When I first met Karyn*, her zany humor and spiritual depth drew me in. Even though we're polar opposites—I love hiking and adventure, she likes sitting on the deck and sipping tea—we connected instantly. We talked about everything, especially our families.
Then Karyn's husband, eager for a new beginning, quit his job. Before long, however, it became evident he wasn't actively seeking employment. He stayed up late at night, watching endless hours of television, then slept long into the day. Soon he withdrew from friends, family, and Karyn, even refusing to go to church with her. The harder Karyn tried to help—begging him to visit a counselor, highlighting possible employment ads, asking him to reconnect with church friends—the more her husband resisted.
I was in unfamiliar territory as a friend. Angered by how Karyn's husband treated her, I offered opinions instead of listened to her. As her marriage spiraled downhill, our conversations grew more stilted. Not wanting to add to Karyn's pain, I carefully sidestepped the topic of my healthy marriage.
Overwhelmed by life, Karyn isolated herself from her close friends. As the barriers between us seemed to loom larger, I made the mistake of letting our friendship slip away just when she needed me most.
One day, while I prayed for Karyn, tears streaming down my face, God reminded me that while I couldn't mend Karyn's marriage, I could love her through the hard times. I realized I needed to search for gentle, creative, practical ways to support her in the midst of her crisis, instead of wait for her to ask me for help. That's what being committed to our friendship—for better, for worse—meant.
Unsure where to begin, I contacted a few friends who'd also experienced the pain of an unhappy marriage. Their advice started me on the right path.
1. Provide comfort.
Whether it's chocolate, a hug, a kind word, or time for a nap, small comforts remind your friend she's not alone in her time of need. Treat her to lunch. Babysit her children for a few hours to allow her personal time. Whip up her favorite dessert. Send her a photo of you two with a personal inscription. Buy her a gift certificate for a massage, or join her for a pedicure or manicure.
I knew Karyn loves candles and solitude, so I filled a small gift bag with tea lights, soothing bath beads, and lotion. Inside I placed a fun card I'd signed, "I miss you." When I dropped by her workplace and handed her the gift, she gave me a warm hug. We talked for a few minutes, and then I left. Those moments were a start to restoring our friendship.
When the husband of my friend Cheryl became addicted to alcohol, Cheryl was so busy caring for her children that she had no time left to care for herself.
Then one day, while she and her college-aged son stood in line at McDonald's, he put his arms around her tightly and asked, "When was the last time someone who truly loves you hugged you?" To this day Cheryl remembers the power of her son's hug and caring words.
Hugs are especially comforting. They remind your friend she's still loved and valued.
2. Avoid platitudes.
Author Lissa Halls Johnson recalls her struggle in an unhappy marriage. "The last thing I needed was more well-meaning friends telling me God wouldn't give me more than I could handle," she admits, "because, at that moment, I had more than I could handle."
"I thought I'd throw up if I heard 'just take it to the Lord' one more time," agrees Cheryl. "I prayed more than anyone I knew. Laying an unhappy marriage at the foot of the Cross is a given. I surrendered my struggles to the Lord hourly."
The Bible never promises life will be trial-free. So encouraging someone to "have faith" when her every waking moment's already focused on trusting God only adds to her burden.
"Friends who quoted Scripture about how I should be happy or who reminded me my circumstances weren't as dire as someone else's weren't encouraging," adds Lissa Halls Johnson. "The only life I can live is the one I'm living. If my marriage is exceedingly difficult, being told how worse others have it doesn't help. I still must deal with my situation day after endless day.
"However, verses that spoke to how I felt—churning with angst, crying out to God—actually did help. Passages such as Isaiah 43 showed me God was there even when I felt as though he wasn't."
Sometimes, saying nothing is better than saying too much or speaking when you don't know what to say. Ask God for wisdom.
3. Spend time.
Six years ago, my son spent several weeks in the hospital after a terrible accident. During that time, Karyn brought warm meals from my favorite restaurant to the hospital every noon. She sat beside me, listening to my frustrations and wiping away my tears. She told me silly jokes to make me laugh even though I thought I'd forgotten how.
"Friends fill the gap of loneliness," says Cheryl. "A true friend's willing to spend time with someone. And she doesn't have to make every activity 'spiritual.' So have fun together! Include your friend in shopping sprees, family outings, and game nights just as you did when she was happily married."
If pounding to aerobics together at the local gym isn't your idea of girl-time, plan long walks where you and your friend can talk freely. Break out the comfy clothes and watch your favorite comedy together. Laughter heals.
These activities aren't about taking time away from her marriage; they're about planning regular, quality friendship time. Everyone needs that, no matter where her marriage stands.
4. Speak truth.
At the end of a party one evening, I slipped into the bathroom to freshen my lip-gloss. Looking in the mirror, I spied a wad of spinach lodged in my teeth. Of the dozens of people who'd spoken to me that night, not one had mentioned the green stuff sprouting from my upper incisor.
A good friend speaks the truth!
However, speaking the truth doesn't mean criticizing your friend's husband or her marriage. Doing so could damage your relationship, especially if your friend's marriage improves. So remain neutral and positive. Don't take sides. Rather than ask your friend to deny her circumstances ("Just have faith, sister!"), trust with your friend God will guide her though them. Hope for the best, but also understand that no matter what the outcome, God loves your friend even more than you do. He'll walk with her step by step as she journeys through the tough times.
Lissa Halls Johnson shares this advice: "Don't tell your friend things will get better, because often they don't. Many times a marriage situation gets worse, and sometimes ends in divorce. Help her trust God to be God, not to be a divine genie who grants wishes. While God won't necessarily give her what she wants, he loves her and will never abandon her. Encourage her to stay close to God, even if he seems distant."
According to the latest statistics, almost 43 percent of marriages ends in divorce. How many more couples struggle in an unhappy marriage as they strive to resolve their problems?
The truth is, everyone knows someone whose marriage is in crisis. You may not know how to solve her problems, but friendship isn't about fixing each other; it's about loving each other. It's comforting your friend. It's praying for her. It's acting as a source of strength and joy when your friend's joy is low. It's letting her know she's not alone.
It's being a friend—for better, for worse.
Rachel K. Morrison is a pseudonym.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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