How do you help a friend who is in a toxic relationship? You don’t want things between you to get worse. But you also don’t want your friend’s toxic relationship to continue.
They say that every relationship has an expiry date. Actually, every relationship comes with a finite period of normalcy and decency; beyond that, habits take over the burdens of love. – THB
A toxic relationship starts out with one partner asserting control and the other feeling threatened. Then it turns abusive, manipulative, or violent. It may soon spiral out of control, leaving the victim-partner lonely, jittery, terrified, and depressed.
It’s useful to recognize the signs of a toxic relationship, so you can end it before it ends your sanity.
How To Help A Friend In A Toxic Relationship
The first rule, don’t hijack the conversation when they come to talk to you. It’s about them, not about you. Let them speak.
Here are a few things you may do to help a friend who is in a toxic relationship:
1. Listen With Empathy.
Any relationship can turn toxic, and it often happens unexpectedly. So, to tell your friend that you knew it or had guessed it a long time ago is highly disrespectful. Don’t do it.
Instead, use empathy. Our empathy can help them heal. It fosters trust and manifests that we care about them.
Actively listen to their account of events. Remain patient and empathetic, letting them talk it out freely.
One of the most effective tools we have for building strong relationships is empathy. Empathy enables us to know and share the emotions of others, letting us bond deeper with them.
Your best help to them will come from empathizing with them, never letting them feel unheard or irrelevant.
Learn the art of active listening.
2. Listen Without Prejudice.
When a friend confides in you about their toxic relationship, they want to share with you their painful experience. Be that person they expect you to be.
Listen to them carefully without making assumptions, passing judgments, or laying blames.
Allow them to speak freely without interrupting, and refrain from assuming things about your friend or the toxic person they are involved with.
When you start to assume things during a conversation, you roll the dice of your judgment.
If they see or decide you are judging them, they will start closing their hearts to you. Moreover, they may start judging you if you were not the right person to have come to for sharing a vital part of their life experience.
So, just let them talk without feeling they are being judged.
Don’t be dramatic with your reactions, please. Neither play the “gray rock strategy” with them.
What is the “gray rock strategy?”
The gray rock strategy is a way to deal with narcissists. It involves ignoring their advances and not giving them any attention.
The gray rock strategy is often used by people who are not interested in the narcissist but are afraid of being hurt or rejected if they don’t respond to the advances.
3. Don’t Offer Unsolicited Advice
Unsolicited advice becomes a burden to the other person.
First, they are uncertain if they should follow it. Second, they might worry if they might offend you by not following it. Third, there is a chance that you would want them to follow it.
Save them the dilemma and keep your unasked-for advice to yourself. Unless they are seeking solutions from you, do not suggest any.
You can validate their emotions by assuring them, like, “I can see why you feel that way,” or “It makes sense that you feel that way.”
You could ask them, “How are you coping with it? Do you think someone could help you handle it better?”
Your unsolicited advice can also make them feel more guilty about themselves, even when they are not at fault.
Tell them you are there for them. But don’t offer advice that isn’t asked for.
4. Don’t Get Dragged Into The Fight.
It can be difficult to stop yourself from not feeling vicious at the person who is torturing your friend.
No matter how great friends you are, remember that you are only listening to their version of the events. The other person involved with them may not actually be as your friend is making it out to be.
Support them, but don’t be overzealous to fight it out for them.
Listen to them, support them morally and emotionally, but do not take sides.
Do not rationalize their point of view or offer manipulative solutions, even indirectly (like “I know a guy who did this in such a situation.”)
Do not encourage their destructive plans for their partner. In fact, dissuade them from acting out their potentially harmful plans.
5. Don’t Try to Save Them.
You are not their savior. They don’t need your saving.
You could be one of those people who are high on empathy (“empath”), and feel you must do something to save your friend from the relationship. Resist acting on that thought.
