage.
- When helpful resources aren’t suggested to them.
- Taking on the stress and burden of fixing their marriage
Mistake 1: Rushing to the conclusion that they should leave their spouse, and telling them to do so.
First of all, It’s not your place to tell them to dissolve their marriage. That is such a loaded thing to tell someone to do! It’s not your place to tell someone their marriage sucks, it’s for them to decide. Plus, you only know so many details about the whole situation… Even if one person behaves poorly, marriage problems are created by two people. So blame cannot just be put on one person.
When the issue in their marriage surrounds serious problems such as cheating and addiction, it’s easy to fall into the notion that because many people leave their spouse over it, your friend should do the same. Each relationship is different and the story could be much more complex than such a finite conclusion. MANY marriages are able to overcome these serious problems with a lot of hard work.
The alternative: Keep the conversation focused on how your friend is feeling, and focus on letting them vent. I think lots of times they just need to vent out how they are feeling, anyways. But doing this will help you avoid sharing your strong opinions, especially ones that pick on or judge their spouse.
Mistake 2: Feeling like you also need to share something difficult about your own marriage.
Sometimes people think that the way to be empathetic is to offer up a difficulty in their own marriage to show that their friend is not alone in the struggles. Your friend was just vulnerable with you, and you feel like you need to be vulnerable back, thinking it will comfort them.
The reason why this is not a good idea is because… it tends to feel like their problem is minimized compared to yours. And then suddenly, it becomes a competition rather than being a comforting friend.
The alternative: A better way to be empathetic is to keep it focused on them. This short video on empathy by Brene Brown is so helpful to be better at giving empathy. You don’t have to give specific details of your own marital struggles but you can say something like, “I know what it’s like to be down on your relationship, or feel that it could use a lot of improvement. You’re not alone.”
If you are drawing a blank on what to say, when in doubt, listen and say, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
Mistake 3: When helpful resources aren’t suggested to them.
We tend to assume we know the right words to say or can give them the right advice. But honestly, unless you’re a trained professional, you’re probably not going to give them the help they actually need.
The alternative: If you feel like it’s appropriate, suggest some credible resources you know that can be helpful for their specific situation. Examples: Suggest they talk with their clergy if they are religious, as they can give some helpful guidance on how to proceed emotionally and spiritually. There are also support groups out there for so many areas: family members of those with addiction, serious illnesses, affairs, etc. Ultimately, when people come to me asking for advice on what to do, I suggest counseling either individually or together.
Mistake 4: Taking on the stress and burden of fixing their marriage
It’s not your job to fix your friend’s marriage. As tough as it may be to watch them, don’t take upon their stress and burdens because it has the potential to leak into your marriage, too.
When you get too close to the situation, it can start to harm your relationship with your friend but primarily with your friend’s spouse. You suddenly look at their spouse differently, and even years later you still associate them with the heartache they caused your friend.
The alternative: Be there for them with boundaries. Offer love and encouragement. And then direct them to a place that is better suited to help them, such as a therapist. (This is why mistake 3 is a big deal!) Therapists by definition are there to help people work through problems. They hold a responsibility to teach their clients skills that will help them learn, understand, and be prepared for the future.
This position of being a confidant for your friend’s struggles is not an easy position to be put in. We want so badly to give them the right answer that will help them feel better, but the reality is we may not know what the right thing to do is. And the other reality is that it the decision is not up to us. All we can do is give our love and support, especially through listening. Do your best in the moment, but I hope that these 4 tips will help prepare you for the next time a friend comes to you for marriage advice!