If You Suspect Your Friend's Relationship Is Unhealthy, Here's What To Do

by Annie Foskett

The thing about having friends is that you are on your friend's side, no matter what. When my friends' partners treat them less-than-perfectly, I not-so-quietly let my friends know, "That was pretty jerky of Tom." I don't expect anyone to break up with Tom after he stopped texting during a bachelor party, but as a friend, I feel like I'm there to espouse one-sided support of my friend, no matter what really went down. However, this is a lot harder to navigate if you think your friend is in a toxic relationship. When the issues are larger, you have to treat them with care.

In general, getting involved in a friend's relationship beyond giving them advice can be precarious. It's important to consider why you feel the need to help your friend. Do you just not like the way your friend's partner treats them, or do you suspect or know that there is physical or emotional abuse happening? It's also important to think about what exactly a toxic relationship is, and what you find toxic about your friend's partner's behavior. Do they act selfishly when it comes to your friend? Or do they exhibit signs of controlling behavior, or worse?

Because it's so hard to know what to do when a friend is in this position, I spoke to clinical psychologist and host of “The Kurre and Klapow Show,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. I want to know what exactly to do to help when your friend is in a bad relationship, and what to do to help when your friend is in an abusive one. I have to admit that I've been in both positions with different friends, and I've never quite known if I was doing the right thing. I'm glad Klapow is here to help.

If you just don't think your friend's relationship is that great for her...

It's important to remember that you care for your friend, but that you can't possibly know everything there is to know about their relationship or their feelings. "Always remember that it’s very easy to project your preferences, your thoughts, your values on to your friend," explains Dr. Klapow.

"Our natural tendency is to look at a relationship and say internally, 'If this were me...'" he adds. "The problem is that no matter how well you know your friend ... you are now distorting the relationship dynamic." In short: think before you speak, because you and your friend are not carbon copies of each other and you don't know what's going on for them.

If, however, you can't let go of the fact that your friend seems unhappy in the relationship, or if you think that they are in a truly unhealthy situation, "you can express your reservations in a calm way and get their input," says Dr. Klapow. "Realize however that no matter how caring you may be your input may be seen as a threat and they many be defensive or shut you down. The best course of action is to simply express you concern, but acknowledge that you fully understand that this relationship is not yours, you want them to be happy and you want to share with them your perspective."

Remember to be kind and gentle, and do your best not to be patronizing. Saying something like, "I know this isn't my place, but I really care about you and worry that you seem unhappy in this relationship," is going to be a lot more productive than, "I really hate your partner and think you need to leave him."

If you're worried that your friend is an a physically or emotionally abusive relationship...

If you suspect that there is any kind of abuse, you know that the situation is incredibly serious. "If they are being abused, they may fear for their safety, they may be in a deep state of denial, they may have been threatened directly by their partner to keep the abuse a secret, or they may be scared and humiliated about what is happening," Dr. Klapow says. Proceed with extreme caution.

"If you come right out and just accuse their significant other of abuse, initially you are likely to get defensiveness, push back, and even dismissal," adds Dr. Klapow. "It is important to express your general concern about the relationship. Then it is important to commit to being a safe and confidential place for them to communicate." Dr. Klapow explains that they may not be ready to admit that anything is going on, and you should never try to force them. Instead, make your concern clear, and make it known that your door is always open if they need a place to go or someone to talk to.

"If you are extremely concerned for their physical safety, then it is time to give them resources they can tap into," says Dr. Klapow. "Local shelters, abuse protection organizations, others they can talk to." The goal is to make the seriousness of your concern very clear, but not alienate your friend and make them shut you out. "Speak from the heart, but choose your words carefully," he says.

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