Family and Relationship
Are your Friends The reason Your Marriage sucks?
“Friends come to us asking, ‘What are you doing that’s allowed you to stay together for 20 years?’” says one man, explaining why he and his wife signed up for this five-hour Marital First Responders course, designed to teach people to help friends with relationship troubles.
A woman volunteers that she’s divorced, wiser for it, and wants to keep others from making the same mistakes. A few confess they find it stressful to serve as veritable relationship hotlines. “I have a girlfriend who’s been saying ‘I’m done with him’ for seven years,” one woman groans. “I get texts from her at night saying, ‘I feel hollow,’ when I’m trying to sleep!”
The leader of the workshop, held in a hotel conference room in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is the mild-mannered Bill Doherty, a gray-haired, bespectacled professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
A staunch believer that all but the most miserable marriages can be saved, he made waves in the early 2000s by claiming that the prevailing “marriage neutral” stance among his fellow therapists was causing couples who could actually be happy together to split.
This latest project grew out of his frustration with the limited impact of his profession, even at its best. “Many people are reluctant to see a therapist, or by the time they do, it’s really late,” Doherty says.
His brainstorm: Teach civilians—friends and coworkers who are already hearing relationship gripes—to handle them more like he would. Though some therapists applaud Doherty’s efforts—so far he’s trained 125 people through the classes and hopes to scale up with an online version and offerings nationwide—others worry his friends corps might do more harm than good. With such minimal training, people won’t know how to navigate land mines such as triangulation (someone uses a friend to gang up on her partner) or transference (a friend redirects feelings she has about her partner to the advice giver), says Jamie Turndorf, PhD, author of Kiss Your Fights Good-bye.
Adds Laura Dabney, MD, a psychiatrist at Eastern Virginia Medical School, friends usually lack the objectivity to be effective: “It’s like asking a member of the Celtics to referee a game between the Celtics and the Lakers.”
But Doherty insists Marital First Responders aren’t mini shrinks. In fact, he recommends that they point friends toward professionals when they spot issues beyond their expertise, such as addiction or abuse, or when they repeatedly hear the same trouble from someone. “To say that everyone with a marital problem should go to a therapist is self-serving and naive,” Doherty says. “It just won’t happen.”
At the workshop, Doherty lays out a taxonomy of friends’ reactions to relationship complaints: The “What a Jerk–er!” slams the partner; the “Pollyanna” rushes to reassure; the “Distractor” segues into soliloquies about her own man/woman woes; and the “Wimp” lets confidantes blab on when they need to be jarred out of their rut. But probably the most common type is what Doherty calls “Mr./Ms. Fixit.” “Of course you have opinions about how the relationship should go, but if you go charging in with advice, you’re bound to get ‘Yes, but I tried that,’ “ he says. “As soon as you hear ‘Yes, but,’ you know you’ve gone too fast.”
What first responders should do instead, Doherty says, is listen—not for dirt (“He got a secret credit card?!”) but for feelings. People often lead with “hard feelings,” such as anger, and while it’s fine to let the fury fly for a while, the ultimate goal is get to the underlying “soft feelings,” such as sadness or insecurity, which open the way for more productive conversation.
If a breakup seems imminent, Doherty advises MFRs to pull out heavier artillery: a challenge to wake friends up to something they’re not seeing, such as their own role in the disharmony or that the hurdle may be surmountable rather than a fatal relationship flaw. If the issue is serious—involving, say, abuse, addiction, or an affair—challenges are best couched as concerns (“I’m afraid for your safety”) and should include a suggestion regarding resources (“How about visiting an AA meeting or seeing a therapist?”), he says. “I do believe there are circumstances where divorce is the only thing to do,” Doherty goes on. “But in my mind, there’s some tragedy in that. This is not how people started out, not what they dreamed of. Plus, the fallout from divorce is high risk, financially and emotionally. It’s a Marital First Responder’s job to urge people to slow down.”
While Doherty’s rationale is eloquent, I’m not entirely convinced. Isn’t it my duty to preserve not my friends’ marriages but my friends, as individuals? If my husband were acting like a jerk, I’d want my friends to say so, rather than tick off his lovely attributes. Or if I were with a guy who couldn’t fulfill an important need of mine, I’d want my friends to give me the clarity and strength to take a chance on a better life, alone, rather than urge me to stand by my man—hey, he’s not hitting you or addicted to heroin! Nonetheless, by the time our session with Doherty is up, I’m second-guessing everything I’ve ever said to my friends about their significant others—and curious to road test what I’ve learned.
My first chance is with a friend I’ll call Laura*, who, a week earlier, had informed me she was going to kick her husband out. After quitting his job as a computer programmer, he hadn’t worked in five years, yet he still felt entitled to run up their credit card on rock concerts and road trips. I’d tsk-tsked through her tirade, then agreed her husband was deadweight. But now I realize I’d been a “What a Jerk–er!” when perhaps the story wasn’t so black and white. The next time I meet Laura for a drink, I try a different tactic: “Do you mind if I say something that might be hard to hear?” I ask. (Doherty calls this “asking permission”: Rather than criticizing a friend out of the blue, get her blessing first.)
