How To Help A Friend In A Bad Relationship, According To Experts
If you've ever had a friend date someone terrible, you know it's no fun to watch them go through a toxic relationship. Getting your friend to see what you see can certainly be a challenge, and sometimes, we don't actually know what's best for them. So, we asked experts for their advice on what to do, how to approach the conversation, and how to support a friend while respecting their decisions:
If abuse is present, take an active approach.
Remember that abuse isn't only physical—it can also be emotional or verbal. If your reasoning for not liking your friend's partner is because you see or suspect abuse in the relationship, it's important not to take a passive approach.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, you'll want to share what you've observed from a loving and supportive place. "Know that your friend may be experiencing a lot of shame about being in an abusive relationship, so showing up for them in a nonjudgmental way is key," she explains to mbg. "Let them know you see what they're going through and that they don't deserve to be abused."
She adds that abuse often lowers self-esteem, so reflecting their worth back to them can be very helpful.
It may take time for your friend to be ready to accept the reality of what's happening and to take steps to end the relationship, so let them know that you're available to talk or help whenever they need it. In the meantime, be there for your friend in solidarity, offer resources and information (including domestic violence shelters and hotlines), and try to help them plan their way out.
Get clear on why you don't like this person.
In the event that abuse is not present and you're simply not this person's biggest fan, clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, advises honestly reflecting on why that is. Sometimes, she explains, we project our own standards onto our friends, and no matter how well meaning you are, your friend may not have the same standards, or they may not be in a place where they're ready to raise them.
Leeds echoes this point, adding, "Often, our own taste in a partner might vary so drastically from our friend's taste that what troubles us about a friend's partner may be a nonissue to them."
From your reflection, you can determine whether the perceived issues in their relationship are worth bringing to their attention.
Approach the conversation very delicately.
If you do decide to open up the conversation with your friend, Leeds and Neo both stress the importance of doing so very delicately. For one thing, Neo says, if your friend has already become attached to their partner, getting them to see your POV won't be easy and could potentially cause a rift in your friendship.
Also, if you believe their partner to be manipulative or otherwise abusive, this person may go the isolation route, planting seeds that friends and family are out to get them—further causing distance between you and your friend. All the more reason to approach things delicately.
"Try to bring it up in a loving and objective way with clear examples. It can also be helpful to remind your friend that only they know what's best for them and that you will be there no matter who they date," Leeds explains.
All this to say, opening up a conversation about a friend's partner will likely be met with some resistance. Show compassion, try to stay calm, and be prepared for a potentially unpleasant reaction.
Keep the focus on your friend and their feelings.
No one wants to feel attacked by their friends, especially when it comes to their relationship. As such, Neo suggests keeping the focus on your friend and how their partner's behavior is affecting them. Should they bring up something nasty their partner did, you could ask them what they think about that behavior and how it makes them feel.
"This invites conversation and reflection," she explains, rather than aggressively forcing your opinion onto your friend. If it feels appropriate, you can also ask, "Do you want to know how I feel about this sort of behavior?" That way, you get invited to answer, Neo adds.
Avoid making them feel pressured.
Difficult as it may be, be patient with your friend as they navigate the relationship and figure out what's best for them. Even if it seems like they're starting to realize their partner isn't ideal, remain delicate and supportive.
As Leeds notes, "The more harshly and frequently you bring it up, the more likely the friendship is to suffer damage." She adds that these conversations can also make your friend uncomfortable talking about the relationship with you, so the kinder you are about the situation, the more likely your friend is to stay open and honest with you.
Keep your cool around the person in question.
Odds are, you're going to have to be around your friend's S.O. at one point or another. In this case, Neo advises focusing on keeping your cool, especially if you suspect this person is a dark personality type such as a narcissist.
"They're just waiting for you to flip so they can make you look like a loose cannon. You may have to put yourself in that mode where being authentic may not serve you or your friendship," she explains. Try to be polite, gracious, and dignified. (This is sometimes referred to as the grey rock method.)
And of course, she adds, you can do your best to avoid uncomfortable or anger-inducing interactions. If anything, it's a good opportunity to suggest some one-on-one time with your friend.
Accept that it's not in your control.
And finally, unless you want to make yourself sick stressing about your friend's relationship, you have to accept the fact that only your friend can know (and act on) what's truly best for them.
No one knows what really goes on in a relationship besides the people in it, Leeds explains, and even if your friend brings up every little gripe they have with their partner, there could be plenty of good moments that aren't shared with you.
"If we can remember that we are seeing the relationship through a very limited lens, it's easier to let go of our resentment toward their partner and trust that our friend will navigate their relationship however is best for them. It's not our job to pick our friend's partners, but it is up to us to support them in the ups and downs of the relationship they've chosen," Leeds says.
The bottom line.
If abuse is present, it's important to firmly encourage your friend to walk away from a relationship. In any other case, you'll want to approach the situation with a delicate balance of discussion and support. Perhaps you'll end up realizing this person isn't so bad and they make your friend happy—but even if your feelings don't change, still, all you can do is trust your friend's choices, be a sounding board for them when they need it, and support them through the ups and downs that come along.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.