You Need Help: How Do I Get My Friend Out of Her Toxic Relationship?

Q:

About five months ago, I met a woman who I immediately clicked with. She was outgoing and caring, and we had so much in common, including that we are both bisexual. After a few months of friendship, I realized my feelings for her were more than platonic. But I can’t confess them to her because she has a boyfriend. I could accept that, but he’s incredibly toxic. He treats her like she’s worthless and then disappears for days anytime she tries to set boundaries. She’s constantly upset and worried over him leaving her. When she asks for advice, I’m honest but gentle about my opinions, but I try to never give that advice unsolicited. I’m trying so hard not to be a homewrecker, but this is not good for her. I don’t even care if she is with me, I just want her with someone who treats her right. What do I do? How do I get her out of this without feeling like I did something wrong?

A:

I’m sorry you’re in this situation. It can be really hard to watch a friend in a relationship that doesn’t seem good for them. At the same time, this situation isn’t entirely yours to fix or even diagnose for that matter. I know you think the relationship is toxic, and you’re absolutely entitled to your opinion and perception, but it’s also really difficult to know the nuances and specifics of a relationship that isn’t your own. You can’t really make choices for your friend.

You say she asks you for advice and that you answer honestly and gently. That is one of the best — and only — things you can really do in this situation. If you’re worried about the relationship, maybe ask her some questions. Ask her how the relationship makes her feel. Ask her if she thinks her boyfriend’s behaviors are toxic. Because that’s what I’m really missing from this letter: your friend’s perspective. Has she told you he treats her like she’s worthless or is that a conclusion you came to on your own? That’s an important distinction.

I mean, here’s the tricky thing: Sometimes, it is indeed easier for someone outside of the relationship to see the bad behaviors for what they really are than for a person inside the relationship to see it. So it’s possible you are indeed perceiving something your friend is not. But the only way to really know is to ask her what she wants and how she feels instead of deciding things on her behalf.

How do I get her out of this without feeling like I did something wrong? The thing is, it’s not really up to you to get her out of this relationship. Does she want out? Has she expressed that? It’s hard to watch friends make bad choices, but you have to respect your friend’s agency and autonomy. This is her relationship, her life. If you interfere too much, you risk losing her. I also think there are times when it is indeed healthiest to keep your crush on a friend to yourself, and assuming her relationship is monogamous, I think this is one of those times. Just because you don’t like the relationship doesn’t really mean it’s fine to cross any boundaries or relationship rules they might have in place.

I think the way to really show up for and support your friend is to listen to her and ask how she feels. I’ve been in relationship situations in the past where I knew certain friends did not approve and thought I was making bad, self-destructive choices, but I don’t think it would have done anyone any good if they had tried to actively stop me from making those choices. Instead, they were honest when I asked for advice but still let me be in charge of my own life. They let me know they loved me no matter what. They listened.

As for the homewrecker line, I’m not totally sure if you’re seeking permission to encourage someone you have a crush on to cheat, but I am not the person who is going to grant that permission. I do think you’re genuinely concerned about a friend. But there’s a difference between wanting to help and wanting to make someone else’s choices for them. And it’s difficult for me to separate your feelings for your friend from your perception of the relationship — whether that’s fair or not.

I’m sorry if this all sounds harsh. I do empathize with your situation to an extent. I’ve watched many friends date people who don’t treat them right, and it sucks. But you can’t break up a relationship you’re not a part of. And I ultimately can’t really answer a lot of the questions in your letter, because so much hinges on your friend and how she feels. These are her choices to make.

I don’t doubt that this relationship strains your friendship. You want her to be happy, and you want someone to treat her right. Those are good intentions in and of themselves, but if this relationship isn’t good for her, she really has to figure that out for herself. All you can do is listen and be there for her.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 813 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. Love Kayla’s advice here. It sounds like a really hard situation on several levels.

    I would also add that the letter-writer should take some time to step back and re-invest in other friendships and other parts of their life. It’s so easy to get sucked into bad drama with friends, but especially now, when so many things are difficult, you need to both be kind to yourself and actively work to make sure that you are filling your life with good and sustaining relationships, in the plural, and other things that bring you joy.

    Unrequited feelings for a friend can be so tough. And situations like this can also drag out for years, and slowly erode important parts of you and your friendship; things that feel ok now may be very different after some time. So if you truly want to be a good friend to both this woman and yourself, please understand that you’re going through something difficult, connect with other friends, and reinvest in hobbies and other activities that replenish you. And please take good care of yourself!

