You support their choice—and you'll help in any way—but you might also pick up some insights about your own relationship.
By Leigh Newman
1. Know your Z.
There's a children's book out there in the world called Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, which, like most children's books, is also for adults. In it, all the letters of the alphabet march up a palm tree, one by one. As each ascends, the tree leans over a little more, until a certain plucky Z scales the trunk, at which point the tree, and every letter on its branches, crashes to the ground--boom boom. Marriages are a little like this. There is a definite identifiable Z. The Z is not a hurricane or a bankruptcy or other tragedy that just happens to a couple. The Z is often a fun or exciting idea—that third baby or the move to Cleveland or the dream house that's just a little too expensive. Your friend and her husband, however, are piling it on top of their two full-time jobs, their two kids (one of them a very angry toddler), her aging mother, the master's degree he's pursuing at night and the crocheting business she's pursuing at dawn. "Don't add that Z!" you may think to yourself, or even say to your friend, "Humans have a limit to what they can manage without going insane and loathing every single person who demands so much as a Kleenex from them!" But it's too late—boom boom. It would be nice if you could learn from your friend's experience by saying, "My spouse and I will never fall victim to a Z." First, however, you have to know what that Z is--which means examining the rest of your life together, A to Y.
2. Try it before, not after.
I have a pal who spent six years mashing butternut squash, learning baby sign language and spending afternoons with mommy friends that bored her to the point of drinking Chardonnay at playdates (one glass). She called up everybody she knew (including me), explaining how lost and unhappy she was. She felt her life was empty, except for the kids. Which led her to realize that her marriage had to be empty, too. She left the marriage. After she left, she had to get a job at an ad agency to support herself. She felt great! She loved working—but she missed having a partner. More than a few friends (including me) thought, "Couldn't she have just gotten a job first, and then figured out if she wanted to stay with her husband?" To be clear, nobody should have to stay in a relationship where she's miserable, but before you take the big, drastic step of ending your relationship, it's worth trying to take the big, drastic step of changing your life—isn't it? At least, then you'll be able to say, "Hey, it wasn't me. It was us."
3. Understand: There is no 1995 at the end of the tunnel.
Right before some of my friends split up with their spouses, they talked about how amazing their lives would be once they were free. First off, they'd be having sex--and lots of it! They'd have time to go the movies three nights a week while the kids were staying with their co-parent! They'd eat at all those restaurants that don't serve chicken fingers!
After the divorce, however, these friends discovered that a lot of their friends were like me (tired parents) and thus could not go enrich themselves with cinema or gourmet meals on Tuesday nights. Further, when they went to bars to meet somebody to fall in love with, or even to kiss sloppily, they realized…oh boy…they had to get out of there! Because while they were busy being married, their bodies changed, their needs changed, their lives changed and the world had stayed the same. It was full of young, bouncy people who had not ever been married and who spent their evenings flaming body shots (as my friend had done in 1995) and confusing anybody over 22 with Santa or Betty White. This is not to say that these friends did not eventually find love and contentment. They did, but it took work and a lot of thought. They signed up for classes; they traveled; they went online; they got set up; one of them remarried with a high-school crush. But remembering that being single after you've been married is so not like being single before you've been married is helpful--especially during those dark moments when you're fantasizing about life on your own, while, say, arguing with your spouse about who is going to call the washing-machine man about the broken dryer.
4. Keep the happy bus on the road.
Looking at a friend's marriage, sometimes the crash is obvious. He did not respect her (loudly, at dinner parties). She did not respect him, either (loudly, at birthday parties). One of them was secretly gay or openly drunk all the time (no, I'm not kidding). And yet, there are those perplexing cases, where the couple in question loved to go to rare-book fairs together and quote poetry at dawn and spent their days growing heirloom vegetables. They had a baby or a puppy or a pony or carriage house. They held hands. They forgave all the important (and silly) stuff. They revered all the silly (and important) stuff. And then…one of them woke up one morning and drove the happy bus off the side of the mountain, as Adam Sachs described in his excruciating article about his wife's infidelity. You will never know what causes a friend or friend's spouse to have an affair, most especially if the marriage seemed, well, cheatproof. But you can and should recognize that for most of us humans, there comes a time in any relationship--after a martini, a fight, a totally too-flirty exchange when you're tempted--to drive the happy bus off the mountain, not because you're unhappy or lonely or mad, just because…well...because. Which is when the experience of that friend who already smashed her bus on the rocks may just prove invaluable--as a map. There is another road, after all. It is narrow. It is long. It is boring sometimes. But it leads up and up and up.
Leigh Newman is the Deputy Editor of Oprah.com and the author of the memoir Still Points North.