How friends and relations react in the face of a couple’s troubles makes a huge difference, often for the worse. I am dedicating this week’s blog space to addressing the five types of couple distress I see most regularly, with tips for how family and friends can help, not harm, the hurting couple
Part 2 of 5 HOW TO HELP WHEN ~ They Separate
1. Be a neutral-zone. Even if you feel strongly in favour of one partner over the other it’s not helpful to act this out as prosecutor or defense. Just listen and try to be supportive by telling your friend how sorry you are that he or she is having this experience. Don’t badmouth one person to the other – not only is it unhelpful, but there’s always the chance they might get back together again. Don’t ever volunteer to be the “go-between.” While it might seem neutral, this perpetuates dreadful behaviour and fosters jealousy. If the separated partners want to talk, they can do so directly, or in therapy.
2. Offer tangible, practical help. If your friends are separating, one, other or both of them will be living with less stuff. Does someone need bedding, kitchen ware, extension cords or a lamp? If your friend used to rely on his or her spouse to help with dry cleaning, car troubles, elderly parents or the pets, can you step in instead? Sleuth out which day or night is toughest on your friend and show up with dinner. Be willing to talk about anything, e.g,(“Can I survive on this budget?” or “Shall I shave my head, drop 10 kg, and re-do my wardrobe?” Listen. Ask questions. See if you can get them laughing at their predicament – occasionally.
3. Stay alert for severe reactions. Whatever the cause of a separation, this is a massively unstable time. Feelings and behaviour will be all over the map and you may be frightened by your friends’ oscillating mood swings. Just show up. Love your friend unconditionally even if they are making poor choices. If you suspect your friend is severely depressed be willing to discuss suicidal thoughts. If she / he has a concrete plan (I’ll take an overdose) and has the means for completing this plan (I’ve been hoarding my pills for two years and have more than enough) ask “On a scale of 1 – 10 with 10 being you don’t want to make it through the night, where are you?” If your friend has the means to carry out a suicide and is over a 3 or 4, get professional help.
4. Get your friend helping others. A pity-party is a lonely affair. If your friend is wallowing, get them thinking of someone else. You need them to walk your dog; the neighbour needs house-plants watered; animal rescue needs someone to love the kittens. Obviously, if there are children involved, this will look very different. See Part 4.