Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? — she’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast transcript — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
My best friend of 30 years is marrying the wrong guy at the end of May and it’s killing me.
Just before the pandemic really took over, she met a guy (eight years younger!) online. They met up at a bar, and she was head over heels. I was happy she had even one person to hang out with, and I didn’t make much of it — it was the start of the pandemic and I wanted her to have any company to keep. By April, they were ENGAGED. I cried and cried when she told me — she thought it was tears of happiness, and for me it was tears of sorrow.
My question: What do I do? How do I learn to have this new person in my life? How do I create space for someone saying things I find offensive and dehumanizing? I can see how her past has led her to this point, but I don’t see anything that represents her in all of this — where is the space for her? I see everything she is being made to sacrifice, and I can’t see it being an even trade for what she gets in return.
The Phone Call
Esther Perel: Hello? It’s Esther. How are you?
Caller: I’m good. I can’t believe I’m speaking with you. I feel so lucky.
Esther: Hey, here we are. And you have a question for me. How can I help you?
Caller: The question, I suppose, is what do I do when I see my best friend betraying herself and I know it doesn’t bother her? Does that make sense?
Esther: Yes, but the interesting thing in your question is that half of it is a question and half of it is an opinion.
Caller: Yeah. I’m very opinionated, which is part of my problem, I think.
Esther: And what is the issue, first of all?
Caller: The main issue is, in the past year, after landing herself in this position where I think she’s been quite lonely, she’s met someone and kind of rushed through all of these phases of life: meeting someone, getting engaged, moving in, getting a dog, arranging a wedding, needing to get pregnant straight away … And all along the way, I’m not seeing any indication that there’s space for her. But when we have conversations about these decisions that she’s making and why she’s making these decisions and what she wants to do, I’m concerned that I see a lot of accommodating for other people — and that there aren’t those moments where I see who she is, what she’s all about, what she wants.
Esther: And you’ve said as much to her?
Caller: It’s tough with her. She’s more stubborn than I am and one of these people that, in the past — because this isn’t the first time things like this have come up in our relationship — if you clearly bring her up on this stuff and you say, “I’m really concerned about this. Are you sure that this is the right choice? Are you sure that this is your choice? How is this serving you?,” those are the things that tend to propel her even further into whatever it is that’s going on.
Esther: Because your question is actually asking her to affirm her choice and to convince her that it’s the right choice, but that’s the way you ask it. You could also ask her, “Oh, this has been a very rough year for you and you have felt very lonely, and I am far away. And many of the other people that you wished were there, or that you would hope to count on, haven’t been there for you. Tell me, how important has he — or they, if it’s his family included — been for you?”
Caller: Yeah. I feel like it’s almost like she’s closed in on that conversation, if that makes sense.
Caller: She calls me and she’ll preempt it in a way. I feel like she knows what I’m going to ask her.
Esther: Because you’re not asking. You’re not really asking questions; your questions are disguised judgments with a question mark at the end. You’re not really asking her. So she anticipates judgment and criticism from you, and she comes in defendant. And the more you tell her that she doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing, the more she will tell you that she does and the more she will justify herself. And the more you will think that she’s wrong.
Caller: Yeah. Actually, that’s it right on the head.
Esther: So what if you turned around the moment and actually did something that was very different? You could even start by saying, “I think I have been quite judgmental. I’ve been so surprised and so not convinced that I have not really asked you but I have basically told you.” Really imagine that you actually became deeply curious and interested in understanding rather than in wanting her to understand why you think this is not a good idea.
Caller: Yeah. I think that’s exactly it.
Esther: You’re going to go to the wedding?
Caller: I am. I’m nervous about it, obviously, but I need to be there with her in person, I think. I think part of the problem as well is just the time difference and video calls — like, you don’t really get a complete story there. And I think it’s easy for all of this to feel so abstract and just for us to be reminded about why that friendship matters.
Esther: Are you afraid to lose her?
Esther: Maybe that is not just because of who she’s marrying but just the simple fact that she’s moving into a new life stage. She seems to be entering a whole family, which you always thought you were her family, and it’s complicated by the fact that you don’t particularly think that she’s making a choice that you are fond of. But you don’t fully understand the choice. I’m not talking about his values and their lifestyle and all of that. I’m talking about her loneliness, her sense of loss that she felt during this year, and how she chose to respond to it. And you haven’t said to her, “I’m just afraid to lose you.”
