I have a friend who’s in trouble. Let’s say her name is Vicki. Let’s say she’s in California. The details don’t matter. Hers is an all-too-common story. A mutual friend, Lucy, has kept me up to date on Vicki’s situation with her husband, who abuses her.
Lucy is Vicki’s confidante, the person who’s heard the most about the psychological intimidation Vicki suffers. Recently Vicki has started saying she’s going to leave him. But they have two children, and she doesn’t want them to grow up without a dad. Also, she feels bad for her husband. He had a rough childhood, with a rich father who didn’t love him.
A couple of months ago, Vicki’s husband started hitting her. And choking her. She moved out temporarily. But her children were still with her husband in their home. Concerned neighbors called Social Services.
“If she doesn’t leave him, she’s going to lose her kids,” I exclaimed when Lucy told me.
“I don’t think she realizes that,” Lucy said. “She’s not hearing me anymore.”
I knew what Lucy wanted me to say. “I’ll call her,” I offered.
“Would you?” Her voice was thick with relief. “She listens to you.”
“If I can get her to realize that they might yank the kids,” I said, “maybe she’ll finally leave him.”
I began preparing my speech. The game is up, Vicki. If you want to keep your kids, you’ve got to divorce him. And press charges for when he beat you up. Things have gone too far. If you stay with him, you’re putting your kids in danger. They’ll end up in foster care.
But how could I be sure her husband wouldn’t be hovering in the background? I sent her a text, asking her to call me when it was safe for her to talk.
She didn’t call. And I began to rethink my approach.
Especially when trying to help others, I always try to speak from my heart. To be fully present and to respond intuitively to the person I’m with, even over the phone.
Rehearsing what I’m going to say makes that utterly impossible. My heart doesn’t shout. It whispers. It cannot make itself heard over my preconceived notions. And I certainly had those when it came to Vicki’s marriage.
But her husband’s power over her defies all reason. She’s smart, beautiful, and a darn good mom—with very little self-confidence. I didn’t know exactly what might help her, but I knew lecturing her would do absolutely no good.
Vicki didn’t call back for several days. When she did, I was surprised and completely unprepared. And so it was the perfect moment to talk.
I told her I was worried about her, that if she continued to stay in an abusive situation she might lose her children to foster care.
“Oh, God! Oh, God!” she wailed. “Tell me they wouldn’t do that.”
“I can’t tell you that. I don’t know. But they might.”
She was silent for several moments.
“Listen,” I said. “I know you love him. I know he can be a good guy. But maybe the chemistry’s just bad between you.”
From the other end came only sniffling.
I told Vicki I knew two sincerely nice people whose relationship had been really ugly, marked by screaming matches and volatile fights that went on for days. Finally they had split up. Now they were both with other partners, and happy.
“It was just bad chemistry between them,” I told her. “It was explosive. Maybe it’s the same with you guys.”
“Really?” she said. “It could be that?”
“Sure. It doesn’t mean you’re bad people, either one of you.”
I listened into the silence. I had a feeling she had heard me. But then she said, “He’s in counseling, and he’s really changed. He knows what he did was so wrong.”
My heart sank.
I said, “Vicki, you deserve a relationship with someone who supports you and cherishes you. You’re such a great person. And a great mom.”
We talked for a few more minutes and said goodbye.
Vicki is still with her husband. I am still thinking about well-rehearsed speeches.
Watching myself more closely now, I see that I prepare them in my head far too often, for talks I’m going to have with my mother, my husband, my friends. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to completely break this habit. But I’m trying. When I catch myself planning a conversation, I quickly list the most important points—and then let them go, like bubbles floating off. If the conversation ever takes place, I try to open my heart before opening my mouth.
I don’t know if I helped Vicki. But I feel pretty sure that what I said didn’t hurt—and that maybe it helped her move a little closer to helping herself. Often that’s all any of us can hope. It’s up to us to let it be enough.