Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
One of my closest friends began dating someone about a year ago, and even though I've really tried to embrace her, I strongly dislike her. It's been a strain on our friendship from my perspective but he's so blissed out on new relationship energy that he actually doesn't have a clue I don't like her. She did some things early in their relationship that raised red flags to me, and I pointed them out tactfully. But once he declared his undying love for her and made significant accommodations in his life to suit her, I felt like continuing to tell him my honest opinion was futile.
But now I've got a bigger problem: I'm a wedding officiant and he's asked me to marry them. It's not my full time job nor my life's work, and thus far I've only done it for friends. But I feel really strongly that I don't want to marry them because I don't think this relationship is good for him. Let me be frank and admit I realize the following sounds judgmental. She's immature, selfish, stuck up, manipulative, scheming, and entitled. I believe she is taking advantage of him on several fronts and has him wrapped around her self-centered finger. He's desperate to be loved and she obviously fills a deep need in his soul because he got hooked fast and never looked back. If they got married, I would attend the wedding. I'd even give a toast focusing on him and skirting these issues. I just feel like if I'm the one to marry them, I'm condoning, supporting, and celebrating a relationship that I don't believe in, a relationship that is pretty fucked up. But there is literally no excuse in the world I can come up with to decline their request that doesn't raise the question “Why won't you marry us?” I can't answer that question honestly or it will absolutely end our friendship. Please help.
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
First I would just like to say: This is the worst. You have all my sympathies. It’s exhausting to have a good friend who chooses as Their Person someone you can easily see if not a good match for them. So many awkward encounters, so many half-answered questions, so many hours spent trying not to throw dinner rolls at the troublesome person (that one might just be me).
I have been married twice, Brave Correspondent. The first time was to someone profoundly, hilariously unsuitable for me. She turned out to be a pathological liar, she cheated on me (which is a special achievement in a polyamorous relationship, but she managed it), she stole from my family, and she was fairly mean to me for much of the seven years we were together. It was, in short, a very bad match. Apparently nearly everyone I was close to knew it—which I discovered only after we split. It turned out that all of my friends found her to be manipulative and selfish and all the other things you listed (wait, is your friend marrying my ex-wife?) but no one said anything to me for the exact reasons you listed. They didn’t want to spoil the friendship. They wanted to wait until I saw it too.
Now, listen. I understand—I truly do—why they made that choice. I wouldn’t have been able to hear anyone say anything even slightly negative about her for the first several years, so completely was I under her spell. I think your instinct, not to tell your friend exactly how you feel about his intended, is probably sound.
But in the same hand, I worry about it, and here’s why. When I was finally at the point of divorce, having eventually come to the same conclusions about my ex that all of my friends had, I felt like I needed to do an entire musical number entitled It’s No One’s Fault, We Just Grew Apart (and it’s ballad second act reprise We’re Going To Stay Friends) because I was trying to be cool and fair and not trash her to people I didn’t realize were just tolerating her for my sake. I thought everyone thought she was the bee’s knees and the Taj Mahal, same as I did at the beginning, and so I never reached out for support when things started to go sideways. I sucked it up, I faked it, and hoped to make it. I could have had a ton of support that I didn’t know about.
And so, Brave Correspondent, I think there is a line you can very carefully walk with this where it doesn’t seem like you’re disapproving of the marriage now but will position you well to support your friend when this gong show comes to an end. It starts, I think, by telling them that you are in a period of re-evaluating your role as a marriage officiant. For political reasons, for religious reasons, for time-and-energy reasons—whatever seems like it makes sense to you. If you need to hint at the possibility that a previous marriage having gone sour might be the cause of this, that’s okay. This answer should give you cover to not marry them while also having the virtue of being true—you are re-evaluating, if perhaps not as globally as they might assume. That’s okay.
(Also, in the fullness of time, this friend may well learn some things and want to marry again, and how pleased will both of you be that you can officiate the second wedding without unpleasant echoes of the first? I am going to say, very pleased.)
But also, take your friend aside, privately, in a separate conversation. Open up the possibility that he might someday have need to discuss things related to his marriage. Offer to him that as a person who has married some people before, you have gained some insight. Slip him a copy of John Gottman’s book Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, which will help if or when he starts feeling awful about his relationship and can’t figure out why. Be the person who says, explicitly: “Hey, I am here to talk about things. I am on your side.”
And then? Who knows. Maybe it will turn out that she’s fine and he’s happy and everything will shake out okay and everyone remembers your wedding toast with great fondness. That’s just fine. Or perhaps his trajectory will be like mine, and you will have to bear many cycles of him deciding that the issues in his marriage are his fault, and support him in trying harder while gently suggesting that he is not the only one in the mix who could be trying. Regardless, you will have been the one to leave a side door open for him to come and warm himself. When he needs to, I guarantee you he’ll remember and use it. You’ll find him in the parlour rooms of your heart, sad and sorry and fumbling, some day when you least expect it and you’ll give him tea and toast and love before he goes on his way again.
If he wants to make a move toward a better choice for himself, it may take an alarming number of these unplanned, unprompted visits before he feels ready. You may find that you begin to question your patience or his sanity, or possibly both. But someone who is well-supported and knows it is capable of anything.
In the meantime, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are indeed standing ready to facilitate love for your dear friend—not the way he might think he’d prefer now, but in a way that will serve him better than he can imagine when he needs it most, no matter what the outcome.