My friend’s parents split up about a year ago. Her mother is doing great post-breakup, but her dad isn’t — the split was not his choice, and now he’s lost his job, on top of that. My friend is furious at her mother (for breaking up the family, and for abandoning her father) and is in a constant state of distress about her father. She’s an only child and relies heavily on me for support, which I’m happy to provide. But I’m quite sure that my friend needs professional help — I’m not a therapist, I’m just an assistant! She’s in her late 20s, has never been to therapy, and rebuffs my gentle suggestions to do so. I’m afraid she’s going to hold on to this anger for the rest of her life if she doesn’t start to deal with it. How do I help her?
-Under-shrinked and Overthinking
It seems to me that everybody in this scenario is working way too hard to solve other people’s problems.
It’s natural, of course: we see a loved one in distress, and we want to help. We bring lasagnas, lend our ears, offer hugs and what little consolation we can — and none of it is really enough, not even in aggregate, but especially not when one person tries to shoulder the whole burden. Eventually, the person in pain will have to climb out of it themselves, or not. What you describe sounds like a holding pattern that’s keeping your friend and her father — and now, you — circling endlessly without a plan.
That’s fine for a while; pain tends to obscure the view of what’s possible when it’s gone. But it has already been a while. Is your friend looking for ways out of her grief, or is she so consumed by it still that she can’t see an exit? There’s no shame in hurting, even a year in, but if she wants a way out eventually, she’s going to have to look for one.
Right now, it sounds like she’s caught in a web of secondhand hurt and anger that has her held fast. What began as a breakup between two adults — an ordinary event, even when it stings — has evolved into a bitter family battle, compounded by other stray difficulties indiscriminately heaped on hardship. You, too, are getting snarled in this mess, even from the fringes.
The only person who seems to be avoiding this tangle of co-dependence is your friend’s mom — which suggests to me that her choice to pursue a breakup was probably the right one. But her pursuit of happiness, as you’ve witnessed, has left fallout in its wake for other people to clean up. Such pursuits often do. The employee who quits a toxic office leaves her colleagues to suffer without her. The boyfriend who ends a stale relationship leaves his stunned partner picking through roommate ads on Craigslist. The parent who cuts off the flow of rent money leaves their underemployed twenty-something scrambling to keep a catering gig. These choices are rarely easy — but they aren’t wrong just because they’re uncomfortable, and your friend’s mom’s choice isn’t bad just because her daughter can’t understand it.
Therapy, of course, could help your friend reach that conclusion herself. But therapy, like Crossfit or vegetarianism, isn’t something you can convince someone to try unless they’re already convinced they want to. If your goal is simply to help her, independent of the means, your effort might be wasted there.
Think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you trying to save your friend from her feelings? Keep her from losing her job? Chip in with carpools so she can spend time with her dad? Convince her not to blame her mom for her dad’s unhappiness?
Some of these are achievable, admirable goals. Others are reaching for something that’s in no one’s power to ensure or enable, attempts that will serve only to overextend you and strain your friendship. Just because your friend is getting too deeply embroiled in her parents’ relationship doesn’t mean you have to join her.
Your friend’s mom chose divorce. Your friend’s dad is unhappy about it, and the loss of his job only makes matters worse. Your friend decided to take sides. Now, in addition to any current or future challenges of handling her parents’ practical problems as an only child, she’s taken on the role of emotional referee. And there you are, cheering her on from the sidelines.
Helping is one thing. But you’re not just helping your friend get through this mess; you’re helping her get deeper into it — and you’re imagining how scarred she’ll still be from it 30, 40, 50 years from now.
Let go of your concerns about the rest of your friend’s life. From late 20s to late 120s (or however long we’ll be living by then as Crossfitting vegetarians) is a long time to work out one’s issues. To you, therapy seems like the only way through, and it’s a good one, but it’s unproductive to assume a lifetime of misery for her if she opts out. Besides — being allergic to therapy now doesn’t mean she’ll stay that way. I have more than one dear friend who refused to try it despite many gentle prods, until they didn’t. Being ready is as key an ingredient in the decision as being right.
Those of us who went through our parents’ divorces as kids got to enjoy the distractions of puberty and high school, condensing all of our many feelings into terrible fights we could grow out of. Your friend doesn’t get to work out her feelings with slammed doors or sullen dinner silences, but if she’s willing, she gets to understand her parents’ decision as an adult with broken relationships of her own, most likely. Given enough time, and enough space, she might be able to empathize in ways that take teenagers longer to learn. Eventually, she might even be able to find something to admire in her mom’s decision to change her life when it needed changing.
But neither time nor space nor empathy is something you can force — and neither is therapy. So don’t let yourself get drawn into the maybes of what happens if she doesn’t get there.
Your friend probably knows how hopelessly wrapped up she is in her fear and anger. Maybe someday she’ll decide she wants help untangling it. In the meantime, help her through, not into, the spiral she’s stuck in. Help her make lasagnas to freeze for her unemployed dad. Help her figure out flight logistics for splitting up Thanksgiving. Take her out for a movie so she can watch Charlize Theron beat up everybody in 1989 Berlin and give her own fury a rest for a minute.
Ask her what she needs from you. Ask her to be specific. Saying things out loud has a way of shedding light on them.
Don’t nod along as your friend lambastes her mom or worries in circles about her dad for the ninth time that week. There’s a point when venting stops being useful and starts being unhealthy, and your friend can’t see it for herself when she’s consumed by it. Tell her what you can offer: a ride, a reality check, a lasagna recipe. Tell her when she’s asking for something you can’t give her. Keep your boundaries, and be honest when you’re not equipped to help her.
Sooner or later, with therapy or without, your friend will have to learn how to separate her own well-being from her parents’ relationship. You can offer your advice, your understanding, your company through that process — but the worst thing you could do would be to join her in her misery. (The worst besides dragging her to Crossfit, that is.)
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