For months she has been miserable in a relationship with a man she describes as needy, smothering and manipulative.
“I feel like I’m his mother,” she tells me.
“So end it,” I say.
“I can’t,” she frowns. “He says if I do he’ll kill himself.”
“You believe him?”
“I’m scared to take the risk,” she shrugs helplessly. “He cries and begs and I feel like a heartless person.”
She looks at me. “Am I? Heartless?”
I answer by telling her, as best as I can remember it, the story of the dangling man.
A guy’s walking across a bridge one night and hears a faint cry for help. He looks over the railing and finds a man dangling from a rope.
“Help me,” the dangling man gasps.
The guy reaches over and grabs the rope, which comes free in his hands. Now he’s the only thing keeping the man from falling.
“Save me,” the man begs.
The guy tries to pull the man up, but cannot.
“You’re too heavy,” he says. “You’ll have to climb.”
“Don’t let go,” the man begs.
“Okay, but I can’t hold on forever,” the guy says. “Start climbing.”
“Just don’t let go,” the man says again.
The guy looks around for help, but he is alone on the bridge. He looks for somewhere to tie off the rope, but finds nothing.
He feels his hands weakening.
“I’m getting tired,” he tells the man. “What do you want me to do?”
“Help me,” the man repeats. “Save me.”
“But I can’t,” the guy says.
“Just hang on,” the man says. “If you let go, I die. I’m your responsibility.”
Time passes. The guy feels his hands weakening, the strength slowly draining from his body, and the impossibility of his situation.
Finally he takes a deep breath.
“Listen carefully,” he tells the man, “because I mean what I’m about to say. I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself. So I’ll hold on, but only if you start climbing. I’ll even help by pulling up from my end. But if you don’t start climbing, I’m going to let go.”
“You can’t mean that,” says the dangling man. “How could you be so selfish? How could you live with yourself afterwards? I need you. I’m your responsibility.”
“No,” says the guy, “I don’t accept that. I’m responsible for me, and you’re responsible for you. I’m willing to help, but the final choice here is yours.”
“Don’t do this to me,” the man begs.
The guy waits. Nothing happens. There is no movement, no change in the rope’s tension.
“I accept your choice,” he says, and frees his hands.
* Adapted from Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).