Dear Belladonna Rogers,
A close friend, Tina, who’s 25, plans to marry Geoff, 37. He’s Mr. Wrong. I care for Tina very much (she’s the great-niece of my closest friend and sorority sister, who died last year.) I don’t want to damage our friendship.
My batting average in predicting divorce before couples marry is 1.000. I’m also three times Tina’s age, and have seen a great deal of life. Do I have a duty to warn her? If so, how?
Worried in Waukegan
For today’s column, I polled a wide variety of friends and acquaintances, as well as some total strangers in line at Home Depot, where I’ve been stocking up on 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. One friend replied that there are two questions you should never ask. The first is, “What does he see in her?” and the second is, “What does she see in him?”
The consensus was to say nothing, unless dealing with your own child. Here’s why:
No one likes unsolicited advice. Love is not only blind, it’s also deaf. People believe they know themselves and their intended spouses better than anyone else. They don’t like meddlers. They bridle at being told what to do. They often reject the adviser along with the advice — permanently. People don’t think it’s anyone else’s business whom they choose to marry.
I think these dilemmas come in two types. The first is when you do have a duty to warn a friend or anyone else in your life. All the rest — the vast majority — are of the second type, where you have no such obligation. These are optional. Whether you intervene depends on how strongly you feel and how outspoken you are. Be prepared to be rebuffed in any event.
WHEN YOU HAVE AN AFFIRMATIVE DUTY TO WARN
You have a duty to warn Tina if you’re certain Geoff will cause her permanent physical harm or such severe emotional injury that it’s the psychological equivalent of grave physical damage.
Even at the risk of angering Tina, or causing her to break off relations with you entirely, you must warn her if you’re sure, based on conclusive evidence, that she will inevitably be the victim of grave physical or psychological abuse.
If it turns out that Tina was already aware of this, your task could well be impossible if Geoff is a skilled manipulator who has succeeded in making her believe that her only chance for happiness lies with him. Once forged, such unions are difficult for others to sever. Years, often decades, pass before the victim is able to break free. As often as not, they never do.
If your concerns are grave enough, you may forever regret not warning a friend, and may blame yourself later if terrible harm comes to her and you held your tongue when it might have helped to speak your mind.
SITUATIONS THAT WILL TEMPT YOU TO INTERVENE BUT ARE OPTIONAL
If your qualms are based on your belief that Tina’s marriage will lead to what Sigmund Freud called “ordinary unhappiness,” which he distinguished from “hysterical misery,” I don’t recommend intervening. If you find Geoff boring and fear that she will, too, say nothing.
If you know that Tina’s attraction is based on Geoff’s sexual appeal and you think he’s a cad lacking the requisite integrity to sustain a long-term marriage in a monogamous relationship, it’s unlikely she’ll pay any attention. She’ll claim that “no one knows him as well as I do.” The best way for her to come to her senses is if she sees Geoff with another woman. Hearing that others have seen him two-timing her will have little to no effect, alas.
HOW TO START THE CONVERSATION WHEN YOU WANT TO INTERVENE
Don’t lecture and don’t mention your age as if it’s an advantage you have over Tina. We all know young fools, but we also all know old ones. Instead, initiate a two-way conversation in which you try to draw her out about the sources of Geoff’s appeal. This may lead her to ask for your advice, which is preferable to your trying to impose it at the outset.
Try to show your interest and concern without becoming overwrought: you want her to remember your questions and thoughts, rather than the agitated emotional intensity with which you expressed them. “She got all red in the face” is not how you want Tina to look back on your exchange.
Try to discover what Tina thinks of Geoff’s character. She may not have thought of him in terms of character. Ask whether she believes he’s a man of integrity, a man of his word, a man others tend to like and respect, or one from whom they tend to keep their distance.
QUESTIONS THAT MAY ELICIT A REQUEST FOR YOUR ADVICE
Does he have close friends, and, if so, does Tina like them? Marriage doesn’t consist of two people forever living together in a vacuum, but rather experiencing thousands of interactions with others over a lifetime.
Can Tina picture Geoff being able to manage these transactions with others with integrity? Does she find him trustworthy? Do his flirtations cause Tina discomfort? Does she find herself easily bored in his company when they’re not in bed, with friends, watching or engaging in sports, or at the movies?
Does she like his family? Is she comfortable with the way he treats his mother and sisters, as well as other women she sees with him, including her female friends, waitresses and other women he encounters when they’re together?
If Geoff’s main appeal is physical and sexual, it’s often useless — but still worth some effort — to mention that over time the strongest bonds that keep couples together are shared values, and attitudes toward life in general and toward loved ones in particular. Character traits such as loyalty, self-discipline and integrity also form the basis for strong, lasting bonds. These will long outlast the passions of the moment, and if such traits aren’t already apparent to Tina, they’re unlikely to materialize out of nowhere one torrid afternoon in the sack.
Try to steer the conversation in a direction that causes Tina to ask for your advice. If she does, you could say that you’ve observed the arc of many relationships such as hers and Geoff’s, and they’re more likely to resemble the high peak and steep decline of a parabolathan the line of a graph that ascends, getting better and better, over the long term:
If you can offer examples of couples you both know, so much the better.
KEEP YOUR EXPECTATIONS LOW
Don’t expect a sudden transformation in Tina, with an instantaneous announcement of her decision to break up with Geoff. Your purpose is to plant a seed of doubt. Tina can now view Geoff’s behavior through the perspectives you’ve suggested to her.
Your role model here isn’t Perry Mason, who never failed to evoke a dramatic confession on the witness stand.
Try, instead, the less sensational, more subtle approach of the successful criminal defense attorneys on Law & Order, who seek to instill reasonable doubt in the jury, sowing seeds of suspicion. Over time, through Tina’s internal deliberations — the seeds of doubt may mature into a change of mind and a change of heart.
If, despite your best efforts, you fail, console yourself with the truths contained in this classic that expresses how Tina may feel one day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkATTrmyF1M
Do you have questions? Belladonna Rogers has answers. Send your questions or comments about politics, personal or cultural matters, or anything else that’s on your mind, and Belladonna will answer as many as possible. The names, geographic locations and email addresses of all advice-seekers will be kept confidential. Names and places and will be changed to protect the identity of the questioner. Send your questions or comments to: [email protected]