Supportive friendships are a lifeline for many of us, especially when we face various challenges in our love lives. Friends provide us with much-needed perspective when we overanalyze, offer reassurance when we feel insecure, and build us up when others disappoint us. And we are eager to help each other with our relationship problems because mutual support is essential to strong and healthy friendships.
But sometimes, we may feel that the help we offer is not enough, not satisfying, or not helping our friends. No matter how much we try, the time and energy that we invest fail to improve the situation and drain the resources we need for our own well-being. Perhaps we stay up too late on the phone with our distraught friends each night, cancel our appointments to be available whenever a crisis comes up, or are invested in a plan of action that they refuse to adopt. Maybe our determination to fix their love lives even creates discord in the relationships with the very friends we are trying to help.
Because of these pitfalls, we need to set boundaries while offering our friends meaningful support. Boundaries allow us to pay attention to our own feelings, time constraints, and energy levels to ensure that we don’t end up frustrated, disappointed, and alienated from our friends. Fortunately, we can be mindful of both our needs and our friends’ needs by making a few adjustments to how we respond:
In many situations, this is what a person wants: for someone to listen to them. They want the space to say whatever they need to say and have someone else hear them accurately and empathetically. We can be good listeners by letting our friends know that we hear them and understand what they say. For example, we might summarize their frustrations with a statement such as, “You are saying you are tired of doing all of the work in your relationship,” or “You sound like you need to take a break.” By listening empathetically, we honor their feelings without conveying pity or consolation. We allow them to feel heard and understood while also refraining from becoming entangled in their personal drama.
2. Refrain from giving advice.
Giving advice is tricky. By providing advice, we prevent our friends from digging deep within themselves and figuring out what is true for them. And giving advice can backfire on us. Our friends might come back to us and say, “I did what you said to do, and we had an awful fight!” or “I did what you suggested. We are back together, but I’m not sure I want to be.”
As our friends think of what they want to do about their relationships, they may ask, “What would you do?” When we choose to answer that question, we do well to say, “I would likely (fill in the blank), but that is me, not you. I’m here to help you know what is right for you.”
When we help our friends assess what is best for them rather than tell them what we think they should do, we increase the likelihood that they will be happier with the results.
3. Ask them, “What do you want to do about the relationship?”
One way to support your friend as they problem-solve without giving advice is to encourage them to come up with a few of their own ideas.
If they exclaim, “I don’t know what to do!” you can say, “It sounds like you are not ready to do something about your relationship. That’s OK. What would make you happy? What does your gut tell you?”
Then, you can help them imagine various outcomes. Ask them to think through their options, and ask them questions like, “How would that work out?” or “How might you feel about that?”
In this way, we can help our friends do their own thinking and action planning.
If they start to despair, we may need to remind them to look at what they do have control over. Often in love relationships, things are particularly complicated because some of the problems lie with the other person or are not in our control (such as a partner’s personality style or the way they spend their money). With this in mind, we want to encourage our friends to focus on how they can change their own approach and not on how to change the other person in the relationship.
4. Focus on other topics of conversation.
When our friends call us upset about their love relationships, it’s difficult to discuss anything else. That’s what preoccupies them. But while we want to help them, we don’t want to join them in their rumination. To set healthy boundaries, you might suggest, “How about we talk for a while about you and your relationship, and then let’s talk about what else is going on in our lives. Stepping away from that situation might do you some good, and I would love to hear more about your new job.”
Or maybe you want to take a break from talking or texting and go out on a walk together, find a new outdoor place to explore, or try a new restaurant or cafe. You can find ways to change the scenery, change the dialogue, and change the energy to focus on things other than relationship problems.
We do not avoid anything by changing gears; instead, we choose healthful ways to calm upset thoughts and feelings and to reconnect with our friends.
5. Stop talking when you need to.
When you start to feel fatigued by your friends’ relationship problems, you should notice those feelings and respond to them. “I have to go in 15 minutes,” you may say. Or if they call and you can’t talk, you can tell them, “I can talk later today, but not now.”
Friendship does not mean we always have to be available to the other person. Rather, it means we value each other, respect each other’s lives, and communicate what works best for each of us. When we take care of ourselves—in this case, by talking when we have the time and energy for it—we then can empathetically listen and engage meaningfully with our friends.
We all need trusted friends to confide in when our relationships present challenging issues. Bouncing ideas off one another can help us choose the best course of action, recalibrate our responses, and reassess our own needs and wants. And when we can offer support without becoming drained, we can give our friends the best help we have to offer, which in turn deepens our friendships with them.