“You know this is going to end horribly, right?” My college roommate and I were making gouda grilled cheeses (a staple in our apartment), and as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I had made a grave error. That moment left a frost in the air that didn’t melt away for months. Eventually, when her relationship took some awful turns, I was the last to know. I've been thinking about this moment — and similar moments with other friends — and have made a resolution: I'm going to stop meddling in my friends' love lives.
No more, "Just a thought..." or, "Well, if it was me, I would..." or even, "But what if..." — because meddling, despite how helpful you may feel while doing it, is simply unproductive. Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and author who specializes in interpersonal relationships, agrees.
“We need to remember that the highest value in life isn't trying to prevent all of our friends from experiencing any pain,” Nelson says. “It’s OK if they need to move in with someone and learn something about themselves and learn something about relationships. This life is about learning, so we don’t need to be so frightened that our friends might be making a 'wrong' decision when almost all of us learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.”
Sounds simple enough. But in practice? Difficult. I always thought my meddling was noble work. How could I just stand by and do nothing while my friends were hurtling toward certain disaster? I have always been honest with those I love and happily share my perspective when asked — maybe a tad too candidly. Nelson’s sentiments resonated.
The point, she says, is not to arbitrarily give up our tendency to pry into friends’ lives. Instead she offers a blueprint for readjusting our perspective, prioritizing support instead of vindication, and looking inward when we find ourselves frantically pacing around our apartments worried that maybe, someday, a boy may shatter our friend’s heart while we sit idly by.
Our twenties are rife with change. Friends start to live with significant others, combine checking accounts with partners, and move cities and jobs every year. It can feel like it our job to save the ones we love from heartbreak or financial ruin (or both), but meddling is not a solution so much as it is a bump in the road.
As we enter the new year, it's time to make room for the necessary process of making mistakes. Sometimes, we allow ourselves room to mess up, but try to rob our friends of the same experience. We shouldn't. If this means keeping our mouths shut and our arms open, so be it.
“Our goal should be to communicate our acceptance no matter what choices friends make,” says Nelson.
Throughout changing significant others, changing jobs, and changing lifestyles, friends are so often our backbone. Meddling in our friends' love lives and doling out unwanted advice only hinders growth. What would happen if we shifted the idea that our role as a friend was not to defray destruction but rather to be a support system no matter what our friends are doing? How would your relationships change?
“The happiest people are the ones that are constantly adjusting,” says Nelson. “The most important thing we can do when we feel a friendship start to change is keep talking about those changes and asking what do you need from me now in this phase in life? What would be most helpful to you right now? Then we can better create the structure of our new friendship.”
When a friend is about to make a big decision (an engagement, a possible breakup looming around the corner, a cross-country move) there are so many things you can do instead of telling them that this is a huge mistake.
First and foremost, if you are feeling yourself get worked up and strung out because of your friend’s love life, try looking inward. “Start by asking why are you judging? What is this bringing up for you? What are you afraid of for her?” says Nelson. Answering these questions might be revealing and helpful to you — as long as you process these ideas with somebody safe who is outside of the situation. If your disapproval has to do with your own fears, you may be projecting your stress onto your friend instead of really listening.
How many times have you ever dumped someone because your friend told you to? What about dated someone because your friend suggested it? The answer is most likely almost never. So, despite the fact you may inevitably feel the reverberations of your friends’ choices, respect the fact that they are impacted in a much bigger way.
“One of the best things we can do is keep asking questions and letting our presence be as safe as possible,” says Nelson. “The truth of the matter is people actually know more than we admit we know. We might act confused, but really deep inside of us, we already know what we want to do.”
Ask questions and then leave the decisions with them (chances are they have already made it). This might look something like: “You’ve seemed very stressed and distant lately, I just wanted to check in and see how the move is going,” rather than, “Moving in with your boyfriend has made you really stressed and distant.”
“Help them process their own feeling and their own wisdom, then assume they know what they need to do,” says Nelson. The exception is of course if you have reason to believe a friend’s health or safety is in danger, in which case, subtleties go out the window and it is critical to seek professional help and get them out of the situation ASAP.
When a romantic relationship feels like it is straining your friendship, it is even more critical than ever to be attentive and affectionate. Even when times are tense, you can always express gratitude, do something kind, and make your friend feel loved.
“Look for the positive knowing that your relationship has some stress right now and most importantly that stress is normal,” says Nelson. Plan a night of face masks and wine, buy cheap tickets to a play, or cook some much-needed comfort food together without the temptation of making it an advice ambush or intervention.
For all the meddlers, the helicopters and the gossipers, 2019 is your year to give it all up. Let your friends live — mistakes and bad dates included.