We Need Friends
Our friends are our lifelines. We rely on them for so many things: to tell us the truth, to console us, to laugh with us, and to help navigate life and figure out everything that was in the manual that everyone else seems to have gotten.
Friendship is powerful.
On the other hand, no one person can substitute for our own responsibility to determine what is best for us. The problem is when we start soliciting so much feedback that it drowns out our inner voice or maybe feeds the fearful part of us that might be better off starving.
An example: a woman turns to her girlfriends to vent that her husband forgot their anniversary. Of course they all jump in and validate her feelings, tell her how awful it is, and maybe even chime in with their own stories. This can be a great thing if she felt alone and unloved, because now she feels just the opposite. But what if they tell her all about their elaborate anniversary gifts or trips or gestures. What if they join in and criticize this woman’s partner, leading her to feel not validated but embarrassed, jealous, and even more certain she is unloved?
Sometimes the best of intentions can backfire.
The real problem here is not that she needed to vent, or that they piled on the criticism, or even the husband who dropped the ball. The real problem is that nobody in any of these conversations is helping this couple get to a better place. Through no fault of anyone’s, really, our culture is not always set up to incubate and support relationships through their growth stages.
And so we miss opportunities.
It’s Not All Bad
There are plenty of other opportunities. And for the most part, friends can be an amazing, lifesaving resource that can enrich every part of our lives. But maybe it would be a good thing to keep an eye out for those not-so-helpful things friends sometimes say. Here are seven, but add your own!
1. Men are jerks. (Or some version of that.) Why it can be bad: besides simplifying half of humanity down into one insult, it might actually stifle your optimism that things can get better because, if they’re just jerks, there is no hope.
2. I would never put up with that. Ouch. This might contain a nugget of helpfulness in pointing out that there is hope, but it insults the hurting person and might make them feel inferior. Insult to injury, anyone?
3. You should __________ (insert advice here.) What’s wrong with advice? Maybe nothing. It could be helpful. But sometimes when a complaint is met with advice, it makes the person feel worse, as if they should be smarter. It also misses the point of a lot of venting, which is just to get somebody to hear your pain.
4. Eeeew. ! Yes, I hear this sometimes. A woman tells her friend something painful, and she judges it twice as hard as the person venting. This one is too obvious. It just hurts to have someone look at your life and say eeew.
5. I heard so and so is going to counseling! There must be trouble. Uh, no. Actually couples counseling is a sign that this particular couple has hope, courage, resourcefulness, optimism and commitment. If I had a dollar for every couple that divorced without ever going to counseling, and another for every unhappy couple who stayed together without getting help, I would be so rich I’d have a valet and a lady’s maid, a cook and a driver.
6. Marriage is work. Well, duh. But what does that even mean? What work am I doing here? This is not specific enough to help, but it’s just enough wisdom to make you feel like your suffering is doing some good.
I think, on balance, friends are way more helpful than hurtful when it comes to nurturing relationships. But like anything else, it pays to be mindful of what you put into your brain. In fact, why don’t we take this list and make it 6 things you can say to help a friend going through relationship problems.
A Better Idea:
1. Instead of “Men are jerks” — how about “That is awful!”
2. Instead of “I would never put up with that,” — how about “I can see why that would bother you so much.”
3. Instead of giving advice, (unless she’s specifically asked for it,) give validation. “That would bother me too!” Or, after you sympathize, if you are just dying to give some helpful advice, ask first if she wants to hear it.
4. Instead of “eeew” — just anything else, at all, would be good.
5. Instead of gossiping about people who’ve had trouble, point out that you or someone you know found counseling to be a helpful way to improve a relationship.
6. Instead of “marriage is work,” how about “I know how hard it can be to work through this kind of thing.”
This is NOT to say that everyone needs to have something great to say all of the time. It’s just that listening and supporting can often be much more helpful than anything else.
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Springfield, Illinois. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. She doesn’t know what she would do without her girlfriends (and sisters!).