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'My Best Friend Is in a Terrible Relationship'

Your support is invaluable to your friend, even if it feels like they're not internalizing your advice.

by Gretchen Brown
July 1, 2021 | Love
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Dear Ask Me Instead,

One of my best friends is in a terrible relationship with someone who used to be my friend before I found out how she treated them. They fight a lot, and have broken up and gotten back together immediately a few times, and she yells at or emotionally manipulates them.

They say they still care about her, and she always ends up apologizing and promising to do better, but obviously the issues continue. My roommates don't want her over anymore because they will get into a fight about something small with everyone around. 

For a while I stayed out of it and stopped seeing her, but continued to hang out with my friend regularly. I talked with them a month ago about the situation. They said they want to break up with her, but they are worried for her mental health and personal safety. They say she doesn't have close friends outside of them anymore, doesn't seem to tell her therapist how bad things are, and her home life isn't always safe. She's also living alone for the summer.

We haven't talked about it since then, and I see them acting normal around her, going on as if nothing is wrong as it appears to me. I'm worried if I talk to them again, they'll say they want to stay with her, and I don't want to hurt them by continuing to call the relationship toxic. 

Even if that's not the case, I still feel weird bringing it up, and I don't know what else I can do to help them in this situation, if anything. It hurts me to see them suffering in this relationship. Do you have any advice about what I can do?

Abuse ebbs and flows. It is not constant.

That is to say, an environment may be abusive. But there are also good times in an abusive, terrible relationship, just as in a healthy relationship. That's the trap that makes them so hard to wriggle out of.

Your support is invaluable to your friend. Even if it seems like, by staying in the relationship, they're not internalizing what you're saying.

I play this role in my friendships often. I'm the listening ear, the shoulder to cry on.

But, as sensitive types do — maybe you're one of them — it's not enough for me to just listen sometimes. 

I take on the feelings my friend is sharing with me, and I want to do something about them. I want to make things right, immediately. And I get frustrated when it feels like my advice isn't needed, or wanted.

There's this whole genre of dating advice on the internet where the replies often boil down to "just leave them." And in an abusive relationship, that needs to happen. 

But it's easier said than done, and telling your friend over and over to leave the relationship may have the opposite effect. They may feel more inclined to stay, in spite.

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Abusers are often experts at isolating their victims from the others in their life. As a result, your role is not to tell your friend something they already know. It's to stay connected with your friend, as much as you can, even when it seems like things have mellowed out. Show them what true love and support and respect look like.

The sob story the abuser is telling could be true. But mental illness is not an excuse to treat your partner poorly. To say so is an insult to folks struggling with mental illness who manage to be caring partners. 

The fact that the abuser will be alone if your friend leaves them is not a reason to stay. But of course, you know this. 

Your job should be to ensure your friend is not isolated. Continue to be a supportive friend, and check in with them and see how they're doing on a weekly basis, at least. Send them memes. Send them funny TikToks. 

They'll think of you as someone they can trust and lean on when they need someone to talk to once more. When things inevitably get bad again.

You can't be a vigilante and magically rescue them from this situation, and you shouldn't. That's not your role here. It won't be over as quickly as you'd like, I can promise you that. Be as patient as you can. 

Emotional abuse — while real — is not illegal in the same way physical abuse is. That just means the solutions are different. (If you do see signs of physical abuse, there are resources available).

But if you continue to be a real friend, if you show them all the love and support in the world, they're going to feel ready to leave eventually. 

And you'll be there for them when they do.

Have a life dilemma?

Email Ask Me Instead at [email protected] or send us a note using this form. All submissions are anonymous.

For more good advice, visit the Ask Me Instead collection.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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