trapped in a bad marriage

I‘m feeling concerned for a friend and confused about what, if anything, should be said. My former college roommate was a very bubbly person. Obviously, after school, we didn’t talk as much…but we kept in touch. Each time I see her now, she seems more disconnected and more diminished. I noticed it around the time she got married. It became worse over the next year, then she had a child and it became even worse still. In this ten year time span, I myself married and divorced a difficult man. I see pieces of him in my friend’s husband (being fussy and super critical). But…like my friend…I was very private about things. Kept it inside. I feel like I ought to say something, but I’m not sure what it is I ought to say. I don’t want to offend her. I don’t want to embarrass her either. But I feel horrible watching her wither before my eyes. Should I say something? If so, how do I do this delicately?

straight up advice

You know what I thought while reading your question? Christ, is this about me? Are you secretly my friend, and is this your way of "delicately communicating" with me? Because, shit, I’m married to a difficult and super critical man, too. Though I’m not exactly "very private," so there’s that. My point: 1) I can make shit all about ME when it’s not all about me (okay, maybe a wee bit about me); 2) we can all see "pieces" of ourselves in those around us: it’s a form of empathy and self-centeredness all rolled into one fun-filled fact; 3) chances are that your friend, like me, already knows the marriage in which she’s living, so what exactly does pointing out your concern do to further her happiness or health? Before you answer, consider this:

"Ideally, What do I want for her to take away from our TALK?"
I can tell from your question that you genuinely care for your friend. If you had to fast-forward and assume this confrontation/conversation just took place, how would you describe it? That is, how do you imagine things playing out? Do you see it as a quick bite of a conversation, with a waiter poking in and out of your lunch to ask if everything’s to your liking? Is it something you’d bring up over the phone? Or is it more of a meaningful talk–between commercial breaks of Glee? Is it a conversation you suspect you’ll both remember for a long time? You can actually learn a lot about yourself just by going through this exercise and examining your own expectations.

So, what do you want for her to take away from your conversation? Maybe all you want is for her to recognize that she could have a problem. Maybe it’s depression. Maybe it’s a shithouse marriage. Maybe all you want is for her to find a nice chesterfield sofa with a matching therapist. Perhaps you just want to remind your friend of who she was, once upon a time, before "she" became a "we." This much is clear: you love your friend. You want her to be happy, to realize that she doesn’t have to be the woman she’s committed to being for the past decade if she no longer wants to be. You want her to know that you’re there for her. That she’s not alone. Perhaps you want her to know that you know exactly what it’s like to feel small and childlike, that you want her to feel empowered and to help her get more of her power back (in the relationship or elsewhere). Maybe you want her to just recognize that there’s a world of options open to her, to know that she’s not closed in. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s about you. Are you projecting your ideals and notions of what a "good" or "happy" marriage is? Hell yes you are. We all privately pass judgments on one another’s relationships. It doesn’t mean we’re right. But, it also doesn’t mean we’re wrong. Next, consider this:
"What do I want to get out of this discussion?"
A lot of us wedge our opinions and advice into the lives of those we love because, well, we do after all, love our friends and want them to be tap-dance happy, but we also do it because we want to feel useful. We want to feel important. Maybe we’re looking for a deeper friendship. Maybe we want to disclose something ourselves, to talk about vulnerabilities so we can feel someone really knows who we are.

Make sure you’re bringing this up to your friend not for a chance to rehash all you’ve chosen to leave behind (and look how much happier I am!), but because you think the conversation will, in the end, make your friend a happier person. Really, all you can do is ask her if she feels disconnected or diminished. From there, it’s up to her what she wants to do with those emotions (if she even feels them). Perhaps she’ll bake, or want to spend all her time redesigning the rooms of her home to project the life she wishes she were living (Oh, go on, read into that one).

Bottom line, if it were me in your polished shoes, I’d say something because I can relate. I live at that address, and I’m working on feeling less bullied and less defensive… but I’d also realize there could be a very high probability that I was just projecting my shit onto someone else. It’s also worth mentioning that only you know what your friendship can handle. There are certain friends where you know anything said will go in one ear and out their ass. Then there are other friends who’ll respond with one-word answers and who’ll un-friend you on Facebook (not sure any of us need friends like these). Most friends might feel hurt, might feel defensive, but will often realize that your heart’s in the right place… if, in fact, it is. The question then becomes, what, as a friend, can you really do to support a friend through change? I’m just sayin’ baked goods, girl nights with chick flicks and tea parties do not hurt.

go ahead, ask

If you have questions or need advice on anything from where to eat to how to get over the bastard, just email your question to my advice email address.

