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The Advice that Dare Not Speak Its Name: Should Friends Let Friends Marry Foolishly?

A reader in his late 20s writes to me and poses this not-uncommon dilemma. The reader does not like his close friend’s fiancée. At all. He worries that his friend is about to marry badly, and foolishly, to someone who will probably visit unhappiness on his life.

But the friend is besotted. He doesn’t see any of the flaws that his good friend cites—her controlling nature, the churlish demands, the ways that she separates him from his friends and his interests, and some other complaints.

There are weddings where you feel like a raging hypocrite because you’re cheering and celebrating and forecasting a life of happiness, while in the recesses of your skeptical mind you’re giving the relationship a few years. Hell, sometimes even the bride or groom feels that way.

This kind of conversation is the third rail of friendship, though. Can you ever weigh in with a seriously dubious opinion about a friend’s future spouse?

It seems so paradoxical, that on the decisions that will matter perhaps the most in our lives—those of marriage and divorce—any ethic of care, reciprocity, friendly support, advice-giving, or insight goes out the window. Real friends are expected to remain mutely (and in this case disingenuously) supportive.

It’s not our place to say, the wisdom holds. You’ll just lose the friendship, and how is it really your business, anyway.

I can understand this wisdom. What do we really know about another person’s relationship? They’re not the same person with their lover that they are with us, and we can’t presume to know what happens in private.  We get such a partial view. It feels presumptuous—and might be so—to think that we can venture any opinion when we don’t see the totality of the bond.

But the standard that no relationship decision by someone we care about is any of our business sets up such an atomized, alienated notion of when and how we should care for each other. And it’s interesting to me that people who are otherwise critical of extreme laissez-faire views champion them so strongly when it comes to relationships and friendships.

The code of silence around marriage choices also reinforces the questionable idea that emotions and affairs of the heart are outside of the realm of reason, thought, or social intercession.

One problem is that we can’t entirely even trust our reactions. Lurking beneath the criticism of a friend’s lover might fester ignoble but all too human emotions: envy, jealousy, fear of friend-abandonment, anxiety about change, and many others.

These are natural feelings, but socially proscribed. Psychologists say that most of us go to contorted lengths to dress up jealousy, for example, as something more righteous. It may be that our opinion about the relationship is tainted with personal fears, feelings and anxieties that darken our judgment.

So if you were to bravely go and venture an opinion about your friend’s choice, you’d at least have to be self-aware and self-critical enough to work through to the extent possible whether it isn’t some other, personal, extraneous motive driving the worries and judgment.

Second, if any opinion is to be ventured, then it must be ventured with extreme forethought, planning, and care. This is never a conversation to have in the slurry dregs of an evening, or in a drunken fit of maudlin “candor” or anger.

Finally, as a good friend, you can at least open up a space for your friend to change his mind, on his own time and in his own way. Make clear that you’d support him regardless of whether the marriage goes through, or regardless of how it works out.

I say this because the social pressure to appear to be a happy couple is so strong. That pressure can even drown out the self-doubts and misgivings that a bride or groom has before the wedding, such that they don’t hear or trust that small, inner voice of caution. Maybe you can help your friend listen to his own inner voice of misgiving, without actually having to be that voice.

I was surprised, after my book, to hear from people convinced that all other spouses must be so much happier in their marriages, because they look that way. I’m always hearing about how marriage isn’t valued as an institution, but among the groups that are now getting and staying married the most—the college-educated and professional classes—the social pressure to appear content seems quite strong indeed. It’s not always (or even often) the case, of course, that the couples are as happy as they appear. But they feel social pressure to project marital success.

If all else fails, stay a good friend and keep your opinions to yourself. Dance and laugh at the wedding, make a toast, and be of good, tolerant cheer. Speak now, or forever hold your peace.

Hope for the best—and be there for the worst.

 

 

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