How do I help and support my friend when I see them in a bad relationship?

You know that your friend’s partner is bad influence and that s/he is not the type of person you would want to mingle with if s/he wasn’t your friend’s dearest. You have also noticed that your friend is no longer his or her usual self and has progressively become more despondent, has lost those wonderful qualities that made you like them and want their friendship in the first place. They are getting somewhat depressed and lifeless, and you know that it has nothing to do with the job or with health concerns. You’ve heard him or her make statements about how their bf or gf has odd behaviors, ones that are both puzzling and painful to them. These comments have increased overtime and are becoming more desperate . Does she tell you that she has to tell him hour by hour where she goes? Does he tell you about sudden mood shifts that make him walk on eggshells?

Sometimes you meet for coffee or lunch, and they spend the whole outing dissecting what their partner does, and they seem to be running in a loop, caught in the same thoughts, trying to understand what is going on? You feel they are stuck in some kind of obsessive monologue, which they can’t escape.

Your thought is “it’s time to tell him or her to get the hell out of this relationship”, but you don’t do it.   You know your friend might challenge what you say, they might even get so angry and pained by your words, that you might lose their friendship. They need you to listen to them, not give unrequited advice, and besides, should you get involved, without risking to impose your thoughts upon them, and be perceived as judgmental or controlling?

Here’s a map to navigate a possibly explosive situation: getting involved and sharing your concerns without being too abrupt about it. Give your friend the gift of your (clearer) observations about their current state of well-being, and about their partner, without appearing to tell them what to do.

First, ask yourself what is your motive in ‘helping’. Is the partner a real asshole who is hurting your friend, or are you trying to get rid of competition?

If you conclude that your motive is clear, and you can impeccably articulate that your friend truly is no longer the wholesome self they once were, that their relationship is not enhancing them nor allowing them tap a new potential, but instead is dulling and distressing them to the point that they are at the most miserable and vulnerable you have known them to ever be, then you are probably right in wanting to help them steer away from a destructive path.

Please understand that blurting out the obvious truth is more destructive than helpful. Your friend got in a relationship for various reasons, but mainly for what s/he thought to be love. They had a dream. We all want our dreams to hold true. As the reality was somewhat different, your friend worked hard to keep the dream alive, very hard indeed. The investment was and remains huge and they want to see it through.  In the process of expanding energy in kindling their relationship, they have become accustomed to ‘different’ ways of interacting. Some of these ways arouse various strong feelings, some good, elation and bliss, others bad, sadness and loss. This different way of interacting, for them, has become, over a period of months or years, a new normal situation. Your friend is not only accustomed to it, expecting it, even if hurtful beyond belief, s/he now craves it and is no longer detached from it.   And here you are, wondering how this happened. Time did it, through progressive adaptation.

It happened because your friend’s brain and whole being strove for consistency. So s/he adapted to bizarre circumstances, slowly, step by step, and now they can’t see the forest for the tree, which you do, for the simple fact that you are removed from the situation: you are not bogged in the quicksand. But they are.

How do you now realign your friend’s fogged lenses back to the reality of their situation?

As stated above, your blurting out why the partner is a d**** won’t work.  What you can do, when your friend tells you about their partner’s bad behavior, is to not jump and say “yes I know and this is…..”, but instead suggest to him or her an alternative example of more reasonable and loving behaviors.  You could also say “what??? Tell me more…” then refer them to an online resource about relationships you just happen to have read. Do this, every time your friend narrates a new incident, mention having heard/read about something similar. Cite the story as you perhaps read it or heard it from a media source or from a third party, and suggest the online link you have read.

Nothing more. I repeat, nothing more. Whatever awakening they come to, they must always walk that walk on their own. Only provide sign posts. Give them some information, but never your opinion.

Meanwhile, remain neutral. Show your feeling of sympathy for their angst. However, if their obsessive talk about their partner is spoiling your meeting with them, direct them to talk about some fun things and simply point out to them that this time is about you two, not about the partner.

Here are some resources:

If the discussion centers on those first moments when they met their partner and some uneasy feelings about it, they can check this site:

If you and your friend are discussing current behaviors and patterns, these sites might help:

If you are now discussing the partner’s unsettling personality traits, this site might help:

And if you believe that a threshold of spiraling abuse, possibly leading to violence is about to be crossed, suggest this:

All those sources are in the popular domain. They are conversational and high level, in the dating advice rubrics of any magazine. Some are published by advocacy organizations.

If you strongly believe that your friend is currently in a relationship involving a cycle of abuse and dynamics of violence, it is no longer appropriate to be soft spoken about it. Rather than say “leave”, say,” here’s the contact of… a crisis advocate, organization, etc, perhaps you could call them and have them assess your situation”, or “Do you want me to call them for you?” If you believe that crisis is imminent, then forget about all of  the above, and tell them “get out, leave, run” and be the one to call 911 or if you have to, drive them to safety.

Good luck.

Author: Pascale Aline

Psychotherapist & Performance Coach, I specialize working with tools for self enhancement, growth, productivity and healing (Biofeedback, EMDR, Mindfulness training)

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