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Carolyn Hax / Life Advice

Terrible at Emotional Support

Dear Carolyn:

Ever since my husband left me five years ago, it seems I attract women friends in the process of divorce who want me to give them emotional support.

However, I'm not good at it. First, it brings flashbacks of the most painful time in my life. Second, I know there are two sides to every story. My formerly best friend, who divorced her husband for not being emotional enough, did not appreciate my saying that I thought he loved her, and he was steady, and this was painful for him.

Now another friend, whose marriage I admired because her husband was very communicative and loving, is acting in a way that's heading straight for the judge. She's furious with him for reasons I don't understand; when I went to a dinner party at their house, he could do nothing right. She provokes him by, for example, bringing in yet another animal, when he doesn't even like the many she has already.

Carolyn, what do I do? I'm inclined to keep my mouth shut, which has led me to stay away from her. I know the pain and misery coming up, and it's giving me post-traumatic panic of sorts. Do I owe her anything? How can I keep from saying, "Brenda, if you think counselors are too expensive and time-consuming, you ought to see how expensive and consuming divorce is!"

-- Terrible at Support

I wouldn't say you're terrible at support; you're emotional, yes, and it sounds as if you were more honest than your best friend wanted you to be, but I could argue that both of these put you in a better position to help the people you love.

I do think you need to offer clear disclaimers, though, when a friend starts confiding in you on her marriage: "Warning, my own experience makes me want to steer everyone away from divorcing," and/or, "I get flashbacks to my own divorce, so I might need breaks" -- or, if you really don't want any part of it, "I'm too biased/traumatized to help you with this."

But I suspect the last isn't really what you want to say; you've gone mum with your fight-picking friend, yes, but apparently against an impulse to speak up, to save her from herself. Or at least from letting angry inertia end her marriage before she has fully thought it through.

So, if it will help you sleep at night, then try saying this, once: "Are you OK? You seem to have your dukes up around (Husband) lately." Don't warn or lecture, just prop the door open and wait. If she wants your opinion, then she'll have the chance to ask -- and if she just wants friendly validation for her excuse to blow up her marriage, then your refusal to give it is a gift.

Where I do see trouble is in your viewing others' marriages (or divorces) only through the lens of your own. It's one thing to have relevant experience; it's another to be so influenced by it that you can't distinguish between your own feelings and someone else's. If you're not confident that you can distinguish other people's circumstances from your own, or can hold a friend's hand without getting dragged to the edge, then do please recuse yourself.

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Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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