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I contacted an old friend recently to see how he was doing. He told me his wife has recently left him to find her happiness. It has all happened very suddenly and he is very distraught. I reached out and offered my love and support. After a few days, he sent me a barrage of text messages back and forth from him and his wife. Most of it was very personal, probably stuff he shouldn’t be sharing. He even started sharing some evidence he gathered that led him to believe that she may have been unfaithful. He has continued with his messages and asking my advice. He and I were very good friends in our late teens, so I want to be supportive and help. But I don’t feel I have the best answers. I have tried to stay impartial, only providing my support and love without taking any sides because I really don’t know their situation. How do I let him know that he shouldn’t be sharing the more personal stuff with me, asking my advice on his situation (for which I’m not qualified) all while continuing to be supportive? He is getting some therapy, and I keep referring him to their counsel, but yet he still contacts me with his questions. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?
It’s tough to suddenly get thrown into the deep end of a loved one’s pain. Your friend is desperate to make sense of his splintered life. He’s handing you all of the pieces hoping you can help him piece them together. Obviously, you feel worried about your role and whether you’re helping or hurting.
Please recognize that you’re already supporting him more than you realize. Your friend trusts you with what is most likely the darkest moment of his life. Your concern and presence are helping him. It’s normal to feel powerless in the face of overwhelming uncertainty and pain. Because you care, you’re constantly going to wonder if you’re doing enough.
One of my favorite thoughts on supporting someone in pain comes from Henri Nouwen. He says:
“Being with a friend in great pain is not easy. It makes us uncomfortable. We do not know what to do or what to say, and we worry about how to respond to what we hear. Our temptation is to say things that come more out of our own fear than out of our care for the person in pain. Sometimes we say things like ‘Well, you’re doing a lot better than yesterday,’ or ‘You will soon be your old self again,’ or ‘I’m sure you will get over this.’ But often we know that what we’re saying is not true, and our friends know it too. We do not have to play games with each other. We can simply say: ‘I am your friend, I am happy to be with you.’ We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence. Sometimes it is good to say: ‘You don’t have to talk. I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you.’”[i]
Your friend might think he needs your advice. What he’s really looking for is someone who cares. He doesn’t want to be alone in this terrible agony. Even the Savior, who had a perfect knowledge of what he needed to do, still sought comfort from his Father, from angels, and from his apostles during his final earthly hours of agony. Your friend can’t hide from his tragedy, but he doesn’t have to face it alone.
What is difficult for you about the details he’s sharing? Are they too explicit? Do you feel caught in the middle? There is a reason he’s sharing the details with you. Perhaps he can’t face them without the support of a trusted friend. If you can face them with him, perhaps he can stay strong and navigate the difficult reality he has before him. You don’t have to do anything with the details he’s sharing. Just listen and care about him as he sorts out the pieces of his broken life.
When he pushes you for advice, kindly let him know that you’re here for him and will help him talk through his concerns. Don’t get pulled in and feel like you have to direct his life. It’s likely his counselor won’t even be that directive. He can’t outsource those decisions.
Make sure you give yourself plenty of permission to take any necessary breaks so you can stay with your friend for the long haul. Stay open to the fact that you don’t have his wife’s side of the story so you don’t get narrow and certain about what might be happening. Your job is to love them both, not referee this conflict.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey