How to help a friend in a toxic relationship

toxicImagine for a moment that you have a friend who is in a toxic relationship. It’s hard to tell from the outside just how unhealthy it is, but you’ve got a pretty strong inkling that it’s worse than they let on. You want to help your friend, but what do you do? What can you say? How can you encourage them to get the hell out and move on?

First, I’d like to tell you how *not* to do it. Because I am consistently astonished by how often I hear this terrible advice repeated.

  • Do not, I repeat, DO NOT tell your friend that their significant other is toxic, abusive, or otherwise “bad.”

Even if this is demonstrably true, it’s STILL a bad idea to say so to your friend.

Why? Because it makes them wrong to have gotten into the relationship in the first place. And making someone wrong about something is the very best way to get them to vehemently defend their right to do it and their rationale for having done it.

Allow me to play the role of your friend for a moment.

So you’re telling me that my partner is a toxic person. But if he simply *is* toxic, as a quality of his being, then he was toxic when I chose to start a relationship with him. Right?  So what does that make me? An idiot. A mark. A martyr. A victim. 

And anyway, you’re wrong. I know that he isn’t all bad. He has stunningly wonderful qualities. Qualities so wonderful, in fact, that I’ve been continually willing to put up with and overlook the toxic behaviors in question.

I’ve even engaged in some of those behaviors myself. They seem to be contagious. So if he’s toxic, then I must be toxic, too. Hell, maybe we deserve each other.

And maybe I can still fix this. Maybe I can repair this broken relationship and prove myself right to have gotten into it in the first place! Maybe I can redeem us both and make all this pain worthwhile! Maybe, with a little more work, with a little more patience and understanding and loving kindness I can still get my happily ever after…

But even if I can’t, the bottom line is that it doesn’t feel good in my soul to label this person whom I deeply love as “toxic” and cut him out of my life like a fungus. So I guess I’ll just have to hide the really bad stuff from you from now on so you’ll stop saying that to me.

Not exactly the outcome you were hoping for, hmm?

So, how do you help your friend?

Step 1. Observation

You point out the toxic patterns you see playing out in their current relationship. You help them step outside of their own relationship for a moment and see it from the outside so that they can decide what ought to be done. Use language like, “Here’s what I’m observing,” or “I wonder if you’ve noticed that…” Stick to observable behaviors and facts. No speculation, no evaluation of motives or assignments of blame.

Step 2. Validation

You reassure them that they are normal, and human, and that their reasons for choosing to be in, and stay in, that relationship are perfectly valid and totally understandable. This may feel counter-intuitive but it’s absolutely essential. Nobody wants to give up on a project that others tell them was doomed from the start. But if you tell them instead, “I totally see what you were going for there. Great idea, in theory,” they’re far more likely to be able to drop it and move on.

Which brings me to…

Step 3. Offer an alternative

Gently remind your friend that they can make a different choice at any time. For any reason. That it really is okay to take a break from someone just because that feels like the healthiest course of action. It doesn’t need to be a reflection on the toxicity of either party.

The truth is that, for the most part anyway, people in toxic relationships are not toxic people. They are people who have fallen into an unhealthy pattern of behavior vis-a-vis another person or people.

Peanuts aren’t deadly unless you happen to be allergic to them. Plenty of chemicals are inert on their own but explosive in the right–or rather the wrong–combination. Water is, like, the best thing in the world for you until you drink too much of it, and then it can fucking kill you. Forreal.

So it is with people. Some pairings are just… volatile. And we all have a nasty habit of recreating the same toxic patterns and pairings we are used to. It feels normal and familiar, even comforting, to experience that same flavor of toxicity over and over. Just like people often develop strong cravings for the very food they are allergic to.

And just like a gambling addict will sit in front of a slot machine for hours and hours and hours, we can spend months, years, even lifetimes trying to finally untangle that central problem we keep re-creating for ourselves. This time, we tell ourselves, it’ll be different. This time, I’ll figure out the trick of it, beat the system. Win that emotional jackpot. Even though we know that the dealer always wins in the end. Still, we keep trying, not just because the jackpot is so compelling but because the game itself becomes an addiction.

And the only way to let go of an addictive game is to find a new, equally compelling game to play.

So if you REALLY want to help your friend, here’s what you do: you help them find a new game. Invite them to collaborate on a project. Convince them to sign up for a class with you. Take them on a road trip. Keep them distracted, break up their usual patterns of behavior, get them out of their trigger-filled environment and give them a fresh perspective on things. Even if it doesn’t inspire your friend to leave their partner, it will certainly make them less reliant on that partner to get their needs for emotional support and stimulation met.

And hey, it’s a lot more fun than lecturing a purported equal about their terrible choice in partners. Not to mention far more likely to strengthen, rather than poison, your friendship.

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