It's only natural to want to help your friend or loved one who is experiencing marital woes. Unfortunately, sometimes we can do more damage than good. It takes a tremendous amount of sensitivity when it comes to helping couples. I have witnessed many bad marriages that have gotten worse due to third-party involvement.
Here are three ways you can be most helpful and save your friend's marriage:
1. Learn how to listen.
While you may think you are a good listener, you may not realize that your well-intentioned attempts to provide unsolicited advice, commiserating, or discounting feelings could leave your friend actually feeling unheard. True listening is focused on the "other" and not yourself. The best thing you can do is to listen to your friend without responding. Try "mirroring" back their feelings by repeating back what they say without interjecting your own opinion. Many times when they hear their words reflected back, they feel relieved, gain greater clarity, and often come up with solutions on their own.
While you can validate their feelings by letting them know they make sense and empathize with them by imagining what emotions they may be experiencing, being there for your friend in his/her moment of pain is the greatest gift that you can give.
2. Don't take sides.
An honest judge can't adjudicate a ruling without hearing and understanding both sides. While you can provide emotional support for your friend, realize that you have only heard one side of the story.
Relationships are a dynamic dance where multiple factors from past and present come to play and create the storm of drama that couples are weathering. As a therapist, I often have one spouse call me to set up the appointment. They sometimes tell me about their reasons for coming for counseling and often present very painful accounts about their relationship. I always know that there are two sides to the story and am never surprised to hear how both equally contribute to the nightmare they are currently experiencing. (Of course, we are not talking about situations of physical abuse. Regardless of provocation, it is unacceptable and unsafe and no excuses should be made for such behavior.)
Many times family members, friends, and other advice-givers get involved and demonize the other spouse. If the couple ever does to decide to work on repairing the relationship, sometimes the damage is too great to bring about repair. The emboldened spouse often can't possibly admit to taking responsibility for their role as their views about the other spouse being the source of all bad in the relationship have been confirmed time and time again. How irresponsible for others who are sought after for advice to judge the other spouse based on a biased account. Relationships are extremely complicated and it takes a mature and broad perspective to understand what is really going on. It is quite easy to get wrapped up in the details of the story and get stuck in a never-ending power struggle where both end up being losers.
3. Refer to a competent professional.
Just as you wouldn't go to your general practitioner, and certainly not a plumber, to perform open-heart surgery, make sure that when saving your friends' marriage you send them to someone that knows what they are doing. As much as you want to help, don't be your friend's therapist. Refer to competent professionals who have advanced training in couple’s therapy and specialize in working with couples. Make sure to get references from people you respect. It is amazing how discerning we are with other service professionals, but with our marriage we will just go to whoever is covered by our insurance plan.
Although you may think a marriage counselor's job is to save your marriage, you may be surprised if they take sides or even encourage divorce. While this is not the norm, it is a strong enough current that must be taken into account when trying to help your friend's relationship. There wouldn’t be marriage-friendly web directories for therapist if this were not an issue. Make sure the counselor will hold the hope for your friend's relationship and help move them forward to healing and reconciliation.
While it takes two willing partners to make a marriage work, a good therapist can help even the most troubled relationships if they are competent and believe in the institution of marriage. This doesn't mean that these therapists believe divorce is forbidden, but their job as a marriage counselor is to help the relationship thrive.
No one likes to see their friend or loved one in pain and it is usually out of a good place that we take action to help be supportive. By learning how to listen, not taking sides, and referring to a competent professional when necessary, you are taking three constructive steps that will help your friend’s marriage instead of perpetuating negativity and conflict.
If your marriage requires more immediate assistance, download your free sample chapters of Rabbi Slatkin’s new book, The Marriage Restoration Project- The Five-Step Action Plan for Saving Your Marriage.