You want what’s best for your buddy. You can see that his marriage is making him sad, scared, and tense, all things that he’s never been before. And you love him, so you figure that the best way to help is to say what’s apparent. “You need to get a divorce.”
There’s only one thing you should know: this is a dumb idea.
“You can’t,” says Dr. Robyn Landow, a psychologist in New York City. Your advice might be spot-on, but it won’t be heard. For one, you’re not giving him a revelation – he’s aware of his life. Telling him something he knows and telling him what to do doesn’t make him want to do it. That approach has never made anyone want to listen.
Your directness also doesn’t start a conversation. Instead, it starts an argument. Rather than say, “You’re right,” he’ll play defense, trying to prove how you don’t understand anything about his situation, says Silvia Dutchevici, a licensed clinical social worker and president of Critical Therapy Center.
The other problem is the intrinsic nature of anything blunt. It’s good for clear-cutting, not so much for detail work. And one truism of relationships is no matter how obvious anything seems, it’s impossible to know what happens between two people, Landow says. Along with being premature and simplistic, your six-word advice is dangerous to you. There’s a good chance that they won’t divorce, but you’ll forever be the guy who unequivocally said that they should. His wife won’t forget and the relationship with your buddy is forever tainted.
Plus, it’s his marriage. “Divorce changes the whole architecture of his life,” says Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. There are plenty of reasons why he’s rightfully hesitant. He doesn’t want to be single. The situation is bad, but it’s the situation he knows. Divorce isn’t cheap. And everything intensifies when children are involved. Landow says that in her 25 years as a therapist, she’s seen that men will put up with horrendous treatment “because the thought of not kissing their kids’ foreheads every night is unbearable.”
With all this weight, your words won’t move him. It’s his life, so he has to come to the own the idea. But this is where there is space for you. As a friend, ask open-ended questions to help him figure out what’s worth more, staying or leaving. A good beginning is, “What have you tried so far to improve the situation?” He might not have advocated for himself or explained what he needs in clearer terms. He might not have even considered those things – remember, nothing is obvious – and if the conversation ends right there, you shifting his mindset is huge, Landow says.
You can also ask, “What makes you angry?” and “What do you feel is missing?” He gets to explore and dig, and you can repeat back his words so he hears how it sounds, says Albers, adding one more, “What was your parents’ relationship like?” You’ll hear the expectations and standard he’s operating under, and maybe his wife who doesn’t make him feel like a priority sets off memories of his distant mother. In all, he gets to name the things that are actually at play, she says.
And you also get information. You see how clear he is, and if he hasn’t exhausted all possibilities, the original, “You need to get a divorce,” really does come off as misplaced, Landow says.
But while questions are helpful, the first rule of supporting anyone remains the same. Just listen. If you don’t know what to say, “I don’t know what to say right now” is plenty. You’re not trying to fix anything. You’re not taking over the stage, and you’re not talking from your own bias of, “this is what I did or should have done”, which has little use for your friend. You’re just being there in the problem with him, Dutchevici says.
And after you do all of this, if you feel it’s right, ask, “What would hurt less, staying or leaving?” It’s much better than, “What would make you happy?”, because there is no happy for him. But your question relives some stress and gives him a more reachable goal. “It’s hard to know what happiness looks like,” Dutchevici says. “But pain is simple, because it hurts. It’s more concrete and tangible. ‘I can make this better right now. I don’t have to search for it.’”
This doesn’t guarantee any realization is coming from your friend, and it certainly won’t be quick if it happens at all. But you’ve put in the time, and if his marriage remains awful, you have credibility when you now say, “I can see you’re still unhappy. Is divorce an option that’s in your best interest?” Landow says. Your intent was always there, but the tweaked delivery has a better chance of getting through. “You can help fix it,” she says. “It just takes longer than barking out one sentence.”
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