Our ability to help others when they actively make poor decisions is limited to a few basic things.*
Out of abject frustration, I one day shared a scenario with a woman in my yoga class who happened to be a Registered Social Worker. I knew her to be patient and kind and felt she could give me some solid advice.
I explained to her that I had a friend I cared about who, after two failed marriages, had decided to marry a third time. The kicker was her third partner was an alcoholic who promised reform regularly after a lifelong battle with addiction. As soon as my friend would leave town for work, her boyfriend would go on drinking binges and had recently been arrested for a DUI in her car and been put in jail until one of his adult children bailed him out. My friend’s car was impounded.
I told her how concerned I was, explaining that no matter how much better he seemed than her prior two relationships, that she was at risk and that I loved her and cared about her. Even getting in the car with him could be dangerous. I also tried to explain how I thought she was worth a stable, loving partner.
She defended him, protesting how easy-going he usually was and that this incident was the one that would reform him. I reminded her of the other incidents like this in the past and that the best indicator of future behaviour was past behaviour. She didn’t listen. In fact, with time, she told me that I had judged him unfairly, that she would not break things off unless he did and that she was not going to confide in me anymore, which I told her was her choice.
She has always refused counselling, constantly looking for quick fixes to break old patterns but never looking at the reasons she repeatedly chose troubled partners, which I suspected was the underlying feeling she simply didn’t deserve any better and didn’t like being alone.
The woman in my yoga class listened and said, “The unfortunate truth is that people have the right to live at risk. Ultimately the choice is theirs. As Social Workers we often offer all sorts of alternatives to situations that our clients may refuse. We can’t control the outcome and neither can you.”
She went on to say that in the situation with my friend, my ability to help basically boiled down to:
-Clearly stating concerns and red flags
-Suggesting counselling to help improve confidence and independence
-Offering love and support
This wise advice from a Social Worker could apply to anything we might be indirectly dealing with in someone we love, from a teenager through to the elderly. It could be gambling, overeating, hygiene, bad partners, poor financial decisions or chronic risk taking. Fill in the blank.
Since that time, her advice has come back to me repeatedly and when my children have come to me with similar concerns, I have reiterated it to them.
People have the right to live at risk.
If the situation becomes too frustrating, you may have to step away but you can always leave the door open for someone you care about. If they are able to make better decisions or find the courage to change, you can cheer them on. However, resist being their go-to person if they stay wrapped up in the drama and are constantly calling with the day to day upsets that are a result of their decisions.
I recently got a text from my friend after a long silence. Fortunately, her boyfriend changed his mind and has decided he doesn’t want to marry. He has decided to live out his days on a boat. However relieved I feel, I realize life doesn’t always work out this conveniently but knowing how to deal with it gave me the ability to step out of the fray and leave the outcome to those directly involved.
*(Photo: crooked-compass.com. Casa del Arbol. The Swing at the end of the world.)