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Dr. Irene S. Levine Headshot

Women, Friends, and Personal Crises: An Open Letter to Friends of Silda Spitzer

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"She'll have no shortage of people wanting to be there for her," says one of Silda's friends quoted in the Washington Post. But will her friends know how to be there for her?

When something lousy happens to a friend, it often leaves us at a loss for words.

That's why I'm writing this open letter to all of Friends of Silda Spitzer (FOSSs) and to other women who may find themselves with friends in painful circumstances. Whether you're her friend or not, the heart of every woman reaches out to Silda and her teenage daughters when we saw that look on her face.

But it's not an exaggeration to say that if you live long enough, most of us know someone who has suddenly been thrust into a personal hell that is a deeper one than she can climb out of by herself. It may have happened to you or one of your close friends.

The first lady of New York has been described as brilliant, accomplished and wealthy. But like ordinary women, right now she has to be awash in a morass of painful emotions. Her needs are not too different than the immigrant single-mother who suddenly loses her below-minimum wage job; the woman whose husband has been accused of incompetence by his employer; the mother whose child has been expelled from school for using drugs; or the middle-age woman who has just lost a parent or received a life-threatening diagnosis.

At times like this, women hope they will be surrounded by female friends with whom they can talk openly, express anger, or even just cry. Silda can't unload the depth of her hurt to her teenage daughters, and she can't possibly restrain the anger and disappointment she must feel towards her husband who showed a terrible lapse in judgment. Isn't that what friends are for?

Yet, situations like this often place friends in an uncomfortable situation, not knowing exactly what to say or do. Here are a few tips for how to be there for your female friend in trying times:

Be there

Circle around her but don't impose yourself. Find a subtle, non-obtrusive way to let her know you are there if and when she wants to talk. If you know she is a CrackBerry addict, send her an email or text her. If you generally are phone friends, you may want to reach out and touch her by telephone.

Be sensitive to the cues about whether she is ready to talk or is simply too overwhelmed. Remember that a warm note---an old-fashioned snail mail one written in your own handwriting that says "I'm thinking of you"---always feels heartfelt.

Don't make the embarrassment seem larger than life. "I'm always amazed how many people just simply don't treat the person the same as they did two weeks ago," says Peter Shankman, CEO of the Geek Factory, whose firm often gets called in to assist with crisis management. "I'm sure Silda would kill for a friend to call and say 'Hey, let's grab brunch.'"

Listen, don't tell

Don't ask too many questions or pry. Instead express your feelings: presumably that that you feel for her, care for her and her family, and want to be there anyway you can. There are times when a hug means more than words.

Ask her if she wants you to be with her or if you can do anything concrete to help her out (I assume Silda has a kitchen staff but other people may appreciate a home-cooked casserole left at the door.)

Don't ask her why she was standing there. In fact, don't try to second guess the reasons for any friend's decisions while she is in a reactive crisis mode. (Think about it: You never really know what you would choose to do if you were in standing in her stilettos.) Interpersonal relationships are complex and hard to understand from the outside. It takes time for a woman to work through her feelings and allegiances during and after a crisis.

Give her the gift of time

If she declines contact, give her some space and try again a few days later. Shock and/or depression make it difficult to accept help.

This also isn't the time to rile against whomever you perceive to be the perpetrator of your friend's pain. As hypocritical or reprehensible as you may feel the other person to be, your friend needs to reach that conclusion by herself.

Honesty trumps eloquence

Even if you are struggling with what to say and how to say it, never pretend not to know what happened. Of course, in Silda's case, you would have had to be living in a cave. But whatever the situation, it's always better to do something rather than nothing.

Based on online survey of more than 1300 women, Irene is writing a book about female friendships called The Myth of Best Friends Forever (Overlook Press, January 2009).

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