How to help a friend who is facing marital problems

A clinical psychologist tells you what advice to offer a friend who is facing choppy waters in a marriage, without aggravating his or her woes

woman consoling her friend who is upset

Mamta noticed that lately her friend Tia was not her usual spunky self. What might be troubling her? Should she ask her or not? What if it was something she preferred not to speak about?

Tia seemed particularly troubled one day. Mamta decided to take the lead, and asked, “How have you been feeling lately? I’m concerned because you look lost these days.”

It was almost as if Tia was waiting to be asked. The veil had been lifted and she broke down. “I’m so relieved that you asked,” she replied. “I’ve been feeling so alone. I didn’t want to burden you with my problems, but I want to talk with you about my marriage, if that’s okay with you. Nothing is going fine.”

The risks of asking friends about their marriage problems

Once intimate information is out of the bag, it’s impossible to return to not knowing. You might hear something you don’t want to be privy to.

After sharing personal information there is a chance the friendship may change. You will be required to play dual roles—as friend and as marriage confidant, making you feel overloaded. You may have to pick one. At the same time, you might in fact be able to help significantly.

You will be required to play dual roles—as friend and as marriage confidant, making you feel overloaded

How to help

Note that the list begins with multiple don’ts.  That is so you can follow the rule of ‘Do No Harm’. The last thing you want to do if you are going to intervene would be to make the situation worse.

  • Don’t assume that your help is wanted. Launch the discussion by first asking, as Mamta did with Tia, how your friend feels about discussing the home situation with you.
  • Don’t take sides. You are likely to feel tempted to validate your friend with “You’re right; your spouse is wrong” reassurance. Remember that you know only half the story.
  • Don’t badmouth the spouse. “I never liked him/her and now I see why” can retard the marriage recovery process.
  • Don’t assume your friend is faultless. The way your friend interacts with you may differ from the way he or she does in the marriage. In intimate relationships, many people regress to interacting the way their parents did, or like they did as a child with their parents or siblings.
  • Don’t offer generalisations about personality traits. Avoid saying, “He’s such a selfish person.” Instead of commenting on the person, comment on specific behaviour, e.g., “The frequent criticism does sound like it’s hard on you.  Receiving so much criticism would be demoralising for anyone.”
  • In general, don’t offer solutions, and especially don’t insist that your way is right. “You should...” is unhelpful. Your friend, the person with the problem, knows the most about the many parameters of the problem and therefore is the best judge of what route to take. Exceptions to this last rule are: a] if there is an emergency; for instance, if your friend is endangered by domestic violence [suggest a domestic violence programme for information, assessment and specialised help]; b] towards the end of a discussion, if the person with the problem has come up with no options and you have some ideas that might help.

The last thing you want to do if you are going to intervene would be to make the situation worse

Now, the 'do' guidelines:

  • Ask good questions. Questions can enable your friend to clarify his/her concerns and then eventually to figure out new solutions.
  • Launch your questions with how or what.  These starter words invite more detailed answers than Yes/No starter phrases like Are you, Did you, Will he, Has she… “What was your reaction when he said that?” is far more helpful than “Were you mad?”
  • Digest the answer aloud, briefly, before moving on to the next question. Otherwise your friend is likely to feel on the witness stand. “Yes, I agree that…” can launch your digesting response. “Yes, Tia, I agree that you are quite alone with all your family living so far away. How much is your distance from family that has caused you to feel so alone?”
  • Ask about both his and her concerns.  What’s your concern when you are fighting about the kids? What does he worry about?
  • As the concerns become clear, eventually ask about solution possibilities that would work for both spouses. Beware of rushing too soon to the goal line of finding a fix. First be sure your questions have helped your friend to understand all the factors impacting the situation.
  • The solution to most problems is a better system. “Sounds like a lot of the fighting is about how to get the kids to do what they need to do. What might be a system for building routines so everything’s not always an issue?”
  • Save your suggestions for the end of the discussion, if they’re still needed. Offer them as gentle hypotheses, not sure answers or “shoulds”. E.g., “I wonder if talking over who is in charge of what with the kids might help your evenings run more smoothly? Or if taking a parenting class together might help get you on the same page?”
  • Recognise if the problems include the three ‘A’s. These issues most often lead to divorce. Like broken bones as opposed to cuts and bruises, these marital difficulties usually require professional help:
    1. Alcohol or other addictions,
    2. Affairs, and
    3. Anger that is excessive or abusive, either physically or emotionally.
  • Suggest resources. For instance, find good articles online and share the links with your friend. Maybe suggest a therapist you trust. Or suggest books or websites that teach collaborative marriage communication and conflict resolution skills. With better communication and shared problem solving skills, couples become more able to work out their differences on their own.

Back to Mamta and Tia

Tia looked up at Mamta. “My thoughts and feelings about my marriage had been swirling like a tornado in my head. I felt totally overwhelmed. Now I’m seeing the situation more clearly. I even have at least the beginnings of a plan for moving forward. What a relief. This has been SO helpful. Thank you!”

This was first published in the August 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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