How to Help a Friend in a Toxic Relationship

“You’re not capable of understanding an intelligent drama.” 

That’s the statement my friend’s partner said to her in front of me and my husband. I knew their relationship was bad, but this was the first time I’d heard him speak to her this way. 

After being called out, he doubled down and my friend didn’t even flinch at his remarks. I called her the next day to tell her how concerned I was, and she responded, “I wasn’t offended by his comments.” 

That’s when I knew she was in a toxic relationship.

A toxic relationship, according to Dr. Lillian Glass, a California-based communication and psychology expert, is “any relationship between people who don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.” 

People in toxic relationships often have difficulty recognizing the signs. They can be as subtle as nitpicking, as overt as stonewalling, or they can masquerade as “helpful criticisms.”

Sometimes, even if the victim is aware, they won’t leave for a number of reasons. Toxic partners tend to isolate their significant others and demand all their attention. After a while, this can make the victim feel as though they don’t have a support system anymore and have nowhere to go if the relationship ends. Their finances could be in jeopardy because their significant other siphons money from them. Or they could be holding onto the memory of how the relationship once was, hoping their partner will go back to who they were when the relationship started. 

Having someone you love endure an unhealthy relationship can be discouraging and painful. You want the best for your friends and it’s tough when you know they’re not as happy as they could be. If you find yourself in this situation, try the following steps…

Have a conversation with them — 

If your friend knows they’re in a toxic relationship, they may already have a lot of pent-up shame about it. The first question most people ask is “Why don’t you just leave?” But the answer isn’t as simple as the question. Instead, Dr. Michael Tennies, a California-based psychotherapist, recommends rephrasing the questions as, “What is your partner doing that affects you to your core?” The question is neutral by design. It allows your friend to interpret the question in whatever way naturally occurs to them. After they’ve given their answer, you can talk about what you’ve observed. Maybe they seem drained all the time or they’ve lost their confidence. Maybe they don’t smile as much as they used to. Your friend might make excuses for their partner, but it’s important to gently address them and hear them out.

Know that this conversation won’t be the last —

Just because you’ve presented your concerns and helped your friend realize they’re in a toxic relationship doesn’t mean they’ll immediately take action. Breaking away from unhealthy relationships takes time and can be difficult to untangle themselves from their toxic partner or abuser. There are different types of abusive behavior that commonly persuade a partner to stay. Some of the tactics include gaslighting, emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, or intimidation. More than likely your friend will spend more time with their toxic partner than anyone else, so your one conversation won’t be enough on its own. As a friend, you might need to have this conversation multiple times before it finally sticks.

Be a positive presence in their lives —

Unhealthy relationships tend to be all-consuming… especially if both partners live together. If your friend is in constant communication or lives with their partner, they might be gaslit on a daily basis. If that’s the case, their perception of reality may be skewed. As a friend, it’s extremely helpful to validate their feelings and remind them that they’re not the problem. Being a positive presence also means being patient. There will be times they leave their partner only to go right back, and other times where they won’t want to hear your advice at all. Know that your friend needs to work out their issues on their own time. Eventually, they will leave when they’re ready.

Maintain your own boundaries and mental health —

Helping a friend with their relationship is one thing, but don’t allow it to take over your life. If there are boundaries you need to maintain to keep you healthy, enforce them. You aren’t responsible for your friend’s relationship or their other life problems — you have a life and your own pressures to contend with. If talking about your friend’s relationship becomes too much, voice that. If your friend isn’t able to be there for you anymore, be honest about it. If you find that dealing with their problems negatively impacts your well-being, take a step back and practice self-care. You can’t be of help to anyone else if you’re not right with yourself first.

Recognize that you can’t save your friend —

In the end, it’s not your job to save them or convince them to leave. You can help prepare them for the fallout, but you can only do so much. They might need to see a therapist and get counseling, amongst a myriad of other things. Recognizing that the burden shouldn’t fall on your shoulders alone will prevent you from becoming too heavily invested in your friend’s relationship. You can help them see the toxicity, but they still have to make decisions for themselves and rediscover their inner strength. Having a friend who’s struggling to leave their toxic relationship is tough on all parties — but with time, support, and growth, there can be a happy ending.

Johanie Cools is a blogger, writer, book editor, and aspiring author. Follow her on Twitter at @jmartdotcom or on Medium at @jmcools.

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