For women in their twenties or early thirties, there is one topic of conversation that reigns supreme among girlfriends: love. At this stage of life, many of us are looking for it. A few of us have found it. But all of us are talking about it.
It's all fun and games when we're gabbing about hilariously horrible first dates, Bumble matches that never quite took flight, and shameless water-cooler flirting with the cute guy at work. But things take a dramatic turn when a friend is in a relationship. Now things are serious, and what you say tends to bear more weight.
If you've ever found yourself sitting across from a friend who is venting about her relationship (which you have, of course), then you know this is dangerous territory. You want to offer you opinion, some advice even, but you don't want to say too much or say something that could affect the friendship.
So what should you do? Here’s what the experts say.
Define Your Role
"It's so tricky when a friend comes to you to vent about their relationship," says Erin Asquith, LCSW. "We want to support them, take their side, say that her boyfriend is the worst. But that can backfire. I think what's important is to first ask your friend: 'Do you want me to tell you my thoughts or just listen?' Many times when people vent they don't want answers. A listening ear is all they need and want."
Similarly, author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Nicole Zangara, LCSW, says, "Be honest, and preface your thoughts with, 'I care about you and want to support you.' Then be cautious about how you deliver your thoughts. Do it in a gentle manner."
Listen, Listen, Listen
To that point, Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC, says, “Friends serve as a validation process for another to feel heard. The goal as the listening friend is to not expect any particular outcome or advice to be taken and acted upon. Just listen and validate them; that is all they are seeking."
Before you respond to your friend, remind yourself that her life is not your life. Caroline Madden, MFT, has authored five books specializing in relationships. She says, "Keep in mind that you are not the one in a relationship with him. What might be annoying or even a deal breaker for you, might not be for your friend. Don’t press her to break-up even if she says she wants to break-up or that's what you think should happen. What might be common sense to you will feel like too much pressure for her."
Remember: Relationships are Complex
Dr. Asquith says, "what's right for you, isn't always right for her in their relationship. Relationships are so complex, outsiders get such a small glimpse into what's happening, and making biased remarks and judgements isn't wise."
Noni Ayana, M.Ed., a relationship and intimacy expert, says, "This is not about you, or your thoughts. Center your support around your friend. Focus on what she wants, not necessarily the boyfriend. Do not shame or judge your friend. Simply express empathy."
Answer With Questions
Dr. Ayana says to, "periodically ask questions to show continued interest in her issue, and at the same time allowing her to talk through her frustration." You can also ask your friend what she needs from you. "Asking 'What can I do to help?' shows your friend that you are being proactive and that you are concerned for her wellbeing."
Dr. Asquith advises, "I would not give any definitive responses; try to ask questions, rather than make harsh statements about their significant other. This puts it back on her to figure out the solution. Use phrases and words like 'I hear that you feel XYZ' or 'I understand that you feel XYZ' and ask questions such as 'What do you want from the relationship?'; 'How has he shown that he does do those things?"; and 'Is it possible for you to talk to him about it?' Avoid phrases like 'You always complain about this—he's not worth it' or 'He's the worst, ugh leave him, you deserve better.'"
Irene S. Levine, PhD, trained clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine is the founder of TheFriendshipBlog.com and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Break-Up With Your Best Friend. Often called "The Friendship Doctor," she tells Verily, "Many times, people gain insight into a problem by talking about it and working it through with a friend. It can be very helpful for you, the listener, to reflect back what she is saying, rephrasing it for her.
Like Levine, Nikki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC, therapist, life coach, and author of The Reality of Relationships:...and How to Navigate Them, says, "Make sure that you listen to her completely. Then reflect back to your friend what you think you hear her saying. Offer responses like, 'It sounds like you are hurt, but want to try to work things out,' or 'It sounds like you are saying that you cannot be involved with them any longer, as you feel you can never trust them again.' This clarifies her position, supports her, and helps her process through what she already knows to be the truth. She just needed validation from someone she trusts and respects."
Dr. Ayana says, "Maintaining healthy friendship boundaries is crucial. Your friend may become too dependent during such a stressful time; possibly causing disruption in your own life." Dr. Levine, PhD, suggests that, "You can remind her that you care about her, and that you've listened and provided whatever help you could. You can explain, too, that you don't want to get in the middle of the relationship for fear that it will muddy your relationship with her, her partner, or both of them.
Dr. Madden says that as the supportive friend you have to, "Know when to say 'when' for your own mental health. There is a reason therapists can’t treat their friends. We only see our clients 50 minutes once a week. Even we would lose it having to hear (from the same person) day after day, hour after hour about the same relationship."
Look For Danger
Dr. Madden, MFT, says it's very important to listen for warning signs of a threatening relationship. "Listen to see if in anyway she has been verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually abused. She needs to know from someone outside her relationship bubble that is okay that she feels uncomfortable with what he has done and that it's ok for her to want out. Remind her that she shouldn’t take the blame for his abusive actions." If a situation seems serious, suggest your friend get immediate help and offer to help her find it. Dr. Levine, PhD, says, "If she is very distressed and is obsessing about the same problem over and over, you can simply tell her that she really needs more than a friend; she could benefit from talking to a professional to help her work through her relationship problems."
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