A YEAR AGO: Date My Ex: Egg White Sessions, Water Features, And Crotch Shots



  1. I think that unless you really know what’s going on – it’s very hard to judge a marriage by your own experience. You seem to be assimilating that your “diminished self” was a result of a bad marriage. What if the marriage doesn’t have as much to do with her “diminished self.”

    I’m only opining because people (family, friends) have been very opinionated about my marriage. I’ve gotten shit from everyone saying my husband wasn’t good enough, I changed, this wasn’t going to last etc. After letting these comments influence me – our marriage reached a breaking point/breakthrough in May. I realized: duh : if I really wanted to be with my husband, I was going to have to show it and stop listening to people who loved me but didn’t really know anything about my relationship with my husband. They were judging from their experience and from their pedestal.

    And let me tell you, I’m so much happier distancing myself from the criticism. Because while my husband isn’t perfect, he is for me. We were each others first loves – and growing and changing and evolving together has been and wil continue to be the biggest challenge in our lives. I am willing to take that risk.

  2. ah, man…i needed to read a post about how friendships work through the ‘big talks’ and what friends should really do and be. i feel like i am going above and beyond to try and repair something that ‘my friend’ tried to solve by blocking me on facebook…who does that? we are 30 and 31! do people still act like this at that age?? apparently so!

    i say preface your concern with the fact that you love her and care about her happiness with life…that you have something you need to talk to her about…x-y-z is what you see and you’re wondering if that is how she is feeling? is that what is going on? and ultimately can you help?

    worst case scenario…she gets upset and the friendship ends and you don’t talk. are you going to be okay with not saying anything?? at the end of the day you will be upset that the friendship has changed but i don’t think you will ever feel like expressing your concern for her was wrong. its hard to have the ‘big talks’ with even your closest of friends, but ultimately, what makes you so close is why you have to have them!

  3. Unfortunately, anyone dealing with a difficult situation – bad marriage, rotten job, even substance issues – has to come to the realization their situation needs to change and be ready to make change. I had a friend who was in a marriage that was so absurdly terrible and diminishing, no one would believe it if they saw it played out in a film. Nothing I said to my friend loosened the grip she had on the relationship.

    All I could so was “be there.” Maybe you could tell your friend, “you seem to be going through some challenges, perhaps in your marriage. I certainly don’t know what’s happening on the inside, but I hope you know I’m always here to talk.” People in tough situations need sounding boards and support more than advice and help prying themselves out. Eventually, my friend left her dismal marriage. Hopefully, my support helped.

    You’re a good friend though. She’s lucky to have you!

  4. I’m generally pretty uncomfortable with you giving advice like this without a clear message that this is your opinion and you don’t know the people or the intimate details of the situation. I have a friend in a similar situation with her marriage and it’s a very complicated matter and she is now very delicate psychologically. To reduce something this serious-the possible end of a marriage where there are children involved, the possible end of a decade long friendship-to an introduction and two bullet points is sort of wrong to me. The ‘maybe you’re projecting, maybe you’re not. Maybe she knows her marriage sucks, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she’ll appreciate it, maybe she won’t…”thing is just, well, it’s just bad.

    Yes you’ve been through a crappy marriage and you’ve had your fair share of therapy (and need more), but every single situation is different. Your cheating and lying ex is a totally different beast than constant and horrifying mental and (possibly) physical abuse, like in the case of my friend. Just because you’ve been through a marriage that didn’t work and therapy with a person you refused to travel to Brooklyn for doesn’t mean you should toss out your opinion so casually. It’s one thing if it’s a close friend who asks for advice. It’s another to give this type of advice to a stranger, even if they ask, in a public space such as this blog. Drunk dialing is one thing, this is quite another. Please include a disclaimer when you put something like this out there. You don’t know how many fanatics think you are an expert just because you lived through a divorce. But what you lived through and got out of could have been a whole heck of a lot worse and your advice may not apply. Being bullied because Phil wants you to tidy the kitchen and being called an asshole on a daily basis in front of your daughter is completely different. You are not an expert in relationships or friendships. None of us is. They are ever evolving and unless you have a degree or intimately know the people, this isn’t something you should be tackling.

