I recently received a question from a reader whose friend is in a terrible relationship — so terrible that the friend can barely talk about anything but how awful her relationship is. How fun for everyone!
Rather than share the details here, I thought I’d just share what I wrote, since I think it probably applies to a lot of situations where we wish we could commandeer the lives of people we care about and make them get out of a dead-end relationship — or job, or town, or family situation. But we can’t. Not directly. Maybe indirectly, a little.
So, here’s what I wrote:
Who can ever know what goes on in other people’s heads when they act the way they do?
The only thing you can know is that, somehow, whatever your friend is getting from this situation is — as inconceivable as it may seem — less painful than what she perceives as the alternative.
Hard to imagine, right?
But people avoid pain. They move from pain to a little less pain, or they stay in pain to avoid a little more pain. It’s hard for a person in pain to ask for more pain to get to a place of less pain.
If your friend is in real danger, please don’t listen to me. Please call a hotline and talk to professionals. I’m assuming this is just a shitty relationship. If it’s worse than that, again, I’ve got nothing. Call a pro.
I’m assuming your friend knows about your own, similar past situation. So, when she complains to you, she knows that you’ll be on her side — she’s better than this, etc. — and that may just be gratifying enough to keep her from making changes. Someone is recognizing her suffering! That’s actually one of the more gratifying feelings people can feel. And you are providing it!
So the status quo is that she gets sympathy, the moral high ground, your friendship — and she still doesn’t have to rip herself away, or face sleeping alone. That really might keep a person in place.
Here’s what I would do. Say something like, “I know your relationship with Jacques (let’s call him Jacques) is painful for you, just like it has been for a long time. I either am out of advice, or you don’t want to take my advice right now, which is fine — I mean, every situation is different. But your relationship has really just taken over our friendship, which is some real estate I’m not willing to let Jacques have. So, I obviously want to keep being friends with you, but I don’t want to talk about him at all! Let’s go do something completely different from what we normally do. No Jacques-talk.”
And then take your friend somewhere where she will have to interact with decent guys, some of whom are attractive and may be attracted to her. (Don’t be obvious about what you’re doing!) Not everyone enjoys clubs and bars (ugh). It doesn’t have to be that. Get some people together to compete in a trivia night. Take a one-off class that’s likely to have a lot of guys. Go to a business networking event, a launch party, a book party, a literary reading, etc. Do it often.
If you are really conflict-avoidant (work on that!), you could even skip the little speech above and just keep the night busy enough and full of enough other people that there’s no time to talk about Jacques anyway. If she wants to go back to spending time one-on-one, then make the speech.
Maybe she’ll meet a guy she’s interested in, but maybe she’ll just, you know, recalibrate herself to how non-assholes behave socially.
You know, some people just can’t be alone. I’m sure it would be more emotionally healthy to make a clean break from Jacques, take some time to recover, and then slowly start dating, but humans are weak. Some people cannot end a relationship without another one waiting in the wings, or at least a vague sense that there are lots of cool guys out there who would be amenable to spending some time together. So maybe you can make that piece of the puzzle fall in place.
But overall, you can’t make people do things. Maybe you have to pull away, go live a fabulous life, stay in touch via email and social media, and live the life she knows she could have if she just ditched this jerk. Maybe you’re the aspirational figure.
Hell, once I was in a bad relationship, and in a restaurant with my best friend and her boyfriend. I was talking about something, and my best friend’s boyfriend was listening intently and politely — but still noticed that my water glass was empty, and managed to flag down a server and get me more water without being rude to the server or even interrupting me.
I was like, “Whoa, what a cool guy. My own boyfriend does not care if I have water or really any of the things I need.” Probably took us another six months to break up, but obviously, I still remember that goddamn glass of water.
Good luck. You can’t really change people, but hopefully this helps in some small way. Stay Bullish!