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Study Finds There's A Risk In Telling A Friend You Don't Like Their Partner

Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
Young woman listening to her friends in a cafe bar

Many of us have been in situations where we haven't been so fond of a friend's significant other. The situation can range from annoying to infuriating, but the question is: Should you say something about it?

In a new study published in the journal Personal Relationships, researchers sought to find out what actually happens if you do—and the results suggest you might want to tread lightly.

To speak up or not to speak up? That is the question.

For this study, researchers wanted to look at how disapproval of a friend or family member's significant other affected the relationship between the disapprover and the friend or family member.

To do so, they created an online survey in which 703 people reported how close they were to a friend or family member who had disapproved of their S.O. They also rated how close they felt to that person before any disapproval was perceived, as well as at the peak of disapproval.

As you might imagine, people don't appreciate feeling that their partner is disliked—and as it turns out, that can create distance between you and the disapproving loved one. Perceiving a friend or family member's disapproval for your S.O. corresponded with a drop in emotional closeness to that friend or family member, and stronger disapproval was further associated with a stronger drop in closeness.

"We show that perceived disapproval predicts long-lasting drops in perceived emotional closeness to the disapproving [friend/family member]," the study authors write, adding, "Our findings matter to anyone who wonders whether to intervene in another person's troublesome relationship or stay silent."

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What to do if you're in this situation.

Deciding whether to speak up or keep quiet about a friend's relationship is a tricky line to walk, and one to be approached with careful consideration. Unless abuse is present—in which case you should seek to get your friend out immediately—there are a few important things to remember.

If you do choose to say something, licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, stresses that you'll want to bring up any qualms in a "loving and objective way with clear examples." She adds 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."

And as clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, previously told mbg, try to keep the focus on your friend and how their partner's behavior is affecting them. For example, instead of saying, I can't believe Josh ditched you. He's the worst, you could say, I noticed Josh didn't make it last night. How do you feel about that?

"This invites conversation and reflection," Neo explains, adding that from there, you can ask if they would like your opinion, and you will (or won't be) invited to answer.

Ultimately, though, we can never understand the full picture of someone's intimate relationship, and it's up to your friend or family member to stay or leave. As Leeds puts it, "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."

Check out our full guide to how to help someone in a toxic relationship for more tips.

The takeaway.

The bottom line is, you never want to see someone you care about dating someone you couldn't care less for—but according to this research, speaking up about it could spell trouble for your friendship if you're not careful. If you do decide to say something, know what you're getting into—and be sure to be as compassionate about it as possible.

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