Helping a Friend in a Challenging Relationship

Relationships can be complicated, and sometimes we find ourselves witnessing our friends endure toxic dynamics that they are reluctant to leave. It can be disheartening to see our loved ones suffer in such unhealthy relationships, but understanding why they might be hesitant to break free is crucial.

In a recent incident I experienced with my friend, her partner made a derogatory comment that left us all stunned. It was a clear indication that their relationship had taken a toxic turn. However, it wasn’t until my friend casually dismissed the offensive remark that I realized the gravity of the situation. It became evident that she was trapped in a toxic relationship.

Toxic relationships, as defined by Dr. Lillian Glass, a communication and psychology expert, are characterized by a lack of support, constant conflict, undermining behavior, competition, disrespect, and a lack of cohesion. Unfortunately, people within toxic relationships often struggle to recognize these signs, which can be as subtle as nitpicking or as overt as stonewalling.

For those of us on the outside looking in, it can be challenging to comprehend why someone would choose to stay in a toxic relationship. However, there are numerous reasons that could explain a victim’s reluctance to leave. Toxic partners tend to isolate their significant others, making them feel as though they have no support system or alternative if the relationship ends. Financial dependency may also factor into their decision, as their partner may control their finances or drain their resources. Additionally, they may hold onto the hope that their partner will revert to their previous, ideal self.

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As friends, witnessing our loved ones endure such relationships can be distressing. We want the best for them, and it can be difficult to see them unhappier than they deserve to be. If you find yourself in this situation, consider the following steps to support your friend:

Have an open conversation with them

Approaching the topic of a toxic relationship can be delicate. Instead of bombarding your friend with questions like “Why don’t you just leave?”, try a different approach. Dr. Michael Tennies, a psychotherapist, suggests asking, “What is your partner doing that affects you to your core?” This neutral question allows your friend to interpret and respond in a way that feels comfortable to them. In this conversation, share your observations and concerns empathetically. Focus on any noticeable changes in their well-being, confidence, or overall demeanor. While your friend might provide excuses or defend their partner, it is essential to address these rationalizations gently and listen to their perspective.

Recognize that the conversation is just the beginning

It is important to remember that helping someone leave a toxic relationship takes time and patience. Breaking free from an unhealthy dynamic is not as simple as one conversation. Abuse can manifest in various ways, such as gaslighting, emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, or intimidation. Your friend may spend the majority of their time with their toxic partner, making it difficult for them to perceive reality accurately. Therefore, it is crucial to validate their feelings and repeatedly remind them that they are not at fault. Patience is key. Your friend will need time to process their emotions and make the decision to leave on their own terms.

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Be a beacon of positivity in their life

Toxic relationships tend to consume every aspect of a person’s life, particularly if both partners live together. If your friend is in constant communication or proximity to their partner, they may be subjected to daily gaslighting and manipulation, leading to a distorted perception of reality. As a supportive friend, it is essential to validate their emotions and reassure them that they are not alone in this journey. However, remember that your role is to be a friend, not a therapist. Maintaining boundaries is crucial to safeguard your own mental well-being. If discussing their relationship becomes overwhelming, communicate your limits. If your friend cannot reciprocate support, have an honest conversation about it. Prioritize self-care and step back when necessary, as you cannot assist others effectively if you neglect your own needs.

Understand that you cannot save your friend

While it may be tempting to take on the responsibility of saving your friend from their toxic relationship, it is crucial to recognize your limitations. You can guide them, help them understand the toxicity, and provide support, but the ultimate decision to leave lies with them. Encourage them to seek professional help, such as therapy or counseling, as they navigate this difficult journey. Remind them that they possess the strength and resilience to make the right choices for themselves. It’s important to remember that their healing process will require time, support, and personal growth. By respecting their autonomy and providing unwavering support, you can contribute to their eventual liberation.

Witnessing a friend struggle in a toxic relationship is undoubtedly challenging. However, with perseverance and the right support, they can find their way to a happier and healthier life. Empathetically engage in conversations, maintain healthy boundaries, and encourage them to rediscover their inner strength. Ultimately, their happiness is in their hands, and your role is to be a steadfast source of support and love.

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Johanie Cools is a blogger, writer, book editor, and aspiring author. Follow her on Twitter at @jmartdotcom or on Medium at @jmcools.

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