Don’t get up from the conversation to mount your horse and fight their battle. They are perfectly capable of deciding the right course of action without your intervention.
Be supportive, but never offer to help them by promising to go outside your capabilities.
Pray for them, but don’t be their Jesus.
6. Don’t Jump To Help.
Stay ready to help, but don’t go overboard.
You may not be the best one to help them. Their best help would most likely come from a mental health expert. You may encourage your friend to get professional help.
If they require the services of a professional, they will seek it out or ask you for a recommendation.
It is not up to you to tell your friend to end their relationship. Never forget that they do not want you to decide for them if they should leave the toxic person. That choice will always be theirs.
Don’t be overenthusiastic to help; it can be counterproductive.
Just because someone came to you to talk about their personal crisis doesn’t mean you have to help them proactively. For the most part, you don’t have to do anything.
They’ll probably get over it on their own and be their sweet selves again without your intervention.
This point applies to you, especially if you’re an empath.
7. Assure Them of Confidentiality.
Don’t break their trust. They trusted you with sensitive information, and it is unsaid that you must keep them private.
Do not be a gossip. Make it a point to maintain absolute secrecy about what your friend told you.
Do not mention their case even as a story with anonymous characters (like, “Someone I know went through this, but I can’t name them. So, what happened was…”). People can track down links to your “anonymous someone” and identify that friend.
Please remember to tell them that you are going to keep every bit of information they shared with as private. And do that.
Your promise of nondisclosure gives them peace of mind when they leave.
8. Respect Their Boundaries.
Boundaries in relationships keep them healthy.
If your friend wishes to discuss the matter, listen without prejudice. But if they do not wish to talk to you about it, accept their wishes, and stop your probing questions.
Respect your friend’s boundaries. Don’t try to talk them out of the relationship; it’s not your area to exercise control.
Also, for your own mental health, maintain your own boundaries.
Let them know that you truly care about them and want the best for them, but you cannot cross your boundaries, and they should not expect you to do so.
9. Treat Them As Adults.
They are not kids who need to be taught how to handle every difficult thing that happens in their life.
Don’t tell them if you think they should get out of the relationship, even if they ask your “honestly brutal” opinion.
First, this could make things worse. The horror of horrors, your friend’s partner might come after you to unleash their monstrosity!
Second, they may work out their conflicts and cut you out of their friendship. Worse, since “you tried to split them apart,” you are now their common enemy.
Third, they might have already decided to leave that person, but are dithering to act, probably because they haven’t worked out the aftermath of the breakup. They might be thinking:
- How can I possibly be safe after that?
- How can I avoid becoming a target again?
And, since you’re not a cop or a mafia boss, you can’t secure their safety if their partner is an antisocial personality or malignant narcissist.
So, when they say they expect your honest and direct opinion if they should leave them, tell them you cannot make or validate that decision for them.
10. Don’t Force Your Ideas On Them.
Don’t get pushy in persuading them to act. Don’t give them that “It’s now or never.”
It can be quite heartbreaking to see our loved ones in distress. We may be overly worried about how to help a friend in a toxic relationship.
Pushing them, however, can actually worsen their position. It may force them to make unwise and unsafe decisions.
Regard their fragile emotional state, and avoid pressuring them to act fast. Whether it’s to cut the ties, go to the authorities, or seek counsel, let them take their time.
Remember, their unhappiness is uniquely theirs; nothing else compares.
You should let them handle it in their own way and at their own pace. Forcing them in any way will not only harm not only you or them, but also cost you your friendship.
Simply be there for them.
Finally, don’t just do something.
When you learn about a friend who is caught in a toxic relationship, resist the urge to engage them on it. Leave them be until they approach you.
Make yourself available, however, when they request your time to discuss “something very important.”
They need your patient ear, not your chivalrous act.
You may encourage them to seek professional help. If your friend is unwilling to get treatment, be kind and loving until they are ready, and even if they are not.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, mindfulness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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