Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: A very good friend of mine has been separated from her spouse for a year and a half, her decision, which will eventually end in divorce.
Over the past year, this friend has made a lot of life changes, which is to be expected as she tries to figure out her life now. I’m just a bit worried about her and I don’t know whether or how I should broach the subject with her. She has made unhealthy decisions – for example, smoking again after quitting for several years; having unsafe sex; etc.
I just don’t want to come across as judging her, because I’m not! I used to smoke and know how hard it is to quit. I don’t care who she sleeps with as long as she’s safe.
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When she brings up these decisions, I try to gently tell her that I just want her to be safe and healthy.
What really bothers me is that these types of decisions are unlike her, and it seems like she’s spiraling. My husband says to just stay out of it because she’s an adult. But I’m worried! What do you think? Do I keep my nose out of it?
Worried About My Friend
Yes, because she’s an adult, it’s her life, and it’s not at all unusual for people just out of a long relationship to go a little bonkers. It’s almost like teenage rebellion – there’s the sense of new freedom, of defiance (or defensiveness) in the face of expectations, of profound and scary questions about what the future will look like.
There also can be a certain measure of reverting to type. Relationship living involves at least some compromise somewhere, unless you manage to pair yourself with the person who has the exact same peer group, taste in television, bedtime reading habits, politics, drinking/eating/smoking habits, energy for going out, contentment with staying home, financial priorities, preferred form of exercise, approach to family, and whatever else.
And so being apart from the person you’re compromising with on a daily basis usually means you plump out into a fuller version of yourself, even temporarily, in their absence. When that pairing is unhappy or restrictive, freedom from it goes boom.
The spiraling potential with your friend does sound like cause for concern, but: What are the chances she doesn’t know that smoking and sleeping around come with risks?
And since when is your way the only way to be?
Your job is to care about her and be her friend, not act as her party guardrail. Please just care about her and be her boundary-aware friend by separating her choices from the results. If she wants to smoke and sleep around, then those are choices, and therefore they are her prerogative. If you see her start to lose her grip on her job, friendships, finances, or general ability to cope, then those are results, upon which a concerned friend can appropriately act, within limits of course. “Hey, I’ve noticed X, and I’m worried about you – would you like to talk?”
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.