Dear Dr. V,
I have been feeling incredibly drained and stressed out by a particular friend. She’s currently going through a divorce and while I feel very, very sympathetic, the constant calls of desperation are causing me to feel more overwhelmed in my own life. I’m trying to be a good friend because I believe that I’m a good person but I don’t know where the boundary is? I’m not even sure I have any? How can I be a good friend but maintain some of my own sanity while she goes through this time in her own life?
Jennifer from Washington D.C.
You have proven that you are not only a good and sympathetic friend, but an empathetic one as well — you are literally sharing your friend’s pain. You may have answered your question already when you mentioned boundaries.
Establishing healthy, normal boundaries in your friendship is the key to resolving the situation for both of you in a positive way.
When you and your friend became close, she was not yet going through a divorce. Your friendship developed with mutual boundaries and expectations based upon where each person was in her life at that time. Now your friend is dealing with grief over the loss of her marriage, and most likely the loss of the person who was her main emotional support, anchor and outlet. It is possible that your friend is unconsciously assigning the role of supportive husband to you. And it goes without saying that this is a role you simply cannot sub in for.
Establishing boundaries with someone who is so mired in hurt and sadness without making them feel further rejected can be difficult. And while you seem like a thoughtful person — not the type to keep emotions bottled up until you reach a breaking point and blurt out, “Enough with your divorce already, I’ve got my own problems!” — this can still be a fine line to walk. Here are a few suggestions to help you tread carefully:
- Breathe deeply. Sounds cliche, but it works. If you find yourself getting caught up in the emotional fallout, take a breath and remind yourself this is not your divorce; this is not your hurt. Breathe in feelings of relief and calm, exhale the stress; it doesn’t belong to you, so don’t hold on to it.
- Remember this is temporary. Eventually the turmoil and anguish of the divorce will pass, or at least lessen, as time goes on. If you are feeling trapped, try to remember this will not be the sum total of your existence for the rest of your life. Your friend might do well to remember this, too.
- Use technology to your advantage. We are fortunate to live in the age of cell phones, Blackberrys, text messaging and caller ID. If you get a phone call and you feel like you don’t have energy to devote to a conversation, text her back and set up a time to talk later, when you think you’ll be feeling up to it. This way you can get a little breathing space, and she’ll know that you’re still there for her.
- Be good to yourself. Take time to have fun and enjoy life. Go out for a meal, take a day trip in the car somewhere, go to the movies, or just take walk in your neighborhood. There are infinite choices of wonderful, low-cost (or free!) things you can do for yourself to feel good and realign your emotional center.
Most importantly, always remember that you are not responsible for healing your friend. Don’t guilt yourself out of enjoying that which is good in your life because of the unfortunate circumstance she finds herself in.
This being said, I would strongly suggest that you advise your friend to speak with a therapist or mental health care professional. If she’s uncomfortable with that idea, perhaps a support group might suit her better, and again, technology can help. There are numerous online support groups for people going through a divorce, many of which are free and completely anonymous. After making my own cursory search (I just Googled “divorce support groups”), I came up with this link: http://www.dmoz.org/Society/Relationships/Divorce/Support_Groups/, which provides links to various divorce support groups on the Web. It could be a good starting point for your friend, and perhaps it could help her feel that she was taking some forward action.
As I said before, divorce is a traumatic experience. If a person came to you with a mortal injury, you’d rush her to the doctor — your friend is dealing with severe hurt that requires special attention. With the right help she’ll be able to develop the tools to heal and move back into a place where she’s living life to the fullest. While this is a sad situation for her, it would only be more unfortunate if you became needlessly emotionally entangled as well.
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