Highlights reel (TL;DR)
- A relationship is toxic when one or both partners’ behavior negatively affects the other.
- If you’re concerned that a friend is in a toxic relationship, consider sharing any toxic patterns of behavior you’ve noticed with them.
- You can’t make them leave. They have to decide to leave on their own. But you can provide resources and support to help them make that decision.
My friend is in a toxic relationship and won’t leave. You might be surprised to learn that you’re not the only one who has run into this problem.
There are many reasons to suspect a friend might be in a toxic relationship. They may be fighting a lot with their partner, or maybe the two of them are increasingly passive-aggressive with each other.
While some conflict in relationships is typical, even healthy, research suggests that an average of 80% of Americans have experienced emotional abuse, something no one should have to go through in a relationship.
If you’re wondering how to help someone in a toxic relationship — and whether it’s even a good idea to get involved — read on to learn about the signs of a toxic relationship and how to help a friend you suspect is in one.
What is a toxic relationship?
There isn’t an exact definition for a toxic relationship. But experts suggest that a relationship may be toxic when one or both partners are physically or emotionally damaging to the other.
A few characteristics that people in a toxic relationship might display include:
- domineering behavior
- controlling behavior
Whether a relationship is toxic also depends on how often this behavior happens. Having a bad day and being overly critical or a little passive-aggressive as a result doesn’t automatically mean there’s toxicity happening. Constantly disregarding a partner’s needs is a lot more toxic than occasionally being a jerk and making an effort to patch things up.
There are varying degrees of toxicity, says clinical psychologist Dr. Ryan Howes. All relationships have ups and downs, and sometimes several good years can be overshadowed by a sudden crisis and conflict. “Aside from physical and sexual violence, there is no dashboard warning light that says a relationship is suddenly toxic,” says Howes.
My friend is in a toxic relationship but won’t leave: 4 tips
There are no universal rules on how to deal with toxic relationship dynamics. And no two relationships are the same. It’s even more challenging if the person in a toxic relationship is your friend.
Here are a few expert-backed tips for helping someone in a bad relationship.
1. Talk to them
If you’re close, your first step might be to make small observations about bad behavior you’ve witnessed. Like, “Hey, your partner criticized your clothes. You looked upset.” Gently offering these comments might lead to a larger conversation and help you gauge your friend’s feelings.
If this seems too direct, and you’re unsure exactly what to say to someone in a toxic relationship, consider sharing how you feel about the situation instead. Make it about your own observations and feelings. Try using phrases like “I worry you’re being mistreated and could get hurt.” This enables you to bring up the topic without assuming how they’re feeling.
In a more extreme situation where the partner is abusive, for example, Howes suggests asking your friend to leave the relationship and providing resources to help them feel more comfortable doing so.
2. Encourage them to seek help and support
Whether it’s only a few bad days causing tension, or a lot of unresolved conflict, consider encouraging your friend to seek support.
If they’re very busy or aren’t likely to reach out themselves, consider finding names of counselors, attorneys, shelters, or any other resources you think they may need.
3. Be there to support them without judgment
Everyone has a different idea of what a healthy relationship looks like. Let your friend talk about how they feel, even if you disagree.
It’s important to avoid demonizing their partner. While it might be true that the relationship is harming your friend, they may want to find a way to make things work. Blaming their partner or pointing things out accusingly might make your friend less likely to open up to you.
Offer support, regardless of what they decide. You may need to be more direct if there’s abuse going on, but it’s important they feel you’re a safe person they can come to, now and in the future.
4. Be patient
When looking at a relationship from the outside in, the problems might seem obvious. But if your friend is in love, they may not be able to be objective. Gently pointing out your concerns might be enough to get them to re-evaluate their relationship and work on it with their partner, but it can take time for this shift in mindset to occur.
And even if things aren’t salvageable, it can take time to build up the courage to leave a toxic relationship. In the meantime, keep supporting them. The leap might not feel daunting if you’re around to help them through it.
Studies show that feeling socially isolated can negatively impact your physical health and well-being, so just being there and regularly checking in with your friend could make a world of difference to them.
The final word
Even if you suspect your friend is in a toxic relationship, you can’t make them leave. But, you can help them by providing support and letting them know they’re not alone.
If you’re experiencing abuse or think you may be in danger from an intimate partner, please call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline for free, confidential assistance in the United States. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.
Bridget Stringer-Holden is a journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia. She's currently pursuing her Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia as a recipient of the Vancouver Sun David Bains Scholarship, and she has bylines in Vancouver Magazine, Western Living, BC Business, Radio-Canada, Healthline, and the Capilano Courier. Bridget finds meaning in uplifting the voices of others.