Friend needs to hit bottom, not receive endless consolation
Q: My friend, "Katherine," had been unhappily married for several years, met a man in a bar, and began having a casual affair with him. She was not very discreet about it — carrying condoms in her purse and leaving her BlackBerry out with e-mails from the man on it. Her husband found out and left her.
They are now going through a difficult divorce.
Her ex does not want to help her out financially — he has a high-paying job and she makes very little — they have a young son who is having a terrible time dealing with it, and she is falling apart.
She has always been overly thin, suggesting an eating disorder, and now she is much more so. She is also taking a ton of anti-anxiety medication and is extremely depressed.
She is heavily leaning on me for help and I (a) don't know how to help her and (b) have some anger toward her for putting herself in this situation.
I told her the affair was a really bad idea and that she could not financially or emotionally afford divorce.
She sees me as one of her only friends and is constantly asking me to come over.
I have a family of my own and can't just drop everything to console her. What can I do to both help her and distance myself from this?
In Over My Head
A: Even if you didn't have other responsibilities, providing her with a steady supply of friendly consolation would be exactly the wrong kind of help for her right now.
Someone who is (1) falling apart and (2) continuing to behave in a self-destructive way is choosing to dodge the hard work of getting well. It's not unusual, and it's agony for others to watch, especially where there's a young child involved — but no one can take healthy steps for her.
She has to decide that for herself. Often the situation has to deteriorate to the point where things are so awful that the perceived awfulness of facing her problems suddenly isn't the worst thing the person can imagine. The proverbial "hitting bottom."
Well-meaning friends who are there and willing to console can, unwittingly, merely allow someone to postpone such a reckoning indefinitely. She can tell herself that she's okay, it'll all be okay, her ex is being cruel, she had a right to grab for some happiness, or whatever else friends tell her (or just reinforce by not challenging her rationalizations).
In hard-luck situations, a friendly shoulder is what friendship is about, but the fallout from hard living demands a different approach.
As apparently one of her only friends, you're the one in a position to take that different approach: Tell her clearly that you're just a plain old friend, and what she needs is someone with the credentials to help her get well.
You had it right, you're "in over your head" — and that needs to be the line from which you don't budge until she turns things around.
Tell her you'll go to her first appointment with her, hold her hand, take her for coffee after, but you won't — you can't — be the warm place she retreats to in lieu of getting real help.