Carolyn Hax: Can a married person comfort unhappily single friends?

Hi Carolyn: I am recently married, and many of my close friends are single. I find that several of my friends are wanting to complain about being single, but that nothing I say to comfort or empathize with their complaints seems to be the right thing.

Recently I was with some of them, and they were talking about not envisioning a future for themselves where they can be happy with someone and how sad it makes them. I tried to respond empathetically, saying things like “I’m sorry, that’s hard,” and, “Yeah, it’s so rough to be feeling that,” while also reminding them that they have so much going on for them besides romantic love and that you never know what’s coming in life or who you’ll meet, etc.

One of the friends suddenly snapped at me and told me she knows she’s being bitter, but people who haven’t been single in a long time lose sight of what it’s like, so I just can’t understand and can’t act like I get it. It stung, especially since I am going through all kinds of things that aren’t about my relationship and never lash out at my friends that they can’t understand what I’m feeling.

So now I’m trying to figure out what some right things are to say when this comes up, or do I regard them silently or say just, “Mmmm,” for however long they talk about this topic? That doesn’t sound like a very good friend to me and I want to continue to be close and be there for them. I just don’t seem to be doing it right?

— The Source of Bitterness

The Source of Bitterness: There is no “right” way to say something people don’t want to hear, and people with complaints about being single don’t want to hear from the recently married person unless they say otherwise by asking your opinion directly. That part is straightforward, and, yes, your role is to “Mmm” and “Ugh” and “Yeah” at all the appropriate times to demonstrate that you’re listening and you care. When in doubt, ask whether they want your “reminders” or just your ears.

But there’s a part of this that isn’t as simple — there has to be, or else we couldn’t talk about any experiences that aren’t precisely shared.

It starts with humility: recognizing that your value to your friends isn’t as a source of life knowledge but instead as a source of knowledge of your friends themselves.

So whenever the urge bubbles up to say something general from your experience, redirect it into something specific to theirs or specific to them as people.

And if you’re not sure what to say, then let your friends tell you what they want from you. “So, what do you think?” Or, “What’s your plan?” Or, “Is there anything anyone can do?” Ask your way toward being the “very good friend” they want to have.

It also takes humility to own it when they let you know the wisdom of your experience, even generalized, is not what they’re looking for here, as your snapping friend just did: “You’re right, I’m not in a position to know what you’re feeling. I am sorry for suggesting I did.” Nothing kills a good message faster than a defensive messenger, so drop all defenses upfront. Even though it stings.

But also don’t be afraid to articulate your message clearly as a way of standing up for yourself: “When there’s something going on in my marriage, I’m going to talk to you guys about it — whether you’re single at the time or dating or cohabiting or married or divorced or widowed. Because to me it’s our experience with each other that counts.”

Your being paired while they’re single is merely one group snapshot of multiple changeable lives. (As you were attempting to point out to the friend who didn’t want to hear that. But you asked me. Ha.) Friendships manage to run unbroken through these changes when all parties understand implicitly that who’s up or down relative to whom can change in a day — and you are there for and committed to each other regardless. I hope that proves true of you and these friends.

Dear Carolyn: My spouse and I agree politically, mostly, but I have a need to talk about it and express my opinion — usually anxiety, for the past few years — and he “doesn’t want to hear about it.”

This is very stressful for me, on top of the existing stress. What should I do?

Anonymous: Respect his wishes — and his boundary — find someone else to vent to, and be very, very thankful you two mostly agree.

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