Dear Carolyn: My best friend from college is one of the most honest and loyal people you could ever meet. She’s an amazing attorney, a devoted mom, a very good friend and a really mean wife. She and her husband are visiting me right now and it’s painful to hear the scathing tone she uses with her husband and the constant stream of criticism and orders she directs at him. It seems to be all about control and putting him down, right in front of me and my partner. Her husband is annoying and has his own faults, but no one deserves to be treated this way.
I love my friend but this has concerned me for a long time; they’ve been married four years. I’m convinced that if I bring it up I will hurt her and risk the relationship. But it also feels wrong to be a silent witness — and if I can’t talk to her about this, who will? What should I do, and how should I do it?
Carolyn says: You’ve answered half of your own question (thank you, by the way):
If you can’t say something, then who will?
“Best” friend means you voice your concern — and you make it about her. Take a walk with her alone and get to it: “I’m worried about you. You’re one of the best people I know, yet you’re so openly rough on Husband that it’s almost like you’re possessed by someone else. Are you OK? Is there anything I can do?”
If she’s under stress and dumping it all on him, which is what your description suggests and is also quite common — though it’s abuse, make no mistake — then compassion is your best chance of coaxing her out of this angry, defensive place.
You may still hurt her and the friendship, of course. However, turning a blind eye to abuse just to preserve your comfort zone is not a choice that withstands moral scrutiny.
Even if you weren’t close but still haven’t distanced yourself — if, say, you were a colleague or neighbor or some other acquaintance of proximity with limited options for walking away, or if you believed there was enough good in her to give her a chance — then you’d still have a bystander’s obligation to come forward. Saying something light in the moment, like, “Wow, tell us how you really feel,” can both break the tension and send the message that her tone has crossed a line.
It can help just to be openly nice to a victim, too (especially true with kids). “Here, let me help you with that,” or, “Tell me about your new job.” Cast your lot with humanity.
If this all seems frustratingly careful, that’s because it is. Abusers use isolation to their advantage, so while there’s always a point where principle demands cutting ties, there’s value in walking a line until then, one that keeps you involved without enabling.
Plus, people in the gray area between mensch and monster — the ones with histories of warmth and decency who have lately veered into anger — need more loving people in their lives, not fewer. More people to help carry what’s weighing them down. At least give her this chance to recall the person you’ve known her to be.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.