Valeria Donovan doesn’t mince words. She’s direct to a fault, a great quality for haggling with salesmen, maybe, but not always a benefit when it comes to her friends’ relationships.
“I’ve lost friends,” the 31-year-old aesthetician from Memphis admits, and her experience highlights the pitfalls of being honest with our friends about their relationships. “I know it’s not always welcome, my opinion,” Donovan says. “I only stick to saying something to people I really care about.”
Friends and their relationships can be a minefield, a no-man’s-land of ruined friendships and lost loves, and knowing when, how and why to say something is as important as what you say.
We may not like someone our friend is dating, but is the issue universal or personal? If there’s a problem with the relationship that we can be sure most people would object to, then perhaps we should point it out.
“If I see you hurting yourself with the person you’re with,” says Donovan, “I have to say something”.
Donovan says she usually waits until the subject comes up, rather than pouncing on her friends with her opinions about their relationships.
Katie Medicus, an LCSW and counselor in Knoxville, TN, encourages this approach. Waiting for your friends to share their own concerns gives you an entrance to their relationship without seeming like you’re on the attack.
“Look for patterns in their complaints,” says Medicus, “and highlight those, feeding back to them what they see as a concern. This would go something like, “You’ve mentioned his/her temper before; does it concern you?”
Some problems are pretty glaring, though, and call for a sort of intervention.
Joseph Cavalieri confronted a family member’s fiancé telling him he was a racist.
The 48-year-old glass artist from New York had no qualms about speaking up because Cavalieri knew the issue was universal, saying he points out “things that are more major social problems, that are more than just annoying. Something that I feel would stand out to many people.”
Of course, even something as glaring as racism can be rationalized. You may feel you’re helping your friends by being honest about their relationships.
Love, as they say, is blind, though, and input sometimes feels like intrusion. Medicus suggests the soft approach.
“You would say, “I’ve got something I need to talk to you about and it’s going to be difficult for us to deal with; do you want to hear my concerns?”
You’ve given the person an opportunity to control his or her reaction and presented a choice, not an attack. Still, your friend may not like it. Donovan knows this all too well.
“They’ll sort of start hiding information because they know their friends don’t agree,” Donovan says. “They start to isolate. We’d like to think our sage advice is going to enlighten and save our friends, but life is not an after-school special”. Medicus says the burden of limits is on you, the friend with the opinion, and not on the friend’s relationship.
“It really depends on you and how much you can deal with it,” says Medicus. “You may not like your friend’s relationship, and there may be legitimate problems, but are you willing to lose the friend if he or she isn’t receptive?”
“You can push it as far as you want, but you have to be aware of the consequences,” says Medicus. “You could lose a friend. Before you do say something, though, it’s important to be clear about your motives. Just because your friend’s relationship is less than ideal doesn’t mean it needs to be fixed.”
As Medicus points out, you may be overly sensitive to the issues in your friend’s love life. You need to assess how much of your own history is intruding. “Check it out with people you trust,” she says, “to see if your stuff’s in the way”.
We may not want to admit it, but our own relationships, family issues or lingering love grievances can taint our view of relationships in general. Of course, sometimes when we’ve checked our motives and assessed the seriousness of a problem in a friend’s relationship, the best we can do is be available.
“You have to ask yourself, “Is my energy better served by being a gentle support rather than doing a direct confrontation?” says Medicus.
You don’t have to sever ties with a friend when they’re unreceptive to your concerns. You don’t have to tolerate it, but you don’t have to sever ties. Just take that topic off the table. “There are times when your friend is caught in the same cycle,” says Medicus. “Take it off the agenda”.
For someone like Donovan, though, who isn’t always willing to bite her tongue, the consequence has been ending certain friendships. And she’s learned that sometimes people can’t be reached.
“I can’t just sit there and not say something,” Donovan says. “In the end, people are going to do what they want.”
Seth Wharton is a writer who lives in New York City with his wife of seven years and their two cats. In addition to doling out invaluable relationship guidance, he writes fiction. For another perspective on this issue, read Do Your Pals Hate Your Date.