How to Talk to a Friend About Their Bad Relationship
There are many fish in the sea. But it just so happens that your friend has hooked a real dud.
It's normal to feel protective of your friends and view the people they date through a critical lens. Most of the time, you can get along fine with these people, even become friends over time. Sometimes a partner isn't your favorite person ever, but, even if you'll never be buddies, you respect your friend's decisions and want them to be happy.
But what happens when it goes deeper than that? What if you think this partnership could be harmful to your friend?
Lots of people struggle with this question, wondering if they should pipe up about a loved one's partner's manipulative, mean or downright abusive behavior, said Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York. It's a delicate situation to be in. But if you feel strongly that you should talk to your friend about your concerns, there's a constructive way to go about it.
Look inward first
As we know, it's totally normal to be skeptical of the people our friends choose to date, especially at first. But before you talk to your friend about your concerns, make sure your perceptions are not being colored by anything else, like fears your friend might become more distant if they have a romantic partner, or insecurities about your own love life.
"Spend some time checking yourself and thinking about the question of might there be something else going on there," Lundquist said. "It can be tough when it comes to a really close friend. This is an area in which there is a decent amount of signal interference."
Because the conversation with your friend will likely be difficult for both of you, it's important to be sure about your perceptions before broaching the topic, and the possible outcomes for bringing it up.
"Ask (yourself) 'What are the risks if I give this feedback and what are the risks if I don’t?'" said Minnesota-based marriage and family therapist Rebekah Miller.
It can be helpful to ask mutual friends you trust if they've noticed the same things.
"Definitely (have) conversations with other mutual friends... and invite people who know you and hold you accountable to ask you the tough questions," Lundquist said.
Proceed with caution
If you decide it's important you bring up your concerns, make sure the time is right.
"Trying to offer that advice when somebody isn’t ready to hear it I think can result in things blowing up," Lundquist said. "If you go in too soon or too aggressively... maybe your friend a couple months down the line is ready to hear it, but they shut you out and they become even more resistant to hearing it."
If you think it's the right time, be sure to practice what you're going to say before you talk. Then ask your friend for some time alone with them. When you're together, ask them if they'd be open to hearing what you have to say.
"What's important about that is it allows the opportunity or them to say 'no,'" Lundquist said. (But bear in mind they "might be upset even at you making the offer.")
Make sure you get an enthusiastic "yes." Otherwise, don't go forward with voicing your concerns.
"An affirmative response has to be a really affirmative response," Lundquist said. "We want the light to be bright green. A little bit yellow or orange, you have to interpret that as a 'no.'"
When you're speaking your mind, avoid getting into what Miller calls a "drama triangle."
"A drama triangle has three roles: a rescuer, the victim and the bad guy," she said. "If you approach your friend from a drama triangle position... you’re putting your friend in the victim role and you’re putting their partner in the bad guy position.
"What will almost always happen is they'll get mad at you for putting their partner in the bad guy position."
Instead, "state what your concern is in observable and describable behavior."
Give specific examples rather than making broad claims, which can come across as unfounded or dramatic. For example: "When your boyfriend told you 'Stop being so stupid,' I felt concerned that he doesn't respect you" or "When you told me your girlfriend slapped you across the face, I worried that your relationship has become unhealthy."
"When you describe what's observable, people can hear it better," Miller said.
Let go of expectations
Before you talk, acknowledge that your friend will probably not take immediate action based on your feedback, like talking to their partner or breaking up with them. In fact, assume that nothing will change, at least for now.
"They have to go through their own process, but down the road they would look back and appreciate" that you said something, Miller said. Plus, your feedback "is going to get into their head" and could inspire them to make positive changes later.
Too often, friends and family members will not speak up when they believe something is wrong in their loved one's relationship, she said. And many times, the people in the relationship don't even realize anything's wrong.
"Depending what we grew up with, we tend to normalize or minimize abusive behavior because of what we got in our household," Miller said.
The more likely immediate outcome is some awkwardness, or even anger, between you and your friend. But if your friend wanted to hear what you have to say, hopefully they realize you are coming from a place of love and support.
"If they say 'yes' (to having this conversation), they have to take a little bit of responsibility for what you have to say," Lundquist said.
Give them time to respond
You might not want to hear what your friend has to say after you give them this major feedback—after all, there's a possibility they won't react well.
However, it's "important to hear them out before you conclude it," Miller said. Let them tell you how they see things from their perspective.
It "takes the pressure off of them to say, 'You’re right and I have to end it,' because most people won’t."
Remind them you love them
Wrap up the conversation by thanking your friend for listening and telling them you will support them no matter what they decide.
"Especially when we see people we care about in toxic relationships, we want to give them an ultimatum," Miller said. "But usually when we try to put the pressure on like that, it usually means they stay with that person and you are no longer friends."
Instead, you "say 'No matter what you decide, I’m still here and I’m going to support you and love you and be in a relationship with you,'" Miller said.
If you truly believe your friend is at risk, it is important to have this difficult conversation.
"I think standing up for your friend when they’re in a tough relationship is an important thing to do—I think it's a really hard thing to do—but I think that's an obligation of a good friend," Lundquist said.