Written by therapist Crystal Choi
You have a friend you care about deeply, but they’re in a relationship that you can’t understand. Their partner puts them down, controls and manipulates them, and blames them for all their relationship problems. You can’t understand why they’re with this person…”why can’t they see that they deserve to be treated better?!”
It’s not an easy position to be in as a friend to someone who’s in a destructive relationship. How do you care for your friend and support them without judging their choices? You may be tempted to tell them all the reasons they should end the relationship and talk badly about their partner in the hopes that they start to see what you see, but this could lead to them coming to their partners defense and could put a strain on your friendship. And even if this doesn’t cause defensiveness, it could lead to them sharing less and less with you about what’s happening to them.
Understand that people in destructive relationships are often caught up in an internal struggle of ambivalence (mixed feelings about their partner and the relationship). On one hand, they may feel hurt and have negative feelings about their partner, and on the other hand, they may care for and love them. What can happen when you talk critically about their partner is that they can react by taking up the other side of the internal argument in their head by defending their partner. This can be triggering for you and also reinforce their position of defense.
Be honest about your concerns without being judgmental
Find a way to communicate your concerns without talking badly about their partner or being judgmental. Some ways to phrase your concern include, “I’m noticing that you’re isolating yourself more lately and I’m concerned because I care about you”, “The way your partner talks to / treats you concerns me”.
Your friend may or may not agree with your concerns and that’s okay. The goal is not to change their mind, but to do your part in speaking truth in love. Even though they may not be receptive to it at the moment, once they start having the same concerns, they’ll know who they can reach out to for support. Focus your energy on being a safe person for them to find support in.
Ask questions versus telling them what to do. If your friend is in a controlling relationship, the last thing they need is someone else telling them what to do. When the opportunity comes up, ask them how you can be a supportive friend, and give them permission, space, and agency to tell you what they need. The sense of having a choice and developing their own voice is important for anyone looking to make changes in their life.
Take care of yourself
It’s hard to see someone you care about hurt. The journey in supporting a friend in a destructive relationship can be long and painful for you too. Be sure to take care of yourself and find the support you need.
Have other people in your life that you can lean on and talk through any feelings that are coming up for you, as you support your friend. Be cautious not to talk negatively about your friend or collude with others in a judgmental way. Instead, keep the conversation focused on you and how you can make sure your needs are being met in a healthy way.
Life is messy and relationships can bring up challenges that you’re unsure how to handle. Unfortunately, creating healthy relationships isn’t always something we learn growing up. More often, we are trying our best and living out patterns we’ve observed and picked up from our life experiences. If you or someone you know are struggling in relationships, a counselor can help you grow in understanding how to build and maintain healthy relationships. Call our office and schedule time with a therapist to learn more about how counseling can help you grow.