Laura takes the bait, so I continue. “I think things with your husband have got to be more complicated than what I’ve been hearing.” Doherty says this line can be applied to just about any marital dispute because it’s true: You’re only getting one side. A gentle way to introduce the partner’s perspective is with “I wonder,” so that’s what I say now. “I wonder what your husband would’ve said if he heard us talking last week?”
To my surprise, Laura doesn’t bristle at all. “What would he say if he were here?” she says. “He’d say, ‘I contribute a ton around the house: the laundry, the grocery shopping, the cooking, errands.’ Which is all true.” As she rambles on about his stellar qualities, I realize it feels good to ditch the husband bashing—the horror stories may be fun to hear, but they foment bitterness.
Sometimes it takes a crisis for someone to rally—which, it turns out, hits soon after we talk: Laura is laid off. The silver lining? Her husband, in a panic, sends out a flurry of résumés that, a month later, land him a full-time position. Laura sounds chastened when we next talk. “I was cocky. Even if he hadn’t done this total turnaround, I doubt I’d be so gung-ho to kick him out now. When everything around you falls apart, marriage means you at least have someone on your side.”
Next up: Danielle*. “My husband and I haven’t had sex since, hmm….” She taps her nails on the table as if typing on a calculator. “Memorial Day 2012.” She pauses. “I think he no longer finds me attractive.”
Of course he still lusts for you! You look great, I want to say, going Pollyanna. Instead I listen to Danielle elaborate on how her husband blows it off as no big deal when she tries to talk about their sex life. Her friends, who insist he must be cheating or gay, have urged her to divorce, as has her therapist after a few sessions seeing the couple together. “If you were in my situation what would you do?” Danielle asks. “Stay or go?”
The question sets off alarm bells. “If someone asks ‘What would you do?’ it’s a trap,” Doherty had cautioned. Because you assume the role of “Ms. Fix-It,” offering an obvious solution that will elicit a “Yes, but…” So I give the only reply that Doherty claimed would work for What should I do? “I don’t know,” I say. It sounds lame, but as Danielle relaxes in her chair, I realize that by admitting I’m just as perplexed as my friend, I affirm her problem has no easy answer.
Still, though: Isn’t lack of sex a deal breaker? Not to Doherty: “I’m not saying it’s not painful, but you can live without sex.” Forever? I’m all for remaining optimistic, but telling Danielle to hang in there feels ridiculous. To which Doherty replies, “The issue is hardly ever lack of sex, but the spouse’s uncaring attitude in giving it up without seeking help. A thought experiment: If one’s spouse has an injury and can’t have sex, most of us would not see this as grounds for divorce. So the issue is that your friend’s husband has abandoned her sexually and emotionally. This can be a reason to divorce if after getting help to challenge the husband about what’s going on, nothing changes. But in sum, this problem is deeper than having no interest in sex.”
A month later, I e-mail Danielle to check in. She’s going to therapy herself, in part to learn how to communicate better with her husband, but so far it’s status quo: no sex. “I really don’t know what to do,” she says.
My reply: Neither do I.
Before my training with Doherty, my friend Mary Ellen* had come by to complain that her live-in boyfriend wasn’t giving her enough attention (or sex) and that she’d considered having an affair. We continued our conversation at a bar, where soon she ended up perched on a guy’s lap. “He’ll give me a ride home,” she purred with a sloshed smile.
Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, so I was glad she had a ride. But do friends let friends cheat? Given that Mary Ellen had spent the first half of the night expounding on her boyfriend’s shortcomings, it felt insensitive to wag a finger in her face. But according to Doherty, that made me a “Wimp”: “When infidelity enters the picture, you don’t have to judge, but you also don’t have to say, ‘Cool, he’s hot!’” One tactic is to say, I’m worried about you, but I’m cringing as I pick up the phone to deliver this message to Mary Ellen. “Seeing you sit on that guy’s lap last weekend worried me. I just don’t want you to put yourself in a position you might regret,” I venture.
Mary Ellen insists all she’d gotten that night was a lift home—that’s it. But a few weeks later I find out she appreciated my concern. “It made me think,” she says. “I was at a conference and attracted the attention of someone there. I enjoyed it, but didn’t flirt. My guard was up.”
After a month as a Marital First Responder, I can’t say I’ve improved my friends’ relationships much. At best, I’ve supported choices they would have made without me. “It’s not about ‘impact’ in the sense of changing the relationship,” Doherty says. “A lot of help takes the form of helping people feel better about the direction they’re already taking”—and yes, he concedes, if a friend is dead set on divorce, it’s not your place to tell her otherwise.
There has been one surprising upside: My friendships have flourished. By asking, “Hey, how are things between you two?” and then really listening, I discovered things about my friends I never would have otherwise. And while it felt risky to point out that they might be adding to their own misery, when they were willing to hear me out, I felt closer to them—and bolstered by the realization of how sturdy our friendships were.
“This is beautiful,” Doherty says. “It’s emotional intimacy, something that doesn’t occur readily when we create unnecessary turbulence in conversation, but can happen when we get in flow with our friends and bring our best selves.
“Yes, this is intimacy.”
This article appears in the December 2014 issue of ELLE magazine.