How to respond when a friend reveals tension in their marriageWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
It usually begins with a simple admission. But that admission changes everything.
One minute you’re exchanging small talk with a friend over coffee. Then, out of the blue, your friend blurts out, "John and I had a horrible fight last night."
Suddenly it’s no longer just idle chit-chat; your friend’s divulging serious stuff about their marriage. They may be reaching for a tissue, or fuming in frustration. And you – how are you feeling at this point?
If you’re like most people, you’re at least a little uncomfortable by now. And not just because you’re upset over your friend’s distress, or feeling awkward about being privy to very personal details. For most of us, if we’re wise, there’s something more. We also feel a weighty sense of caution.
It’s not as if our friend is simply struggling with a mouthy teenager or a difficult boss. Conflict between a married couple is unique because it wounds something God deems sacred: the intimate, covenant relationship the couple entered into with God Himself as witness and third partner. We’re the outsider here, and we certainly don’t want to make a misstep that wounds the marriage even more.
So what should we say – and what should we not say – if we want to help our friend? Here are some guidelines to help.
DON’T rush to offer advice
In a U.S. survey of relationship advice shared between friends, Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, found that many people bungle it when friends turn to them for help. High numbers of confiders reported their friends’ responses were unhelpful, hurtful or even harmful to their marriage.
Concerned about his findings, Doherty and daughter Elizabeth Doherty Thomas established Marital First Responders – a program that helps people avoid common blunders and offer truly constructive help to friends, families and colleagues having marital troubles.1
And the number one blunder confidants make? It seems we’re much too quick to dispense "Dear Abby" advice. "The most common mistake people make is early advice, premature advice or specific advice," says Doherty.2
When a friend confides in us, we can feel pressure to offer wise counsel – to prove our friend’s trust in us was not misplaced – but often that’s not what our friend is after. In fact, our friend may very well resent advice that wasn’t asked for, or the presumption that we immediately have the solution for a painful, complex issue.
Very often, someone troubled by conflict with their spouse just wants to be comforted and encouraged by a neutral third party who will listen to them and pray for them.
We can serve our friend well when we remember we’re not a trained counsellor, and focus instead on doing what friends do best.
DO evaluate risk and appropriateness
As a good friend and confidant, our most pressing responsibility is to triage the situation. That means listening carefully for clues that suggest either they, their spouse or their marriage might be in immediate danger.
In his training sessions, Doherty astutely teaches Marital First Responders to be alert for signs of the triple-A threats:
- abuse (physical, emotional or sexual)
- affairs (including emotional affairs)
In addition, it’s important to watch for:
- the possibility of divorce
- thoughts of suicide.
If you suspect any of these threats, don’t try to support your friend alone: your friend urgently needs professional help.
Remember too that understanding what your friend is thinking is just as important as following the events they’re recounting. Your friend may be in denial, confused or not fully comprehending the seriousness of their situation. Friends help friends find the help they need. And if necessary, friends gently convince friends of their need. So don’t be thrown off guard when your friend downplays their situation with comments like:
- "If I’d had the kids ready on time like I’m supposed to, he wouldn’t have been so mad."
- "I really value her friendship. She helps me understand where my wife’s coming from."
- "I know I overreacted a bit. I just need the wine to relax, that’s all."
Checking for appropriateness
Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for a friend is to put the brakes on what they’re sharing about their husband or wife. (And who hasn’t, at one time or another, slipped up and shared a little too indiscriminately about their spouse?)
It’s a good habit to ask yourself, right up front, Does my friend legitimately need to talk through this frustration – or will I help their marriage even more by halting them from violating their spouse’s trust?
In their book, Yes, Your Marriage Can Be Saved, Joe and Michelle Williams warn that highly personal information about a spouse should not be divulged to friends without first obtaining the spouse's permission. In particular, they warn against sharing about:
- sexual problems
- private struggles your spouse has told you in confidence or that only the two of you know about (except for abuse or other illegal activities, of course)
- childhood trauma or abuse that your spouse has not shared publicly
- past sins that your spouse has confessed and repented of
- your spouse’s fears and vulnerable areas such as: fear of rejection, fear of failure, secret thoughts, etc.
- anything your spouse has shared in detail during a counselling session
- negative comments about someone else – especially another family member – that your spouse may have told you in private.
