Psychologists share how to approach the situation respectfully so that you can have a productive conversation.

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If you've never had concerns about your friends' romantic relationships before, consider yourself lucky. Chances are, somewhere down the line, your friends have had partners that you just haven't gotten along with. But there's a difference between simply not clicking with someone and knowing deep down that they aren't good for your friend. Watching someone you're close to get mistreated by their partner is painful and frustrating, but it can be tough to discuss the relationship if your friend isn't open to hearing your opinion.

We know how our friends deserve to be treated, but sometimes they don't have the same standards for themselves. So when we notice signs of a toxic relationship forming between a friend and their significant other, it's natural to want to express our concerns. But oftentimes, friends can become defensive and even stop opening up to you about their relationship.

To help you tread the line between being a good friend and overstepping your boundaries, we tapped experts for their advice on how to have a productive (and respectful) conversation with your friends.

What is a toxic relationship?

The term "toxic relationship" means something different to everyone, but generally, a toxic relationship is an unhealthy partnership that's doing more harm than good. Dr. Carla Manly explains how we can spot signs of a toxic relationship by observing both our friend's and their partner's behavior.

"A few signs of hidden toxicity include a fear of talking about the relationship, fabrications involving the relationship, or excuse-making for the partner," Dr. Manly tells HelloGiggles. "If the partner is verbally rude, dismissive, sarcastic, or critical, you can be relatively sure that the relationship is toxic. On the physical end, it’s important to look out for signs of being physically rough, overly possessive, or—at the other extreme—completely disinterested."

If you are noticing red flags in your friend's relationship and are considering expressing your concerns to them, take a hard look at the situation before approaching them. Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., host of the Sex With Dr. Jess Podcast, recommends asking yourself these questions to understand if the relationship is truly toxic:

  • How does your friend feel about themself in the context of their relationship? Does their self-esteem seem to be suffering? 
  • How is the relationship affecting their mental and physical health?
  • How is the relationship affecting their quality of life—like friendships, interests, work, and family life?
  • Do you notice behavioral changes that are uncharacteristic of your friend?

If the answers to these questions worry you, your friend is likely not benefiting from their relationship, and you should voice your concerns.

How should you approach a friend about their toxic relationship?

Rather than approaching your friend with judgment, Dr. Jess suggests asking them about their relationship in general with questions like "How's it going with blank?" to get the ball rolling. "Your friend may seize the opportunity to unload or may temporarily clam up and spontaneously talk about the issue at a later date," Dr. Manly explains.

The language you use while discussing your friend's relationship is super important for making them feel comfortable opening up to you. Phrases like "I'm here for you," "you deserve to feel good/validated/loved/safe," and "relationships can be so challenging" reassure your friend that you are coming from a place of love and empathy.

Avoid any language that shames or judges your friend, like "I knew there was something off about them." This can cause your friend to shut down and not be vulnerable with you in the future.

When someone is married or has kids with their partner, it's natural to wonder, "Is it too late to express my concerns?" But Dr. Manly and Dr. Jess agree that you can always speak up and offer support to friends. Dr. Manly explains: "Sometimes it’s a courageous statement made by a friend or loved one that opens the door to leaving the toxic relationship."

What should you do if a friend becomes defensive?

Using supportive and careful language when talking to your friend about their relationship should make defensive behaviors less likely to happen, but sometimes, shame and fear causes people to put walls up anyway, according to Dr. Manly. If your friend's guard is up, remain calm and remind them that anything they share with you is confidential. If your friend still won't discuss their relationship with you, it's okay to back off for a while.

"Rather than pressing the issue, if physical harm is not an issue in the toxic relationship, it’s fine to let the topic pass," Dr. Manly says. "In such cases, say something candid and supportive like, 'I just wanted you to know how much I care about you. I’ll leave the subject alone, but if you ever want to talk about it—or anything else—I’m here for you.'"

If talking about their relationship is off the table, you can focus on being a good friend in general by spending time with them. Continue to carefully ask about the relationship later on if your concerns persist.