  2. I think it’s also important to note that many, MANY of us are much more likely to vent and complain about our partners to our friends than to gas them up.

    A lot of us think our friends’ partners are terrible because we only hear about the bad things from our friends. We get a very limited view of them.

    It’s possible that you’re getting only a certain bit of the story about him? And that your (maybe somewhat subconscious) desire to be with her instead of him is also clouding your judgment?

    A reminder, I guess, to talk up your partner and all the lovely things they do and why you love them to your friends so they don’t get the wrong impression :)

    Anyway, it’s also possible that he’s terrible and even if so, you can’t and shouldn’t do anything about it other than what you’re already doing and what the advice suggested.

  3. You can’t make anyone leave their relationship, for whatever reason. You can put up healthy boundaries and also give her support so she knows that if she leaves she’ll have people supporting her.

  4. not a lot to go on here, but when asked for advice, that advice could include the book Attached (https://www.attachedthebook.com/wordpress/). it’s not perfect, but IF the relationship really isn’t good and IF the person is staying in it out of fear of being alone/anxious attachment, this book might be a clue.

    AND an unpopular opinion: i think it’s ok to tell someone in a monogamous relationship you think they are attractive/highly dateable/a catch IF they WERE HYPOTHETICALLY single/available (“you’re caring and outgoing and i know there are other people out there who would be thrilled to be with you”) , and if they don’t believe you in the general, to use yourself as an example (“I know because I would be glad to date you if you ever find yourself to be single”), with a careful plan of how to end the conversation & exit the situation & firm boundary that you will not take it any farther than that unless/until they are indeed single (“i’m so glad we get to be friends, and I want to support you in the relationship you’re in”). ppl letting my (monogamous) partner & i know we’re attractive, separately or both of us, actually helps our relationship because we’re like “yeah we are great catches & so lucky to be with each other!”

    • i guess i should clarify – the second piece needs to genuinely come from wanting to affirm them as a person, as an antidote to anxiety about their ability to date if that anxiety is keeping them in a not good relationship. if it’s coming from a ‘secretly trying to ask you out without breakign the rules’ place it’s not good, don’t do it.

  5. i was in a really abusive relationship and it was extremely obvious to my friends and therapist and even to me that it was abusive, but any conversation that sounded like it was attacking him made me feel really defensive and protective of him, which obviously didn’t help me leave. what DID end up helping me leave was one of my best friends telling me that she loved me and wanted to support me, but she didn’t know how to be a good friend when i talked about him because she was afraid of how i was with him (for instance, i would set a boundary and he flipped out and punished me and so i would withdraw the boundary). she framed it around the changes she saw in me and her worries about me, and moved away from talking about him. she also told me that if i was ready to start making a plan to leave, she would do whatever she could to help me make that plan. she set a boundary for herself and let me know that while she couldn’t talk about the relationship, she was absolutely unfailingly in my corner and always would be.

    letter writer, you said toxic and not straight up abusive, but as someone who was in an extremely abusive and dangerous situation, it is extremely hard to get someone in that kind of situation to see their abusive partner realistically, or even if they do see the partner realistically like i did, i don’t think there’s anything that anyone could have said to me *about him* that would’ve gotten me to leave. when my friend made me focus on myself and the extremity of my situation while reinforcing that she loved me and nothing would change that, THAT was what helped.

    when you say that you want her with someone who treats her right, even if she ends this relationship, she may not be ready or willing to get into another one. i tried to date a couple people too soon after and it was not great, for me or the other person(s). now i’m planning to take a year or more off before even attempting dating, and i’ve set up a bunch of friends as accountability buddies for that. i talk about my ex with friends less frequently now, but i’m still triggered almost every day and my therapy sessions mostly revolve around my trauma from that relationship. if i get into a romantic relationship again, i want to be an equal partner and not to be seen as someone who needs to be rescued or coddled. it’s going to take time for me to get to a place where that’s possible and where i feel safe communicating and enforcing boundaries. my point is that that could be the case for your friend too if she does end the relationship.

    • I want to thank you for this super informative comment, I have often wondered how to help a person who is in this kind of relationship and this is a brilliant way to start. Wishing you all the healing and time you need to get over what you have lived

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