My friend Sheila and I go back a long time. We don’t have sisters, so we always viewed each other as such. It’s been a beautiful relationship. I think we’ve always been able to provide for each other what the other one needed. But right now I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
When Sheila got engaged to Burt years ago, I was skeptical. Sheila is such a goodhearted, charming, attractive person, and I really don’t know what she saw in him, except for the fact that Burt is very bright — I’m thinking maybe crazy-bright. Though Sheila is smart enough, she was never a good student and had a hard time getting good grades. She talked to me many times about what a struggle it was to keep up in school and about disappointing her parents. So I always thought that the reason Sheila was excited about Burt was because if someone as brilliant as Burt was interested in her, she must be smarter than she, or anyone else, thought.
In reality, I don’t think Burt was interested in Sheila for her brains. I think he spotted a kind person who would always go along with him and give him the benefit of the doubt. She initially was in awe of him and never doubted or challenged anything he said. She put him on a pedestal.
They have now been married for eight years. From the start, I could tell Sheila wasn’t her usual happy self. She never talked about her marriage per se, but I felt that was the problem. Around two years ago, she showed up at my house, hysterical. She and Burt had a huge fight, and, for the first time, she started confiding in me how awful he is — controlling, verbally abusive, arrogant, and not so normal. She told me that she had been suffering for a very long time and is at the end of her rope and wants to leave him. She said she was going to tell her parents about what was going on and start looking for a lawyer.
I wasn’t surprised to hear what Sheila said about Burt. I asked her what I could do to help. I offered my home as a safe place should she ever need to escape, and I asked if she wanted me to research a lawyer for her, but she said she could handle things. I didn’t hear from her for a couple of days and was very concerned, but then she called me, sounding like her usual chipper self. I asked her what progress she had made toward getting divorced, and she said that I had seen her on a really bad day. She insisted that things were really not as bad as she had said and that they were working on their marriage.
I was surprised and I guess relieved to hear her say that. But a part of me wondered if it could be true. I’ve seen Burt behave in all the ways she described. Frankly, I’ve always been a little afraid of him and hesitant to get into a conversation with him, because he could wipe the floor with anyone in a verbal argument.
Anyway, things calmed down, but then the same thing happened about eight months later. Sheila told me she couldn’t live that way anymore and that she was going to get divorced. She has generally supportive parents (though she still hasn’t confided in them about what is going on), beautiful children, and money is not an issue. Once again, I was supportive and offered my help, and I was actually thrilled that she would finally get moving.
Well, the same thing happened last December and again right before Rosh Hashanah. Sheila shows up so devastated, my heart breaks for her. And then a few days later, she sort of denies what she shared and says they are going to work things out. I don’t see much of Burt, but when I do see him, he seems worse than ever — angry, argumentative, and full of himself.
I’ve asked Sheila again and again what is really going on and why this keeps happening. She says that she’s very emotional and gets carried away and I shouldn’t take what she says so seriously after they’ve had a terrible fight. Somehow, I just don’t believe her. She is not the same person I was once so close to. Though she is still sweet and lovely, I sense that she is living a miserable life, and I don’t understand why she is not moving forward with a divorce. Burt is a nightmare and any sane woman would run for her life.
I want to be respectful, but I don’t know what I can and can’t say and how I can encourage her to work toward a better life for herself and her children. Selfishly, I’m starting to resent the times that she shows up at my door hysterical. I wind up worrying about her day and night, just to have her recant the whole story a few days later.
At this point, what should my role be as a close friend to Sheila?
I agree with you that something concerning is going on with Sheila and Burt. People can have an awful fight with their spouse that sends them running, but when a pattern emerges, and you can literally predict what is bound to play out in front of you, it’s no longer a fluke but a potentially serious situation. My gut tells me that when Sheila shows up at your door in the heat of their altercation, she is finally being truthful with you. The Sheila she presents at other times might be a well-crafted cover-up, designed to allow her to stay stuck and not have to make any serious moves.
It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to be part of the dynamic. It’s hard to feel as though you are somehow guilty by association and helping to perpetuate this disturbing cycle. Though I’m sure Sheila has no desire to hurt you in any way, she probably doesn’t realize that it’s painful to be a witness to something that is depressing and could potentially be dangerous, and not be allowed to do anything to help or, at the very least, even offer advice.
But understand that you don’t know the full story. It’s possible that Sheila doesn’t even know the entire story. Divorce is a scary option. For some people, it’s an absolutely impossible option, despite how miserable one’s marriage might be. Insecurity, fear, and the unknown can paralyze people from moving forward, even when the choice appears obvious. Even when someone has supportive friends, family, and financial security, it may still feel daunting to the point of impossible.
So, though you and I are both doing plenty of speculating, we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. Maybe things are every bit as awful as you believe or possibly, hopefully, not as bad. But as a close friend who is getting mixed messages, all you can do is what you’ve been doing so far — remain a safe place for Sheila to land when she is feeling desperate. Additionally, you might try to encourage her to speak to a therapist, if she isn’t already, so that as safe and open as she feels with you (at times), she’ll have added support and an objective person to talk to about her issues and options.
Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I advise you to be aware. It’s not a bad idea to watch for any suspicious, totally out-of-the-ordinary behavior, or even bruises. At the same time, you have to respect where Sheila is presently at. It’s not your place to convince her to get divorced. Only Sheila will know if and when she is ready to pull the plug. Plenty of men and women stay in horrific marriages their entire lives and survive it, looking for happiness from other sources. If Sheila eventually asks you for advice, you can share your feelings and thoughts. But as long as she’s not asking, you have to hang tough, be there when she needs you (something tells me you haven’t seen the last of her emergency pop-ins), and continue to be her rock. That’s what friends do.
We can’t always fix one another — especially when one doesn’t ask to be fixed or even want to be fixed — but we can and should remain a solid source of comfort and support.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.