Don’t Confuse Interference with Love

A reader emails 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 him. Is it my place to do this? If I don’t speak up, who will?”

Dear reader, here are some words to live by: Never volunteer an opinion about another’s choice of romantic partner. 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 that’s rare), stay out!

Though it’s obvious to you that she’s not happy, apparently she’s still getting something out of the relationship. You don’t know what that is, and it might not make sense, but to her it does. And until or unless she’s ready to say, “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 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 somebody to gently pat you on the back and say, “There, there, I’m here for you if you need me.” I’d feel insulted, patronized — anything but supported.

To support someone assumes that the help was requested. Of course, you shouldn’t be a phony by pretending to approve of something with which you don’t agree. And you don’t have to. All you have to approve of is the fact that she’s still happy enough to stay married. You say you’re convinced that she’s giving cues that she’s not happy, so I’m going to give your perceptive skills the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re right. But I’m still not changing my position. Until she states that “I’m unhappy and I want to do something about it,” you don’t have the green light to offer help.

I maintain 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 her options. Just be there for her. Any more will damage your friendship.

People make this mistake all the time. They feel 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. Fight this feeling! You can generally encourage her to not sacrifice her happiness for anybody by being a good example yourself.

I’m a fan of Star Trek. The stories reveal a lot of truth about human nature and human dilemmas. If you’ve 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, some of the best episodes were based squarely on the principle’s violation. But The Prime Directive applies equally to our everyday existence here on this planet. Just because you think you know what’s better for somebody doesn’t mean you should tell them what to do. Staying out is actually the more caring thing, because it respects the fact that your friend has a mind of her own.

You can support her in a life decision without explicitly endorsing a choice. You can love her, but you don’t have to live her life for her. Love and care are not excuses for being presumptuous and controlling.



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