  5. Beautifully put, Tart and Soul!

    I would omit the ‘in your marriage’ part to just say “you seem to be going through something. I don’t know what’s happening on the inside but…”

    This way it’s more open and if it is in fact, her marriage, she won’t immediately feel quick to defend it.

    What a good friend you are to care this much. I hope it goes well.

  6. Thank you for writing this. You handled the question diplomatically, thoughtfully and without pretense. Laying out how you do not know the person or the situation and providing no answers just food for thought shows your true character and ability to see things in a way we couldn’t get from a licensed therapist or many of our friends.

    I will use your thought process here in many interactions with my friends as it provides the tools for introspection and empathy.

    Thank you.

  7. I have a friend who has seen me through several less than stellar relationships. At times, very candid, as in “be the person you know you are”–which was the most impactful thing anyone has ever said to me about a relationship.

    But most of the time, she was supportive of me even when it was clear that I was headed for trouble. I always say I could tell her I was marrying a two-legged goat and she’d say “Let’s go find the perfect dress!” After a while, that level of support didn’t feel good.

    I appreciate a friend who comes and says “I know you didn’t ask, but I’m worried about you….” and takes it from there.

  8. On the other hand – when I was going through the hell of my marriage – the LAST thing in the world I needed was for someone to see through the cracks in the glass orb that was my life and criticize (even if it was couched in ‘help’). It didn’t help me, it made me feel worse…that not only did I have to live with my choices, but that I wasn’t even good enough to keep my perfect facade in place.

    The true friends that I emerged with, war torn and battle weary from the horrors of marriage, are those that never said “he was such an asshole”, nor are they the ones that dropped me like toxic waste. They weren’t the ones that got all judgy and preachy on me – or those that held up their lives as the paragon of all relationships – or offered business cards for marriage counselors.

    They are the ones that surrounded me with courage and strength, as I stood alone, quivering and shaking in the ruins of that once perfect glass orb of a life. They helped me pick up the shards and gently lay them aside. They lent support quietly, respectfully, as I rebuilt the foundation of life with the babies. They rejoiced as I started putting pieces back together on my own, my way. And now they stand with me as we marvel at what life brings…how if I hadn’t gone through every bad thing, how I wouldn’t now have every good thing…

    It’s a dangerous business, offering advice.

    1. I reply comment respectfully as I have often been humbled by the love you speak of for your children when you comment on SK’s blog. I also greatly enjoy your comments for your wry humor and practical positive outlook. And while I understand that was what helped you and you can only speak to that, I feel strongly that too many women live trapped and ashamed and afraid to ask for help.
      It doesn’t just take a fist to provide abuse. Words can tear and sear and warp for far longer. As we all know. While I am no proponent of trashing someones mate in a effort to imbue my sense of right and wrong. I think sometimes you can’t just stand by and say nothing. I think that happens far to often and in far to many situations. I don’t think its judgey or preachy to reach out to a friend and say ” I see your pain, this seems a difficult situation… I am here for you however you need me. I am a safe place if you just need a place to talk, or bitch.”

      There is a stiff upper lip and dignity in handling ones personal business quietly and privately, but there is something to be said for a stalwart friend who is not quiet in his or her love for you.

      I once went through a long relationship with the most amazing,intelligent,achingly handsome and passionate man I have
      ever known. Who behind closed doors ripped my belief in who I was apart, and stupid young naive girl that I was, I let him. I thank Buddha,God,Allah,Adonai,Vishnu, Krishna…Who-flipping-ever, that I had vocal friends, who reminded me of my worth, comforted me when I was hurt, refused to let me beat myself up anymore. Inner strength is core, but so is a inner circle. One whom you needn’t pretend with or hide from. We all have flaws and cracks.

  9. I think your advice is thoughtful, nuanced, and sound. You encourage the reader to think through what she hopes to gain by confronting her withering friend and you survey the possible motives she might have for contemplating this confrontation in the first place (a desire for closeness, a pure urge to help, an unwitting projection of personal complications). I am amazed that anyone (hi, Danielle above) would chide you for taking the time to provide this wise and humble counsel. Patently, you do not know the people involved here, or the details of the situation, but you do have experience in this world (we all do), you do have a sense of existential and emotional boundaries (we all hope to), and as far as I am concerned, it would be far more tragic to let a good friend drown, then approach with loving, if clumsy, counsel.

