Adapted from a recent online discussion.
She wants to help destructive friend, but there's a big catch
Portland, Maine: I have a friend who in the past had affairs with married men. She has said she regretted it and has expressed disgust with those in her life who've actually been caught in such situations. But now, she's attempting to begin another relationship with a married man. I just want to tell her to stop being the train wreck, but don't know if it's my business.
Carolyn: As her confidante, it's certainly enough of your business for you to say to her once, "Stop being the train wreck." If she's liable to tune you out as a scold, though, then you might do better approaching her as an equal: "You know what you've said to me over the years about affairs. Do you want me to try talking you out of it, or just smile and wave?"
Anonymous: To Portland: I'm not sure if my mother has ever dated someone who WASN'T married, and I can tell you there has never been a chance anyone else's comments could have changed that.
Your friend knows her pattern. The thing that compels her to be with married men is stronger than her reasons to leave them alone. And, it's possible that by talking to you about her "mistakes," she's absolving herself. I.e., as long as she feels bad about herself for doing it, she can keep doing it. Sometimes confession is just phony penance, with no intention of change.
Carolyn: Well said. Memo to those who have become professional listeners to their chaotic friends . . .
Portland again: And there's the rub — I'm not her confidante. At least in the sense that the only reason I know is that I read her e-mail. So to confront her is to also tell her I did a scuzzy thing.
She just recently got out of a long-term relationship in which her boyfriend left her because she could not — or would not — have an intimate relationship with him. She's been in therapy since then. She's admitted that her past affairs were ways to have intimacy without having to open herself up to someone, to be in complete control. I guess I'm just stunned by her self-destructiveness.
Carolyn: I just got up and walked around my dining-room table, which I guess is the keyboard era's answer to speechlessness.
Not only should her self-destructiveness no longer surprise you, but you also might want to note where it's rubbing off on you.
You can't save her, and your ability to help is limited. Please realize that maintaining a healthy distance from her problems is not the same thing as turning your back or not caring about her. You can care and still realize this is her smoking wreckage and she has to pick through it herself. You can care and still realize this is who she is, and it's not even productive to hope she'll improve unless and until she actually starts to show improvement.
Sounds harsh, I know, but every day brings another story of someone getting sucked in to someone else's problems, beyond the point of usefulness to the rescue-ee and healthy boundaries for the rescuer. When you're reading a fellow adult's e-mail, the real message is, go live your own life.