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What to Do If Your Friend Is In a Toxic Relationship

Ask Abbie: What to Do If Your Friend Keeps Going Back to a Toxic Relationship?

Reader question: Soooo . . . How do you get through to friends that continue to not take your advice (specifically continuing to see a toxic boy that you repeatedly warn her about). She keeps getting her heart broken by guys and she just doesn't take any advice when multiple friends tell her — everyone sees it from a mile away except her. I take a friendly approach but that doesn't go through, so then I'm blunt — and it still doesn't work. it's hard watching the cycle repeat over and over again because I care about her, but it's just getting kinda frustrating even though that's selfish to say.

Oooooft!! I am BOTH of these friends. I have been the friend who keeps going back to the same toxic person over and over more times than I care to admit. I have also been the friend who has been frustrated seeing someone I love settle for less than they deserve. Because I have been in both positions, I understand both sides.

Approach with empathy

Whenever a friend of yours is going through a hard time, particularly when it comes to relationships, it is essential to be as empathetic as you can be. Keep in mind, your friend is almost definitely not enjoying this endless cycle of toxic relationships. They don't want to be constantly heartbroken, and they most likely don't want to constantly put pressure on you to listen to their tumultuous love life. They're stuck between a rock and a hard place, either holding in their feelings or burdening their friends with their troubles.

If your friend has a clear pattern of choosing toxic people, she may be dealing with underlying trauma that needs to be reconciled before she can be in a healthy, loving relationship. I can almost guarantee that they are not trying to get into unhealthy relationships, nor are they intentionally seeking them out. I understand your frustration, but being blunt or giving someone 'tough love' without empathy will only push them further away from you and into the arms of someone who is not worth their time or energy.

I suggest therapy to all of my friends, even if it's just one session to start to unpack their trauma. It seems your friend could benefit from understanding her relationship patterns, and, in turn, it would also help your friendship. It's important that you suggest therapy in a loving way, without demanding or implying that they are 'crazy'. Perhaps, during a conversation about one of these toxic relationships, mention therapy, asking them if they have ever considered it. Until your friend deals with their emotional baggage, it's unlikely they will be able to break their pattern of chaos.

Help your friend unpack

Try to ask your friend to verbalise why they want to be with this toxic person. I do this with my friends who are seeing people who aren't . . . the best (to put it lightly). When we say that someone is 'toxic', we often mean they are manipulative to some degree. It's possible that your friend is attached or even addicted to the rush that comes with the highs and lows of a rollercoaster relationship. Sometimes it's hard to differentiate between having feelings for a person and being addicted to a feeling that's created by a relationship. Whether they enjoy the validation or the high-highs compared with the low-lows, with a repeated pattern of toxic relationships, it's likely that that feeling is more important than the person they are dating. In other words, it could be anyone that they get into this cycle with, as long as the feeling remains the same.

You aren't going to have much luck convincing your friend with logic or facts, but you can help them realise that perhaps there isn't anything special about this person in particular. Ask them to try to articulate exactly what they like about this new partner, without referring to themselves. A lot people in unsatisfactory relationships will say things like "I like the way he makes me feel," or "She just knows me so well." While these are important aspects to a successful relationship, you should love your partner as an individual who you admire without any reference to yourself. If your friend can't think of what they like about their new boo beyond these parameters, point it out to them. Hopefully this will help them differentiate between a potential partner who will have positive rather than negative impacts on their life.

Know your limits, and verbalise them

Now, while I want you to be as empathetic and patient as possible with your friend, I understand that we all have limits. You need to not feel as though you are dragging someone through life, being their emotional support at every turn. If your friend is unwilling to attempt to help themselves break the cycle, verbalise some boundaries. If you leave this for too long, you may snap and cause permanent damage to your friendship.

Think about what boundaries you want to be in place. Do you need a ban on any chat about new partners for a certain period of time? Do you want to only hear about it once a week? Are there certain people that you cannot spend any more emotional energy speaking about? Perhaps write down what you would see as being ideal, then try to figure out a reasonable compromise for the sake of your friendship. Once you have done this, tell your friend in a loving and calm way. Explain that you want what is best for them, and for your friendship, but you can't be their saviour if your emotional capacity is being drained on the same topic over and over. If your head is barely above water, how can you save them?

If the friendship becomes too draining, and you feel you have done all that you can, don't feel guilt in taking a step back and walking away. If you have verbalised your boundaries, and your friend continues to push them, perhaps they don't have the respect for the friendship that you do. These situations certainly can break friendships, but if you are open and honest with each other about what you want a need from the friendship, hopefully you can work it out.

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