Dear Dr. Chani,
When I get together with one of my married friends and her husband, it is very uncomfortable for me. It is obvious to me that they have marital issues. Her husband will make jokes about her and criticize her opinions in public. I never thought of my friend as an insecure person, but she seems to shrink back whenever he does this. She does not defend herself, as I would have expected. Instead, she blushes and changes the topic. My friend is a very sociable and upbeat person, so she covers very well for her husband’s faux pas. My husband and I try to pretend we do not notice what is going on to avoid getting involved in their issues.
I am wondering if I should say something to my friend about what I noticed. Would it help her if I opened the door for her to talk about this? We have a pretty open relationship but we have never spoken about our marriages. I am actually afraid to know what else might be going on behind the scenes.
Maybe I could suggest that she go for couples therapy? Is it appropriate for me to bring it up to her? If so, how could I recommend that she get help without invading her privacy or making her feel ashamed?
Thanks in advance,
A Concerned Friend
Dear A Concerned Friend,
Your care and sensitivity for your friend are very admirable. You have been able to pick up on her feelings of shame and discomfort when her husband disparages her in public, yet you have not brought the issue out into the open with her to avoid causing her further embarrassment. You feel you should take some sort of action to help her, but you are not sure what would be best for her and how to go about it.
You are wondering how to approach a discussion with her about her relationship with her husband and about getting help. This might depend on your relationship with your friend in general. There are different types of friendships and levels of friendships. Sometimes, friends share a lot with each other, yet do not share their vulnerabilities. In other friendships, the friends have deep discussions and also talk about personal, sensitive issues. If you do not talk about more private issues overall, it might be hard for you to bring up this topic.
When you describe that you have a “pretty open relationship.” What does that mean? You mention that you have not discussed your marriages in the past. If you have not talked about your spousal relationship, have you discussed other delicate, private topics? Reflect on your relationship and think about if you have ever shared a vulnerable topic such as difficulties related to your job, health, or family dynamics. If you have previously talked about these kinds of topics, then it might make sense for you to bring up this sensitive subject. On the other hand, if you feel close to your friend, but you have never discussed vulnerable and confidential topics, it may be safer to wait and see if she wants to discuss her marriage with you.
In either situation, you might consider having a soft startup conversation. You can use a gentle, soft conversation starter that will allow her to feel comfortable sharing more, but also allow her to take the conversation in a different direction, instead. A soft start conversation focuses on one specific example, not the whole problem. It also downplays your statement by describing what you observed matter-of-factly instead of sharing your overarching judgment of her marriage. Think of a specific occurrence and matter-of-factly tell her that you felt a bit uncomfortable with what was going on. As you do so, you can use a “not-a-big-deal” tone of voice and gently tell her that you felt for her.
Your conversation might go something like this: “I noticed that you seemed to be in the hot seat a bit when you and your husband were over recently. I felt a little bad for you. What did you feel about it?” The gentle, matter-of-fact, slight mention can be enough to let her take the opening and elaborate, or decide to demur.
A soft-start conversation fits either type of friendship. If you do not usually talk about personal things, a casual starter can be enough of a gentle way to tread on thin ice. Even if you feel that your relationship is ready to discuss vulnerabilities, a small, soft start can be the ideal introduction to the conversation.
Remember that your goal is not to gossip with your friend or to encourage her to spill her guts to you. The purpose of the conversation is not even for your friend to respond to your statements altogether. The three objectives in having this conversation are: to crystallize what you saw for your friend (in case she did not see it clearly from her own vantage point), to encourage her to seek help, and to know that she has you as a listening ear in case she would like to talk.
The most important goal is to motivate your friend to pursue a way to help herself and her husband. She does not necessarily need to discuss it with you or bring it up further. Keep in mind that she may have her own perspective on it that she does not want to share or that she is already seeing a therapist. It is true that you never really know what is happening behind closed doors. Therefore, it is important to realize that your conversation is not necessarily to promote her sharing with you but to help her see the situation that she is in more clearly and serve as a catalyst for them to get help in their relationship.
The combination of being aware that their behavior is noticed by others together with your conveying your sincere concern might encourage her to take charge of her situation and pursue the help she needs. Depending on the direction in which it goes, this soft start can open the door to further conversations that might include you recommending she pursue couples therapy.
Wishing you much success,