I had dinner with a friend recently. We've had a hard time connecting the past few months - our schedules simply haven't been compatible and one delay led to another. We both do our share of traveling, we both work, we both have family obligations. You know how it is. So when we finally got together we had some catching up to do. As it turned out - a lot.
We started with the surface stuff, catching up on events and activities. Her life, my life - we've both had a lot going on. As we talked, the signs began to emerge. A laugh that was in an odd place, a comment that didn't quite fit, another one that seemed completely out of context. You know how you can know something in your gut before you can put an intellectual name on it? My stomach started to tense up. Something was wrong. I could feel it. And it turned out to be something big. Her husband has had an affair.
The story came out in pieces - this detail, that feeling, this comment, that reaction. The whys and the wherefores aren't important - they never are. As she said so eloquently, "the excuse doesn't matter - he chose to betray me."
Many of us (no matter our gender) have had this experience personally and, if not, we all certainly know someone who has, and more than likely, someone close to us. We know the pain, the humiliation, the complex and deep emotions, the confusion that she feels. And, probably understandably, we all have an urge to give advice.
I believe this urge to give advice stems from a couple of different places. The first is our sincere desire to help. We want to make it better. We want to alleviate pain, bring comfort. We want to help and our idea of 'help' is encouraging that person to do what we personally think would be the best thing to do. I think the second is our own discomfort. We want to say something almost as a reassurance to ourselves that we have, at the very least, an idea of what should be done in this situation as if that knowledge itself would stave off such an event happening to us. We have the urge to say the things that others have said before us, even if they weren't helpful and actually felt irritating or patronizing. There is an almost uncontrollable desire to spit out platitudes and homilies, things we've read in magazines or heard on Oprah or Dr. Phil. I felt every one of those urges as I listened. I opened my mouth and closed it. More than once. Finally, she asked me what I thought she should do. There it was - my golden opportunity. I didn't take it.
I opened my mouth to start and I stopped myself. Who am I to give advice to anyone about what they should do in such a painful circumstance? Why should I be the one to decide that what I would do is the best way for someone else to handle this? Why would I think that based upon what details have been shared with me that I could come close to understanding the intricacies of what has conspired between two others in their most intimate relationship? Why would my values be more important than hers or my instincts any better? She is the one who must make her choice. She is the one who must live with the consequences.
I didn't tell her what to do. I expressed sympathy - I am so saddened that she is going through this pain. I expressed shock (legitimate, by the way) - her husband is the last person I would have expected this out of. I expressed pain - I like her husband and I feel betrayed by his behavior. I feel taken in, as though he has lied to me about his character and has pretended to be someone he is not. I also asked questions. I asked her what she felt, what she hoped for, what she wanted. I asked her what she was afraid of and what she was worried about. I asked her what she thought her options were and how she felt about each of them. And at the end, after listening to her talk, I asked her what she was going to do.
As it turns out, she's not going to do what I would do. And that's her right. She's a bright woman and she knows what she can live with and what she can't. So as my friend moves forward, my job is to keep being her friend. I'm going to listen to her talk and vent. I'm going to remind her of the person that she is - strong, loving, courageous, and confident. I'm going to support her as she makes her decisions about moving forward and what her future will look like. I'm going to encourage her to trust her own instincts and judgments. And I'm going to reassure her, that even when her pain is the strongest, she is not alone.
And I'm going to keep my advice exactly where it belongs - to myself.
1 hour ago