    Thankfully, I am in a happy relationship and know many people who are as well. But I am not naive. Many friends are suffering within that fabled den of marriage and parenthood. Many are lonely and wordless, desperately craving contact, hoping deep down that someone, a good and observant friend, will pierce that veil and say something. Something. Anything.

    So, I think it is commendable that you encourage cautious conversation. It is always easier, and safer, to keep a distance, to worry without action. But easy isn’t always best.

    Anyway, I am rookie in this blog wilderness, but I love your voice and your unique breed of wit and wisdom.

    1. My point in commented wasn’t to berate Stephanie for responding, but to make it clear that just because she is divorced, doesn’t make her an expert on divorce. Just because you have kids, doesn’t make you an expert on parenting (maybe parenting your own kids, but not other people’s, or parenting in general). Just because you throw a dinner party, doesn’t make you an expert hostess. If someone wants a recipe, advice on potty training, tips for dirty talk, sure gab away. But all relationships, friendships, marriages are different. And Stephanie’s situation doesn’t seem parallel this. Are there similarities, sure. Bad marriages are bad marriages. But it reeks of highly different circumstances.

      And to let you know, it is so very off of you to assume that I or the people who commented haven’t tried (multiple times) to have the open, non threatening conversations with our friends. In my case, don’t you think I’ve tried communicating with my friend? Don’t you think my group of friends have asked her if this is what she wants? Don’t you think we’ve been open to her with letting her know that she always, ALWAYS, has a roof to be under and a place to stay if need be at the drop of a hat. I have 2 extra bedrooms just waiting for action. I have driven to the small town she moved to, hours away, just to hang with her and ease her feelings of “abandonment.” Her word, not mine. I have made a point to talk with her, be around her, and support her in everything she does, marriage and non marriage related. So it’s not as if I haven’t tried.

      As previous posters have pointed out, all the talking and action in the world won’t help if SHE isn’t ready to see what is (or isn’t) there. All of our offers mean nothing until SHE is ready to take action herself.

      I love the post by 3 Teens Mom who said that the friends that are still with her are the ones who were just there. Waiting for the storm to be over with open arms.

      Stephanie isn’t just offering up a blog post. She is SOLICITING QUESTIONS FOR THE EXPRESS PURPOSE OF OFFERING ADVICE, and that is “a dangerous business” when your credentials include one failed marriage, and one struggling one.

      There is a reason why lawyers have to pass the bar before offering legal advice. There are reasons why therapists and marriage counselors go to school for 100 years. There is a reason why people have to be certified to do your taxes…this isn’t a recipe for lasagna she’s peddling, it’s someone’s life she’s opining on. And I just think that deserves a little more caution than “I went through a divorce, so ask away!” It’s not that this is what she said, but it’s what she’s implying.

      1. I kinda agree with you and not because SK has been divorced or anything, but because I’m not sure what the emailer wanted to get out of asking this question in this type of forum. Clearly there are respondents that have had experiences with this situation and who are offering up great suggestions and warnings, but I don’t get advice columns in general. They’re fun to read, but I wonder about what’s going on in the head of the asker that causes them to turn to someone who just writes opinion.

      2. never once have i seen Stephanie say she is an expert on anything.
        someone asked for her advice and she gave it.

        if the person wanted “professional” help, they would’ve gone to a professional.

        and to top it off Aidan never said anything about you not having talks with your friends or whatever. I think from that point on in your post you’re just projecting your issues onto Aidan’s post.

        1. I think this exact quote:

          “hoping deep down that someone, a good and observant friend, will pierce that veil and say something. Something. Anything…It is always easier, and safer, to keep a distance, to worry without action. But easy isn’t always best.”

          is a pretty good indication that Aiden is assuming (I said assume, not stated) that I or whoever, have just sat back, without action, and taken the “easy” road with distance. And it’s simply not true.

          Again, All the interventions in the world won’t stop a drinker from drinking, until THEY, themselves are ready to stop. My friend has chosen to stand by her husband despite my thoughtful words, deep concern and open home. Now all I can do is silently support through our movie outings and occasional lunches. To say that keeping a distance is easier, obviously comes from someone who has never had a friend in this kind of serious situation. Distancing yourself after your concern has fallen on deaf ears for the past five years is the only way to stay sane enough to help should she need it. It’s not easy and it’s not simple.

  10. Perhaps there are other ways to remind your friend of how she used to be, and have much fun she used to have, besides a conversation that might feel like a confrontation. Maybe a road trip back to the alma mater, tracking down some other old college friends, or finding time at home to do some of the things you used to do together back then.
    It might snap her out of the rut she’s in now long enough for her to realize what you want her to realize.

