How can I help someone in a toxic relationship?
If a friend is in a controlling relationship there are ways that you can help
Written by spunout
Fact checked by experts and reviewed by young people.
If you have a friend who is in a toxic relationship, it can sometimes be hard to know what the best course of action is. Here are some tips that can help you be there for your friend.
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is one that can be defined by the actions of one partner causing emotional, physical or psychological damage to the other partner. Some common characteristics of a toxic relationship are:
- Criticising and ridiculing – attacking personal characteristics that you cannot change, your family and friends
- Passive aggressive behaviour
- Blaming you for problems
- Unwilling to forgive for small mistakes
- Verbal abuse
- Physical, sexual and financial abuse
- Narcissistic and controlling behaviour – not allowing you go out without them, not allowing you see friends or family without them with you
- Threatens to leave if you don’t do as they say
- Threatens to expose information or images of you (revenge porn)
- Little or no trust – checking your phone, needing to know where you are all the time
- Jealousy and blame – excessive jealousy and blaming you for everything that goes wrong
If you feel like you might be in a toxic relationship, you can read our article, “Am I in a toxic relationship?” for further information on what fully constitutes a toxic relationship.
How do I help a friend in a toxic relationship?
Sometimes, coming out and saying how you feel about your friend’s relationship adds a risk of your own friendship becoming strained and ending. Here are some things you can subtly do to help your friend cope with what they’re going through.
Let your friend talk and let them know you’re there for them, both now and in the future regardless of their decisions. Do not put pressure on them to drop the relationship. Being aggressive about your friend leaving their partner and providing ultimatums could just push your friend away and they may feel like they cannot talk to you. Let conversations flow and be a good listening ear.
Share unhealthy relationship experiences of your own or ones you have heard of
During conversations where an opportunity arises, confide any personal experiences of toxic relationships you have had or heard of with your friend. Not only might this cause your friend to realise something that they thought was normal in their relationship isn’t, but they will also know you are not judging them for staying in a toxic relationship if they have started to realise it for themselves. Talk subtly about how you made overlooked some forms of abuse and ignored red flags before coming to the realisation that it is not your job to allow them to do that. Stick to your own past and don’t try advise your friend on their relationship.
Rather than outright saying something, bring it up without outright naming it. If you bring up toxic relationships, the chances are your friend may say something to their partner, who will be able to plant a seed in their mind that you may just be jealous or don’t know what you’re talking about.
Use movies, songs, books or any other manner to subtly talk about abuse in the medium. Ask what they think the woman in the movie should do – should she stay with the partner or go? This roundabout talk seems like harmless conversation, but you are encouraging your friend to consider their own situation subconsciously.
Build up their self-image
Some people in toxic relationships start to realise they are, but take time to process it and weigh up varying factors. Consistently tell your friend things that will build up their self-image, giving them the strength they might need to leave their partner. Challenge what their partner has said about them, if they have called them stupid or weak tell them that they are not. This works much better for all involved if you avoid framing the situation in a negative way.
Don’t be judgmental and don’t criticise
If your friend is processing the problem but has yet to do anything about it, listen and do not judge – especially if they are trusting you enough to fill you and talk to you about it. Instead, allow them to talk, vent and get everything out that they want to say and ask questions to learn more about the situation to help them. The last thing you want to do is be controlling and instruct them to do anything, no matter how good your intentions are. Also be cautious about criticising their partner as they may not be ready to hear that.
When you’re asking the difficult questions, let your friend answer them and don’t interrupt or react negatively. Sometimes hearing the problem aloud can trigger them to be inspired to get back on track. Suggest that they look at websites against domestic violence such as Safeireland.ie for support.
Make sure they know you’re always there
Make sure you know they have your support, and that the door is always open, any hour of the night for them to come and stay with you. The second that your friend asks for help, be 100% there. Watching your friend struggle before this happens may be hard, but it’s much better to be patient for a better outcome.
Check in with them
Check in with them about how they’re doing and how things are going. Even if you just send a message every day or two, or meet up with them once a week for a coffee, this continuous communication will show them not only that you’re reliable and always there for them, but that there are support systems around them who care deeply for them.
Being honest both works and doesn’t work in certain cases. If your friend specifically asks for your opinion, then tell them the truth rather than what you think they want to hear. Being direct and honest about your thoughts on the situation (when they want them) will make your friend value you you more for caring and looking out for them. Tell them truth about what you’ve seen about their relationship, and give them helpful advice and support, without overstepping boundaries.
If you don’t know what advice to give, that’s okay too. There are several services dedicated to giving a listening ear for those who have suffered an abusive relationship. A list of these services include:
- Safe Ireland provides information on all specialist domestic violence services throughout Ireland
- AMEN for men experiencing domestic violence
- Women’s Aid
- One in Four
- National Helpline
Do you need someone to talk to right now? SpunOut.ie’s text message support service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We provide in-the-moment anonymous support and problem solving when you need it most.
Text SPUNOUT to 086 1800 280 to begin. Standard SMS rates may apply.