Loving and caring are not excuses to interfere


I received an email from a Wave reader who tells me that her best friend is unhappy in her marriage. She writes, ‘It really pains me to see her this way. I think she’s sort of looking for someone to tell her to leave. Is it my place to do this? I’m her best friend. If I don’t speak up, who will?’

The old saying that one should ‘never discuss religion or politics’ is probably a good guiding principle, but to me it’s not an absolute. I believe that there is one truly absolute rule: Never volunteer an opinion about another’s choice of romantic partner or spouse. It doesn’t matter if you’re right. It doesn’t matter how much you care. It doesn’t matter that a wrong marital choice is about the biggest mistake one can make. Unless asked (and it’s rare, if ever, that you will be), stay out!

Though it’s obvious to you that she’s not happy, apparently she’s still getting something out of this relationship. Neither you nor I know what it is, and it might not make any sense, but to her it’s important. And until or unless she’s ready to tell you, ‘I’m unhappy. I’m getting out of this marriage,’ you’re not in a position to support her in making that decision.

Think about how you would feel if someone offered you emotional support for something you didn’t see as a problem. Let’s say you’re really happy about a new promotion, or a new business you’re starting. Do you really want a friend to gently pat you on the back and say, ‘There, there, I’m here for you if you need me.’ I don’t know about you, but I’d feel insulted, patronized—anything but supported.

To support someone is to assume that the help was requested. At the same time, you shouldn’t be a phony by pretending to approve of something that you don’t support. And, in reality, you don’t have to. All you have to approve of is the fact that she’s still happy ENOUGH to stay married to this man. I know you’re convinced that she’s giving you cues that she’s not happy, and I’m going to give your perceptive skills a vote of confidence and assume you’re right. But I’m still not changing my position. Why? Because your friend has not yet stated to you that, ‘I’m unhappy and I want to do something about it.’ Once she does, you have the green light to offer your help or ask more probing questions. You can’t make the light turn green for her. As I’m always saying here and in my books, we’re all in the driver’s seats of our own lives.

It’s my considered opinion that major life decisions should not be advised. In the absence of outright physical abuse, you can’t tell your friend to do something as huge as leaving her husband. The most you can do is to ask her if she’s happy and encourage her to consider all her options. Just be there for her. To attempt more will do nothing but damage your friendship.

We can’t live others’ lives for them. People are independent entities, each with an individual mind that can be used with reason or misused without reason—but remains individual nonetheless.

I see people make this mistake all the time. They feel like they should DO something; that if they care, they should somehow fix things. In the abstract, they usually understand that they can’t “fix” someone else’s problems, but they still feel the need to try. I think this is part of what you’re feeling right now. I advise you to fight this feeling. You can encourage her, in a general way, not to sacrifice her happiness for anybody. Provide a role model by being this way yourself.

I’m a big fan of Star Trek. The stories often reveal a lot of truth about human nature and human dilemmas. If you have seen the show, you know that these humans of the future are bound by a standard of non-intervention called ‘The Prime Directive.’ According to this principle, it’s wrong to interfere in the lives of other species on other planets, even if you possess knowledge or technology that could help them. Of course, the principle wasn’t always followed, which made for some interesting episodes, but my point is that The Prime Directive applies equally to our everyday existence here on Earth. Just because you think you know what’s better for somebody, doesn’t mean you should tell them what to do. It’s best, quite frankly, to stay out. It’s actually the more caring thing to do, because it respects the fact that your dear friend has a mind of her own.

You can support someone in a life decision without explicitly endorsing a particular choice. You can love your friends, but you don’t have to live their lives for them. Loving and caring are not excuses—or reasons—for being presumptuous and controlling.