When a friend complains incessantly to you about their relationship, it can sometimes seem like they’re just waiting for you to say, “Dump them!”
While that would probably end your friend’s whining fast, it’s not always the best way to express your concerns or opinion about their relationship.
If you’ve been in this scenario, you know how delicate it can be: You don’t want to offend your friend, so you have to phrase your opinion in exactly the right way. But the truth is that it actually might not be your responsibility to tell them to dump their partner at all — even if you are the friend that they rely on for unfiltered advice or “tough love.”
“It’s not your place to tell anyone to dump their partner,” says David Ludden, PhD, a psychology professor who focuses on the psychology of language. “That’s a decision only they can make.” Here’s the deal: Unsolicited advice is rarely welcomed, and can often come across as manipulation, Dr. Ludden says. And even if your friend straight-up asks you whether or not they should stay with their partner, it’s still not up to you to decide for them.
Instead, the best thing you can do is express your concerns about the relationship to your friend, Dr. Ludden suggests: “Let your friend know that you care about their well-being, and then briefly and straightforwardly express the issue regarding their partner.”
For example, you could say something like, Sounds very frustrating that she isn’t there for you when you need her. You deserve better! In other words: Be honest about what you observe, instead of injecting your own opinion. “Before you offer unsolicited advice, honestly consider whether you’re doing this for the other person’s benefit or your own,” Dr. Ludden says. If you’re trying to get a friend to end their relationship for your own benefit (like, because you want to date your friend or just find their partner boring), that’s not fair or helpful.
“If your friend gets defensive about your observations, give them time. “Just because a person rejects a piece of advice in the moment, that doesn’t mean they’ve rejected it altogether,” Dr. Ludden says. Eventually, they might realize that your observations are valid, but it’s better to let them come to the conclusion on their own. “And in the end, if you are a true friend, you’ll accept their final decision, whether it agrees with your point of view or not,” he says.
Even though it might feel like you’re dancing around your real opinion, you’re actually protecting your friend when you do this. It’s important to provide a safe environment for them to talk about their relationship issues, whether they’re big ones or small, Andrea Bonior, PhD, told Refinery29 in June. Because if you just shut them down and judge their relationship, then “that person feels like they can’t talk about it, which can turn toxic,” she explained. And if your friend is ever in real danger, then you would want them to feel like they can come to you, right?
That said, if you sense that your friend is in an abusive relationship, then you should tell them what you’ve noticed about their relationship, and that you will help them leave the relationship if need be. But again, it can be very difficult for people to hear that, especially if they don’t feel safe in their relationship, Rachel Goldsmith, LCSW-R, Associate Vice President for the Domestic Violence Shelter Programs at Safe Horizon, told Refinery29 in February. “Let the other person know that they can talk to you and you can help them get help from a professional,” she said.
Just remember: Even though you feel like you know what’s best for your friend and the course of their relationship, you might not. The best thing you can do is be there with them every step of the way — including if and when their relationship ends.