Watching a friend struggle in a toxic relationship is pretty much the pits. No one likes seeing a loved one unhappy or treated badly, yet many of us have stood by, unsure of what to say or how to help. It’s not easy to tell a friend that her relationship concerns you, but don’t let that stop you from being the caring friend that you are. Instead, consider these five suggestions:
1. Educate yourself
If something seems fishy about your friend’s relationship, find out why. Please don’t confront your friend about her relationship without first knowing some facts. I’m not saying you need to become a relationship expert, but familiarizing yourself with the warning signs of abuse will bode well for you in this situation. Having a clearer understanding of how your friend’s relationship is negatively affecting her is not only helpful, it’s crucial. So check out these resources and educate yourself.
2. Shut your mouth and open your ears
I know this seems odd since the title of this post is “How to TALK to a Friend About Her Not-Awesome Relationship.” I apologize if I mislead you, but the most important skill in communication is listening. (Tuck that nugget away for later. You’ll need it, especially if you decide to get married someday.) If your friend is willing to talk about her relationship AT ALL, treat her words like diamonds. Don’t interrupt her. Don’t tell her what to do. Don’t talk too much. The bottom line is, a woman in a not-awesome relationship may not always feel heard. So listen to her.
3. Support, support, support
If there was ever a time your friend needs support, it’s now. Unhealthy relationships eat self-esteem for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If she’s forgotten, remind your friend of how awesome she is. Make it known that you are on her team and you support her. Please note: Being on her team does not mean you need to become her partner’s enemy. In fact, criticizing your friend’s partner might very well upset her. Focusing on actions, rather than making attacks will probably be more effective. For example:
Good: “I am concerned when Big Bird tells you who you can and can’t be friends with. You’re such an amazing friend and I’d hate for you to lose touch with people you love and care about. What do you think?”
Bad: “Big Bird is controlling and awful and I really have no idea what you see in him. You need to break up with him.”
It’s not always easy to watch your words, especially if Big Bird is hurting your friend. But insulting your friend’s attraction to him will likely make her feel judged and angry. Besides, Big Bird is already telling her what to do all the time. Why follow his example?
4. Accept that she’s the expert on her own life, not you
I admit that this one is hard, especially after you’ve spent so much time educating yourself about abuse. But it goes hand in hand with all the others and it’s probably the most important. No matter how much you think you know about your friend’s relationship, she knows more. You may disagree with everything she is doing, but you’re not in her shoes, she is. For instance, did you know that the most dangerous period in an abusive relationship is right after a survivor leaves? That is when tensions are high, the abuser angry about losing control and your friend is most likely to be seriously hurt or even killed. No one ever fully knows what an abuser is capable of, so you’ve got to trust HER gut. It can be exhausting to watch your friend in an unhealthy cycle, but in the end, she must be the one to decide to leave. Not you.
If safety is a factor, please put her in touch with a local domestic violence center that can help her make a safety plan. A safety plan will help your friend prepare to leave her relationship in a safe and thorough manner.
5. Take care of yourself
Remember, no woman is an island. That doesn’t mean you should post your friend’s relationship problems to Facebook, but don’t feel like you have to navigate this stuff on your own. If you find yourself needing support while you support a friend experiencing abuse, get some help. Call a hotline and vent until your face turns blue. Compassion fatigue is real, my friends. There’s a reason why flight attendants tell us to first put on our oxygen masks before helping others. Get your oxygen, girl. Your friend needs you to breathe.
Helen Keller once said “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” The darkness may make it hard to see, but keep walking. Because when you walk with your friend, it makes a difference. And when it comes to friendship, you are far from not-awesome.