    1. i wouldn’t have even thought of an alternative like this! great advice! thanks for sharing… :)

  11. I agree, advice unrequested is very tricky business. And with even my lifelong, dearest friends – how they choose to handle something as serious as a struggling marriage is often more private than other life situations. I for one tend to deal with the stickiest life stuff internally. It only comes out in conversation when I’ve come to grips with what I want to do about the situation. When I was younger, every experience in my life had to be shared – I needed to know from good friends that I was “okay.” Now that I have learned what is good for me, and what is not, I sort of resent unsolicited advice most of the time. I’ll figure it out – when I’m ready to deal with it. And if I’m not talking about it, it’s on purpose.

    Generally, the phrase, “how are you – you doing alright” works to open the door of someone that needs to let out their voice. Otherwise, I gravitate in difficult times toward the friends that will just be available, but not overly inquisitive. And being there for girlfriend time – even if it is light conversation and dribble on the TV – never hurts.

  12. Of all the great advice given by Stephanie and the commenters, Kat’s is my favorite. Projecting is a lot more than seeing yourself in another — it can also be seeing problems where there might not be (or inflating them unreasonably). Obviously the e-mailer cares about her friend, but one thing I took from her message is that her friendship with the subject has suffered since college — it’s not just about a bad marriage. The writer probably misses their closeness and has been feeling shut out in the last few years. Identifying the marriage as the problem makes sense, but odds are, even if the subject’s marriage were perfect, the writer might still wish the two were closer.

    Confrontation is a difficult thing. Making sure our friends know we’re there for them is important, but as 3 Teens’ Mom pointed out in her comment, the best intentions don’t always equate to much. (Best intentions for someone like me — the Miranda to Carrie during the Big drama — tend to really backfire. The truth hurts, even if it’s, well, the truth.)

    Pointing out that she seems miserable or a shell of her former self or that her marriage — to the father of her child, mind you — is the problem will instantly put the friend on the defensive. A roadtrip or something else the two of you did before is a great idea. If she’s truly unhappy (and has a good time), it will be the thing to snap her out of what she’s feeling.

    Or the writer might find that people change, and the outgoing person she knew a decade ago never really was that outgoing and she’s actually much happier now than she was then. (I’m projecting. But I can’t be alone.)

  13. I love that everyone offered their own personal brand of advice, but why put down the fact that SK gave her opinion? It really doesn’t matter what each individual poster thinks is the best advice, the point is this person CHOSE to write in to SK. She offers advice to people who ask for it and this person did. Of course every situation is different, every person is different. What would be comforting to one person may be over the line or offensive to another. SK received this from someone wanting HER opinion!

  14. Here is some food for thought for those of you who intimate that an opinion should not be given unless you are an authority. I am not that impressed with “authorities”. The nurse practitioner I go to for my son would not have identified any condition he has had without me pointing it out first. I should state that I am pretty laid back about most things though. She did not know what to do for my son’s flat spot on his head-he started gazing at the right and only the right for a long period of time and despite our best efforts at providing stimulating materials on the left and belly time he continued to have the issue etc etc. I spoke with a colleague/friend that pointed me in the right direction for treatment. I am a speech-language pathologist and I would not go by most pediatricians’ advice about speech-language development. I have had to push, push, and push to get a mammogram appointment at 34 even though my mom has had breat cancer twice starting at age 42. No “authority” is looking out for you. Your friends are! Stephanie is taking time away from her family and career to give heartfelt advice that I think is well written and explained, yet people have to nit pick. I am now seperated from my husband and am doing much better due to the advice from friends and family. I needed them to kick me in the behind with their opinions when he said he wanted to work on things and wanted me to take him back. I needed to here what they had to say and they were right. He has not done anything to change the problems and most likely will not. I may have had a weak moment and let him move in with me, but the strong opinions of my girlfriends helped me to be strong. If you have a friend that is living in a dangerous situation for either herself or her children, you must speak up! What the friend does with the information will vary. I am speaking as somebody who works with kids and I see and hear more horror stories than I would have anticipate entering the field. Women must be strong for their kids and themselves. We must also support each other. There is no magical authority that will solve the problems. Certaintly go to an accountant for a tax problem and try to get some good counseling ( if you can affort it and there is a decent provider in your rural area) but also listen to your friends. They are often the best authority on you.

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