We've all been there. At the gym, over coffee at Starbucks, on the phone after the kids are tucked in, or during a play date - the moment arises when we have to make a choice about how honest we are going to be with a friend.
For me, one such moment occurred a few years ago, when I got a distraught call from a close friend. She and her husband had argued, and he had struck her. Later that night, as she sat on my couch sipping hot tea, she confided in me that this had occurred before. A few days later, after numerous phone calls with her husband, she returned home. Not a month later, she informed me over lunch that they planned to start a family. I was shocked, given everything she had told me. In a split second, I had to decide whether to tell her I thought it was a bad idea.
Although extreme, this is not the only time I wonder if I'm being a true and honest friend. Whether it's an a ill-fitting dress, a dysfunctional relationship, a child who won't stop hitting, a poor career decision…when is honesty the best policy?
Recently, I did an experiment. I decided to be more upfront with my friends. First, a single friend had broken up with someone because she didn't like his shoes. I'm pretty sure she didn't appreciate my opinion about ending a relationship due to a poor choice of footwear, because I haven't heard from her since. Another friend considered postponing a much-needed vacation with her partner because her ten month-old daughter, still breastfeeding, had stopped taking a bottle ("I can't let her starve."). After much back and forth, I finally told her she was simply letting anxiety get the better of her and should go. I haven't heard from her since, either. I have a feeling, if I continue with this experiment, I won't have many friends left.
It was clear from my informal research that most of my friends are not necessarily interested in hearing what I think. Does this mean our friendships are simply for show? Do we hold back from giving our opinions because we feel it will threaten the relationship or, even worse, because we take some secret satisfaction in each other's struggles?
Perhaps we don't give our opinions because we're not always looking for honesty, but rather we're hoping for empathy, compassion, and a shoulder to lean on. Yes, one could say it's artificial to withhold your opinion or you're not a true friend if you're only saying what the other person wants to hear. But I'm sure there have been countless times that my friends have wanted to tell me about my dating, parenting, marriage, life, and career blunders and bloopers, and I'm grateful that they held their tongues. Sometimes, a friend speaks loudest when not saying anything at all.
There are certain times, however, when we can't (and, dare I say, shouldn't,?) hold back. And I didn't with my friend whose husband hit her. I told her it wasn't a good idea to start a family, and she should wait until her relationship was on safer ground. Within six weeks of our conversation, however, she was pregnant. But she and her husband sought professional help, are working things out, and are now the proud parents of a one-year-old baby boy. So whether it's planning a family, breaking up over a pair of shoes, or cancelling a vacation, maybe next time I should ask myself: who am I to judge?
-by Wendy Widom
Wendy Widom is CEO of Familes in the Loop (FITL), Chicago's hippest hub for parents and kids.
See more of Wendy 's stories here.