How You Can Support A Loved One In A Toxic Relationship Without Alienating Them

Does your friend or family member seem like they are always at odds with their significant other? If your loved one is in a toxic relationship, you may be wondering how you can show your support without alienating them or coming across as critical. The first step is to identify the subtle and not-so-subtle signs that your loved one is in a trauma-bonded or toxic relationship. According to relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo (via Healthline) if your loved one is in a toxic relationship they may feel constantly drained of energy and happiness when they are around their significant other. They might always be competing with their partner instead of supporting each other, communicating ineffectively (yelling, sarcasm, snide remarks), holding on to grudges, being dishonest and disrespectful, or feeling like they are always walking on eggshells around each other.

Clinical psychologist and author of "Joy from Fear," Dr. Carla Marie Manly told Healthline that in order for toxic relationships to become healthy, both partners must want to take steps toward change: "If only one partner is invested in creating healthy patterns, there is — unfortunately — little likelihood that change will occur," Dr. Manly says. Supporting your loved one without judging them for staying in a toxic relationship will demonstrate your value as a trusted and empathetic friend or family member. Your gentle advice and active listening can help them improve their situation and provide them with the space and respect they need to improve their relationship or decide to leave it.

Don't judge your loved one or their relationship

Judging or criticizing your loved one for being in a toxic relationship is one of the worst things you can do and will only serve to alienate them from you. There are numerous reasons why someone might stay with the person they are in a relationship with — from having kids or religious and cultural reasons to financial concerns or being scared of being alone. You simply can never know the full dynamic at play in someone else's relationship. Therefore, make sure what you are expressing to your loved one comes from a place of love and not judgment. You may also want to second-guess gossiping with others about your loved one's situation — there's a good chance it will leak out and you may do irreparable damage to your relationship with that friend or family member.

Don't be shocked or put off by your loved one's indecision — choosing whether to stay or leave a toxic relationship is something only they can decide. Let them know that you will support them in their decision no matter what. If they decide to work on the relationship, there are professional resources (discussed further in this article) that may help them.

Be patient and listen intently

Sometimes your loved one just needs a shoulder to cry on. You don't always have to provide the answers — your quiet support and understanding can make all the difference. Admitting you are in a toxic relationship is not an easy feat, so when your friend or family member comes to you, avoid interrupting, asking intrusive questions, or trying to pacify them. They may not necessarily be seeking opinions and instead, simply need to vent their emotions. Showing empathy by trying to understand what your loved one is feeling and not making assumptions as to what course of action they want to take in their relationship will reassure them that you are someone they can lean on.

After listening intently to your loved one, you can offer some kind words, such as "I'm here for you," and "Thank you for trusting me with this," but there are some cliche phrases you may want to avoid. For instance, according to Manhattan-based psychiatrist Dr. Grant Brenner (via Women's Health), avoid saying "I know how you feel," since it may come off as you trivializing their relationship issues and/or impending breakup. "Even if, intellectually, your friend knows she's not the first person in the world to suffer a heartache, right now all she is thinking about is her situation," said Dr. Brenner. So instead of seemingly dismissing her relationship problems as commonplace, try saying something like, "What you are going through sounds so difficult. How are you feeling?"

Be honest, but not brutally

It's easy to be unaware that you are in a toxic relationship when it's ingrained into your daily life or if you haven't had many models of healthy relationships. Your loved one may not realize that they and their significant other are negatively affecting each other to the point where it no longer makes sense to remain in the relationship. Let them know how things look on the outside (without being critical) and how you have seen them and/or their partner suffer. Express to your loved one that they are not faulty or damaged, but that they and their partner don't always bring out each other's best qualities. 

Is there ever a time when brutal, no-holds-barred honesty is necessary? Probably not. Any approach to communication that involves the word "brutal" will likely end in hurt feelings and may prevent them from wanting to speak openly with you in the future. The more productive way to voice your opinions or give advice to your loved one, according to Psychology Today, is to lead with compassion. Think about what you want to say beforehand and how you can say it in a way that will be well received. This will help you understand the most constructive and loving way to communicate with them. Also, using an ineffective mode of communication like being "brutally honest" seems counterintuitive to approaching someone who has possibly been subject to this type of poor communication style in their toxic relationship.

Research counseling or break-up resources for your loved one

Some relationships can be salvaged if both people are willing to put in the time and effort to make changes. It can be difficult to suggest therapy for anyone for any reason, therefore think about your approach before making recommendations. You might try approaching your loved one by telling them a story about someone you knew with a relationship counseling success story. Or maybe you have a personal experience with counseling you could share. If couples counseling isn't attainable or desirable, there are also several relationship books and podcasts that your loved one might find useful, for instance, the podcast Where Should We Begin? with therapist Esther Perel allows listeners to hear real relationship counseling sessions that cover a range of issues and types of relationships.

Other relationships, however, may be beyond repair or in desperate need of a break for the individuals to work on themselves. Many people going through a break-up experience a loss of self-esteem, but you can help your loved one build themselves up again. Besides individual counseling, attending a seminar or workshop related to breaking up and self-esteem is a constructive way to help your friend move on and also show them that they are not alone. Or simply doing fun, healthy things together — taking a creative or exercise class, for example — is a great way to occupy their mind and show them that they can feel whole and happy by themselves.

What to do when the toxic relationship crosses the line into emotional or physical abuse

It might be hard for you to tell if your loved one is in a toxic relationship or an emotionally abusive relationship. Per Safe Horizon, emotional abuse is different than conflict — while conflict is a typical part of any relationship and is how people express emotions and work through issues, emotional abuse involves nonphysical behavior — such as insults and put-downs — that denigrates another person, making them feel threatened, scared, ashamed, ridiculed, or subordinate. If what your friend is telling you seems more like emotional abuse than relationship conflict, leaving is the only option, but it is not easy for your loved one — besides barriers to leaving like being financially dependent and/or having children, emotional abuse destroys self-esteem and often brainwashes a person into staying in the relationship with false promises and threats. You can have a big role in being the strength and support your loved one will need, but there are trained professionals that will provide expert assistance and help your loved one create a safety plan for leaving an abusive relationship.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support on their website.