DON’T take sides
Counsellors are trained to remain objective when hearing complaints from one spouse against the other. But for us – a sympathetic friend without the benefit of similar training – staying neutral in the face of our friend’s or close relative’s distress can be surprisingly difficult. All the same, remaining objective is crucial.
Our role, as a concerned friend, is to support our friend by supporting their marriage. It’s not our role to figure out who is right and who is wrong. We’re only hearing one side of the story, and even then, we’re only hearing what our friend is choosing to reveal.
"In trying to show our friend sympathy, we can easily slide into making negative comments about their spouse and to start taking sides," warns Wendy Kittlitz, senior counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada. "We might say things like, ‘How could he say that? What a jerk!’ Instead of being helpful, we’re adding fuel to our friend’s negative feelings about their spouse, and we can do a lot of damage."
Within families, the instinctive urge to console and protect a wounded daughter, son, sister or brother by siding against the "in-law" is especially strong. Leaving one spouse feeling alienated and maligned, however, just throws one more tricky hurdle in a couple’s path to reconciliation. Remember too that even the "supported" spouse will very likely feel insulted by negative attitudes toward their partner. This comment from a friend is telling:
"It’s been years since my divorce, but my mom is still bad-talking my ex. And it still hurts, because on some level, she’s criticizing my choice of the person I married, and the father of my children."
When Jesus said, "[W]hat God has joined together, let no one separate," He made no exemptions for close family.
DO offer empathy
Offering empathy is a powerful way to help a friend without diminishing their marriage.
"When we rehearse grievances about our spouse with another person, it often makes those grievances grow in our mind," says Kittlitz. "A good friend doesn’t inflame those grievances, but calms the situation down, and a good way to do that is by showing empathy."
To show constructive empathy, focus the discussion on your hurting friend’s feelings – not on their spouse or their spouse’s offense. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction if you use the words "I" and "you" a lot. You can say things like:
- "I’m sorry you have to go through something so painful."
- "I’m guessing you’re really confused right now."
- "It sounds like you’re extremely hurt and disappointed. I would be too."
Listen for softer feelings hidden under intense feelings like anger, says Doherty. "Almost always underneath those hard feelings are the softer feelings, like I feel sad, I feel hurt, I feel insecure. People often lead with the hard, protective feelings, but the softer, more vulnerable feelings are often a pathway towards understanding and healing."3
When hurts have been acknowledged and validated, calmer feelings usually follow. And with calmer feelings comes greater clarity – often including the realization that both spouses contributed to the problem.
PERHAPS offer perspective
Often a good friend and confidant who knows the couple well can speak life and hope into the situation by offering a more balanced perspective.
In contrast to giving advice, offering perspective is not directive (i.e. pushy). It’s a much more sensitive approach that waits to ensure the hurting friend feels heard and understood before gently suggesting alternative (and more positive) ways of looking at the situation.
Here are some examples of how you might halt a friend’s runaway train of negative thoughts regarding
- their spouse’s motives or character:
- "I’m not certain he intentionally set out to hurt you by doing that. What do you think?"
- "John’s a pretty complex guy. Can you imagine hidden stresses and fears that might have prompted him to say that?"
- "I hear you when you say John doesn’t handle money well – you would know much more about that than I – but there are other things about John you can be proud of. I’ve always admired how much time he devotes to you and the kids. He’s a real family man."
- issues they may not realize are common to many couples and usually temporary:
- "I’ve heard a lot of other couples say the same thing: Having little kids leaves little time or energy for a great sex life. But it does get better."
- "I think middle-age crisis really is legit. I know several couples who hit a real rough patch. But the feelings of dissatisfaction do settle down again – and many people say the second half of life is the most satisfying."
When you next find yourself sitting across the table from a distraught friend, you may feel that you have little to offer, other than empathy. But don’t underestimate the value, to your friend, of feeling heard and understood, and of knowing they have a trusted friend who cares about them – and who also cares about their marriage.
1. For more information on Marital First Responders, including a workshop available online for a very modest fee, visit Maritalfirstresponders.com.
2. Quote taken from Marital First Responders audio workshop available online at Maritalfirstresponders.com.
Referrals to websites not produced by Focus on the Family Canada do not necessarily constitute blanket endorsement of the sites' content.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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