When Someone You Love Is In A Toxic Relationship

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A quick note: This story focuses on bad-news relationships, but not necessarily physically dangerous relationships. If you came to this story looking to help a friend who is being abused by their partner, much of the below may still apply, but here's a resource that addresses that issue more directly; here's another.

I will admit to being the sort of low-grade control freak who can't stand to see people she cares about in bad or even mediocre relationships. Since I'm pretty selective about the people I hold close to begin with, the few who I do are, by my estimation, the all-time greatest and deserving of so much more than the average J. Doe could provide. So it makes sense that it's the rare significant other who meets my (unnecessary, ineffectual, obnoxious, relevant only to me) standards, right?

Most of the time, this is just me being a nosy jackass, albeit a nosy jackass with good intentions. If my friend is happy and healthy in love, even if their partner isn't mind-bendingly awesome in my humble opinion, then who am I to argue? As far as I'm concerned, the only person cool enough and smart enough to date my best friend would be neither Ryan Gosling nor me in male form, but an actual clone of my best friend. I recognize that this is deluded, and that, yeah, I've got an issue to work through.

But part of the reason why this is even an issue for me to begin with is that, every now and then, though thankfully not too often, I've had to gaze on helplessly as friends and family members became embroiled in genuinely distressing and toxic relationships. If you've experienced this brand of bystander powerlessness, then you know how scary it is — it's supremely sickening to have to stand back as great people, smart people, people who deserve respect beyond measure, submit to such negative influences in their lives. Or, not even submit to, but welcome in.

For a little while, now, someone who I care about a lot has been seemingly whirlpooling into a troubling relationship. While I won't go into details, suffice it to say that parts of it are so off that I'm struggling to keep my mouth shut and to live and let live. Her life isn't in danger, but there is definitely potential for real, lasting, and extreme emotional damage.

Even though not much good has come of me opening my mouth in situations like this in the past, I'm worried enough to risk an unpleasant conversation. But I'm not sure where to start; I don't know what will be most effective. I did some research on the subject, and came away with three TIps.

1. Voice Your Concerns Once

I confessed my concerns to Google and it brought me to this 2013 New York Times article by Mad Men writer Tracy McMillan:

“What should I do?” is not the first question to ask. The truth is, in most cases, there is nothing you can do about another person’s life. (Serious criminal behavior would be an exception.) Nor should you. Everyone is responsible for their own choices, and their own existence.

Tracy. Tracy. I know you're right, but I'm having a hard time putting down the bullhorn, and I'm gonna need a little more to go on.

So here’s what I try to do: voice any concerns I have one time, then stay close by while giving the people I love the dignity of their own experience.

This, I think, is sound advice. In my experience, people are definitely more receptive to one "I'm concerned" conversation — don't call it an intervention, even though it's clearly an intervention of sorts — than a regular trashing of their partner. Talks like this have gone best for me when I've blocked a good amount of time off for them, and spent some time thinking about what I say beforehand.

2. Think Like a Therapist

As a friend, your job is always, always, always to listen and to provide support. As Dr. Jonathan Fader explains on Psychology Today's blog:

Chances are that if your friend is with someone who has treated them badly, they have most likely been criticized and judged by everyone else in their life. By simply not telling them what to do and listening and supporting them you are a step ahead of everyone else. As I’ve said to my clients, “I’m not here to judge you or tell you what to do [...] I’m here to help you figure out what you want to do and then assist you in getting there."

But even if you listen and remain non-judging and stay patient and say your piece just once and do all of these things right, there is still a chance that your friend might choose to stay in the relationship — a good chance, in fact, if she's unable to see (or uninterested in seeing) the situation from your perspective. What then?

3. Continue to be Supportive

The tip below comes from the US Office on Women's Health's website, and though it speaks directly to abusive relationships, I think it definitely applies here, too.

If your friend decides to stay, continue to be supportive. Your friend may decide to stay in the relationship, or she may leave and then go back many times. It may be hard for you to understand, but [...] be supportive, no matter what your friend decides to do.

The Office of Women's Health also has advice for the opposite situation: when your friend chooses to walk away.

If your friend decides to leave, continue to offer support [...] she may feel sad and lonely once it is over.

If someone smart and capable has been overlooking something sinister in their partner for a significant chunk of time, I would say that it's very likely that they had very strong feelings for the person in question, all flaws aside. What you need to bear in mind, I think, is that this breakup may demand more than regular breakup protocol (i.e., more compassionate listening, maybe fewer margaritas). It's important that your friend knows that, no matter your feelings about her partner, that it's not lost on you that she's hurting right now, and that you weren't rooting for the relationship — or for her — to fail.

Do these tips feel a little paltry to you, my fellow well-meaning control freaks? They feel a little paltry to me, but they're the best that the Internet and common sense have to offer, and I'm going to give them a go. Even if I would ideally prefer to — kindly, lovingly, respectfully — steamroll everyone I care about into seeing their lives from my perspective, especially when I feel like I'm obviously right, the most I and any true friend can do is to be supportive and attentive, and honest.

And, you know, I can probably take all that time I would have spent trying to lecture my friend out of a situation that's not mine to control and use it to work on my own mild god complex.