How To Help A Friend Who's In A Toxic Relationship

by Courteney Larocca

Within the past month, I've had two different people ask me if it was OK to step into their friends' relationships. They were both concerned that their friends' partners were manipulative and controlling, but they weren't sure if they should say anything (and had no idea what to say if they were to bring it up). No one likes a busybody, which is why we believe we should stay out of other people's relationships — but that isn't always the case. If you're worried about a friend's relationship, there are signs you can look out for that suggests their partner is toxic or abusive— and getting involved could save them from suffering further harm.

The longer someone's with a toxic person, the harder it can be to recognize the mistreatment and leave the relationship — which is why you should speak up immediately. "As soon as you have a clear indication that the relationship is toxic, say something," Natalie Moore, M.A., psychotherapist and owner of Relationship Refuge, tells Bustle. Making excuses for their partner or flaking on everything you try to plan with them could be signs your friend is in an unhealthy relationship.

If you're afraid that your friend needs help in their relationship, but aren't sure what to say, don't worry. There are ways to discuss your concerns with your friend after you recognize signs that their relationship is harmful.


You Feel On Edge Around Your Friend's Partner

Not meshing well with your friend's bae isn't necessarily a cause for alarm, but if you consistently feel as if you're walking on eggshells around them to prevent a blow-up, you should probably speak up. "We should be able to feel comfortable, safe, and able to be honest and vulnerable in the presence of others without fear of setting them off," Moore says.


Your Friend Tells You Their Partner Is Frequently Mad At Them

If your friend has never-ending updates about how they're in trouble with their partner, step in — it could be a sign of an abusive relationship. "In abusive relationships, the abuser constantly wants the abused to feel that they are in the wrong and that they’ve done something bad to 'deserve' the abuse they’re receiving," Moore says. So when your friend is always telling you they blame themselves for upsetting their partner, take note.


Their Partner Is Always Giving Them Expensive Gifts

Sure, it might seem cute at first, but if your friend keeps receiving high-ticket items from their significant other for no reason, it might be a sign of a deeper issue. "Especially in the beginning of an abusive relationship, the abuser will attempt to gain favor and control of their partner through the use of buying expensive gifts," Moore says. "Abusers also will buy their partner gifts or flowers as a way of asking for forgiveness following abuse."


Your Friend Mentions Feeling Crazy

When your friend keeps asking you, "Is it just me? Am i nuts?" about contradicting things their partner has done, it's possible they're being gaslit in their relationship. "Often, abusers will completely deny saying or doing something abusive," Moore says. "This is why many survivors of abuse will claim that they felt they were “going crazy” in the relationship — in other words, abusive partners will manipulate the truth so often that an individual may begin to doubt their own memory or sanity."


They Can't Always Recall What Happened

If your friend has trouble remembering certain events, step in immediately. "Abuse is traumatizing and while experiencing traumatic events, the brain will often dissociate from the present moment or the physical experience of the trauma, making it more challenging in the future to recall abuse," Moore says.


They've Been M.I.A.

There's a difference between "hey, my friend just started dating someone and now I get to see them less" and "hey, my friend disappeared to the point where they could have died and I wouldn't even know."

If your friend has been uncharacteristically flakey or basically vanished from your life the second they started dating their S.O., it might be a sign their partner is abusive. "An abusive individual will slowly erode away their partner’s support and resources so that they don’t feel they have the option to leave the relationship," Moore says. Being isolated by a partner is a cause for concern, and unfortunately your friend might not even notice it's happening – which is why you should say something.


Your Friend Lost Their Confidence

Toxic partners assert control in a relationship by chipping away at their other half's sense of self-worth, which is why you should be concerned if "you hear your friend making self-deprecating comments out of nowhere or mentions denigrating statements their partner has made," Moore says.


They Make Excuses For Their Partner

"You may notice your friend constantly explaining away their partner’s behavior such as 'oh, they were just drunk,' or 'they’re not usually like this,' or 'they’re going through a really tough time right now,' in order to manage people’s perceptions of their partner," Moore says. Healthy relationships don't need excuses.


So, How Do You Step In?

If you feel like you need to talk to your friend about their toxic partner, it's important to approach the discussion in a calm, nonjudgmental way. "It can feel like an attack when someone confronts you about your relationship," Moore says. "Remind your friend of your intentions: that you care about their safety and well-being."

Start the conversation off by asking your friend if they have any concerns about their relationship. This way, the ball is in their court, and they may be less likely to get defensive. Once you start voicing your own concerns, remind them that it's coming from a place of compassion, and offer any support that they may need. "Tell your friend that you are there for them no matter what decision they make and that you support them 100 percent," Moore says. "It can take a long time for individuals to come to terms with abuse, and they’re going to need you more than ever when that happens."

Also, if you have personal experience with a toxic relationship, that might be useful to bring up in the conversation. Sharing what you went through and how it affected you will show your friend that you know what they're dealing with and that you're truly on their side.

If you do end up talking to your friend about their relationship, make sure you go into the interaction without any expectations of a specific outcome. "If you are dead-set on your friend leaving their partner, your friend will pick up on this and may become resistant to your message," Moore says. "Be open to the possibility that your friend may not be ready to hear what you have to say."

If your friend seems to be in a toxic relationship, don't be afraid to step in. They might not be receptive of your concerns at first, but speaking up could be an important step in your friend ending the relationship or getting any help that they need.

Editor's Note: If you or your friend is in an abusive relationship and needs help, you can call The National Domestic Violence Hotline. It is open 24 hours a day.