Caller: Yeah, exactly. And I think part of it is just related to about nine years ago: My dad just up and left, and he changed completely — completely. He changed his life completely. And I spoke to him for the first time on the phone in eight years about six weeks ago. And it was like speaking to a complete stranger. And I think that’s what I worry about in this. I recognize moments where I’m like, This isn’t the person I’ve known my entire life.
Esther: Does she know the resonance of what’s happening between you and her with what you just described with your father?
Caller: No. I don’t want to be, like, centering myself in all of this.
Esther: Oh, but it would explain so much. That’s not about putting yourself at the heart of the story. That’s about saying to her, “I’m beginning to understand why I have reacted the way I have.”
Caller: Yeah. Because I think that’s the thing: I’m worried now that what she believes is that I’m looking down my nose at her for something. I’ve never expected her to ever make the same choices in life as me. We never have made the same choices. We’ve lived very different lives in many ways. I’m not sure if she would arrive at that conclusion. I guess it’s just — it never feels like the right time to ever bring up something like that.
Esther: Write it to her. Write it because then she’ll read it when it’s a good moment. Does that appeal to you?
Caller: I guess it’s one of those things I wouldn’t have ever thought about, really.
Esther: To write or to say those things?
Caller: I think to write it, just because that was, like, something that my dad had tried doing with us initially, and it always used to frustrate us because we were just like, “Just talk to us. We’ll hear you, but we want to be in the same room. We want to have a dialogue.”
Esther: When you spoke to him, were you able to tell him any of that?
Caller: Not since the first year. He made it pretty clear that the only way that we were going to have any semblance of a relationship is if he could involve his new wife in everything, which none of us felt really prepared for.
Esther: And that’s what you’re also seeing in your friend’s husband? “I will never see her alone. I’m going to have to deal with him all the time.”
Caller: I’m a little bit worried about it. And I am concerned that just because of the boundaries that they have in their own relationship about the things that they can and can’t talk about, I worry that that’s going to start kind of slipping into my relationship with her. And in some respects, that already has.
Esther: Specifically give me an example.
Caller: I think part of it is a lot of my passions and the work that I do is around politics and social issues. And I’ve noticed such a change in tone between us when these things come up. And this is something that I think so much of the country’s contending with right now. And because my work is centered in this area, it makes it really hard to talk about what’s going on with me and my life in a lot of ways.
Esther: What you’re hinting at is that her politics are changing? And then now you’re feeling like she’s veering off in a different point of view. And therefore, if you tell her what you do, what’s going to happen?
Caller: It feels like, “There’s the other side of the story that you’ve not thought about, that you’ve not considered”; “The media is sensationalizing” — this kind of stuff. And these kind of bold claims that I don’t really agree with, but also, having a background in media, I trust my sources and the work that I do. And so it’s a bit awkward.
Esther: So there’s a few thoughts I have. The first is the friendship itself and tension that has increased between the two of you because each of you feels judged by the other. So there, I do think that just telling her about where you’re coming from, how you understand the way that you have reacted toward her, is another way of giving an understanding about why you became so harsh and why fear got masked into judgment.
But then the second thing is you’re not marrying this man. And so you don’t know where he came into her heart, into her life, into her loneliness this year and him, his family, what they have done for her, who they have been for her, how they received her — and those things are not about politics. If you want to stay her friend on some fundamental level, you will have to be able to develop a relationship that is about the curiosity around the difference rather than about the complicity around the similarities. If you think that he’s harmful, if you think that this is a threatening, dangerous situation — if you think any of those things, that’s a different conversation. But I don’t hear that, and stop me if I miss something.
Caller: No, I don’t think that’s what is occurring. It’s just more the kind of emotional distance that’s being created.
Esther: Part of what you’re dealing with is a childhood friendship that is wondering if it will be able to become also an adult friendship.
Caller: Yeah. I guess that’s the thing. I think both of us have always had this vision of us being old ladies walking down the beach together with, I don’t know, fur coats on or whatever.
Esther: But you need norms for that friendship. And the norms may be shared interests, shared values, shared activities, shared community or it may be a deep sense of care: “I’m here for you, no matter what, wherever you are, in whatever you do, even though we may find ourselves in completely different worlds.” There are different kinds of best friends.
Caller: Yeah. I definitely think of ourselves as being the latter, and I think she does as well. It’s just — it’s just been such a weird year.
Esther: Tell her what you’re telling me: “What’s happened to us?” and “I’m going to come, and I want to make sure that we reconnect” and not “We’re hanging by a thread.” Does that give you some clues?
Caller: Oh, definitely. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
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