You know who your friends are when you’re going through a relationship crisis. Maybe your husband is coming up to 40 and has started acting strangely; perhaps you’ve caught him texting another woman; or, worst of all, he’s threatening to leave you and break up the family.
Whatever the circumstances, it’s only being able to phone a friend or chat with the girls over a glass of wine that stops you from going round the bend.
However, after almost 30 years working as a marital therapist, I’ve become convinced that, while men don’t have enough friends or emotional support, women can have far too many and too much.
It's not always good to talk: Counsellor Andrew G Marshall has found women often make bad decision based on the advice of friends
In fact, my heart sinks when a new female client tells me her ‘friends have been wonderful’ because time and time again, while she thinks they’ve been helping her save her relationship, they’ve been fanning the flames or even throwing petrol on the fire.
Charlotte, 48, who chairs the board of governors at a school in Kent, sought my help when her husband David, 47, announced out of the blue that he didn’t love her any more, saw no future in their marriage and wanted to rent a flat in the next town, away from her and their three children.
‘You’ll never guess what he’s done now,’ she said as she sat down in my office, in the same tone I imagined her speaking to friends. ‘He’s bought our 12-year-old some trashy heels. He knows I don’t approve and he’d have been the first to complain if I got her a small top or anything else he considered inappropriate, but since we’ve separated, he’ll do anything to curry favour.’
When Charlotte finished cataloguing the ways her husband had let her down, I asked her to reflect on why he might have behaved like this. She became more thoughtful.
‘He’s not used to disciplining the children, as he’s left that up to me, and he’s frightened of alienating the girls, so he’s a pushover.’
Tea and sympathy: But even friends with the best intentions don't always give the right marriage advice.
Her friends hadn’t been so understanding: they just matched her initial outrage and told her she should return the shoes. She hadn’t yet done that, and as we talked she admitted that it would escalate the problem, so instead she decided to discuss it with her husband.
That’s what she did, he apologised and they were beginning to communicate better. Charlotte told me that she was relieved she hadn’t listened to her friends.
However, a few weeks later, she discovered her husband was using their temporary separation not to ‘get his head straight’, as he had told her, but to date another woman. Once again, it seemed her friends were a vital support system.
When her internet trawl discovered new evidence about her rival, she would call friends at all hours. ‘I’ll find a new picture of her on Facebook and I’ll be so incensed I pick up the phone to a friend to analyse what it means,’ she told me.
Unfortunately, going over all the minutiae with your friends is more likely to pump up your distress, make you feel angrier and betrayed, and more likely to fire off a late-night text or email — as it did with Charlotte.
In her case, goaded on by her friend, she sent a message to the other woman. ‘I thought she should know just what she was doing to my family,’ she explained. ‘But it totally backfired. All I did was push my husband and her closer together.’
Own agenda: Some friends may suggest divorce because they are divorced themselves and want to validate their choice
One problem with confiding in friends about your marital problems is that you often give them a very one-sided account of the situation — and thus get a skewed response.
That was the case with Katie, 32, a teaching assistant from Berkshire, who came to see me with her husband Mike, 36, as they tried to rebuild their relationship after she discovered he was having an affair.
‘Everybody’s been supportive, telling me I don’t have to put up with being treated like this,’ she said.
What Katie had omitted to mention to her friends is that, since her second child was born three years ago, she and Mike had had sex only twice. ‘Everybody knows looking after two small children is exhausting. By the time I’d put them to bed and tidied, the last thing I had wanted was sex,’ she said.
This does not excuse Mike’s behaviour, but it makes the situation less black and white — and soaking up so much feminine sympathy was making it harder for Katie to consider her husband’s feelings.
‘When your wife doesn’t want to sleep with you, you not only feel unattractive and unwanted but you begin to wonder what’s the point in anything?’ Mike, who worked in corporate hospitality, told me. One of the main problems of off-loading our problems on to friends is they love you and want the best for you. So if you’re in a lot of pain, they’ll try to make you feel better quickly.
So they promote ‘silver-bullet’ solutions (which will magic the problem away) or create a sense that ‘something must be done’ when often you’d be better off doing nothing.
FIVE STEPS TO SAVE YOUR MARRIAGE
When Katie was having a trial separation from Mike, her friends encouraged her to ‘get out more’ and when she met someone online ‘to go for it’. ‘This man did give me a lift and boosted my self-esteem, but it made things between me and Mike a whole lot more complicated and probably set back our recovery by about six months,’ said Katie.
In many ways, it’s easier to counsel men — they aren’t struggling with contradictory or suspect advice from different friends, because most of them haven’t discussed their problems with anyone.
I also don’t have to pick up the pieces after a ‘well-meaning’ friend has criticised their attempts to keep their marriage together or, conversely, told them they were not fighting hard enough to save it. But, while there are countless times when I’m tempted to advise female clients to speak less to their friends, I hold my tongue, as my job is to support people and hold up a mirror to their choices, rather than tell them what to do.
All the same, there are times when I want to put my head in my hands — like when I met Samantha, 48, who lives in London and is a legal assistant. When she and her husband, Terry, 49, wanted different things in the bedroom, she had confided in a woman whom she thought was a friend.
She told me: ‘What a fool I was. I knew she was jealous of me but not quite how much. Not long afterwards, I discovered that she and Terry were having an affair and I’d inadvertently given her the keys to turn his head.’
Unsurprisingly, Samantha fell out with her once-close friend — but it didn’t stop her confiding in others to get her through the difficult months. She valued their support and turned to them when Terry decided he’d made a mistake and begged for a second chance. That’s when she realised that even though we think friends will give independent advice and ‘tell it like it is’, they often have their own agendas, too.
‘My friends split down the middle,’ Samantha says. ‘The ones that were divorced told me he’d always cheat on me, and those who’d forgiven their husbands told me to think of the happy years and our children.’
Perhaps it is not surprising we urge our friends to take the same path as us because, when it comes down to it, everybody questions whether they’ve made the right choices and having friends come to similar conclusions is reassuring.
So while it’s fine to occasionally talk to your friends about your relationship, instead of talking about the man in your life, you should be really be talking and — even more importantly — listening to him.
Source: Dailymail- Counsellor Andrew G Marshall