Dear Emuna,

I have a friend (and it’s really a friend, not me!) who is engaging in some self-destructive behavior. It’s not drugs or alcohol or anything illegal or addictive. It’s just behavior that is really not in her best interests or the interests of her husband and children. I have spent years trying to help her – to no avail. I also frequently speak to her husband to try to help him. And I would speak to the kids too if they would let me. It’s just so painful for me to watch this happen. She is just starting to take baby steps towards making some changes but I don’t know how much longer I can hang in there. When is it okay to stop? I don’t want to abandon a friend in need.

Loyal Friend

Dear Loyal,

Are you a professional therapist? I’m guessing not and my answer is one you may not appreciate. From my perspective (necessarily limited by the paucity of details in your letter) you should have stopped long ago. Perhaps you should never even have started. There is a BIG difference between being there to listen to your friend’s problem and thinking you can solve it. There is also a BIG difference between one or two long, involved conversations at a time of crisis and the ongoing involvement you describe.

You need to get out of their marriage. Unfortunately, while meaning well, your interventions may actually cause more harm than good. Like the triangulated child who serves as the repository for the parents’ emotions and thoughts and keeps them from interacting with each other, you are permitting your two friends not to communicate. You are acting as the intermediary and doing the communicating for them. This is not helpful.

They need to speak to each other. They need to voice their pain, their concerns, their struggles, their challenges to each other, probably in the safe environment of a competent therapist’s office. But wherever they choose to do it, you cannot be in the middle. They will never grow or come together this way.

Pull back. You’re permitting your two friends not to communicate and that is not helpful.

I know that your motivations were good. I know that your pain is real. But it’s not enough. We need to know our roles and our limitations and I think you have overstepped yours. Pull back. Stop listening to the complaints (even the listening sometimes reinforces them) and encourage them to talk to each other. They may not. They may not be able to fix it. But you can’t fix it for them. Your constant intervention is only dragging out the problem. Tell both of them that you care very much but that they need something more than you can offer and be firm that you will no longer be available to hear their kvetching (I’m not minimizing it; I know the issues are real).

Once you do that (which I’m sure will be difficult for you), my guess is that you have some of your own work to do. Sometimes getting involved in other people’s problems is a way of avoiding our own, of convincing ourselves we are too busy to turn the focus inward. Think about that. At the very least, all that energy that you are investing in your friends (for years as you mention) has not gone into your own family – not into your marriage, your children and your personal growth – where it really belongs. I hope that you can pick up the pieces of your own family life that have been neglected by this involvement and put your energy where it truly belongs.

Let me be clear: I am not discouraging anyone from helping others. We are a people known for our compassion and kindness. But sometimes that instinct can be misleading. Sometimes we can put our energies in the wrong place. Sometimes our efforts can be misdirected or not helpful or even, God forbid, damaging. Kindness always needs to be done with serious thought, not just instinctive reaction. What do they really need? What can I really offer?

I wish you success in sorting this out and setting you and your friends on a straighter path. It’s hard, it’s confusing and it will be painful initially. You will feel badly and your friends may be resentful that you pulled back (after all if they wanted to face the issues themselves they wouldn’t have let you play this role for all this time). Ask the Almighty to give you the clarity and the strength to do what must be done. Remember this is something you are doing for them and for you, not against them.