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My Friend Is in an Unhealthy Relationship. How Do I Tell Her?

I don't know everything about their relationship and I don't want to pass judgement. But I miss my friend, and I'm concerned.
Vincenzo Ligresti
Milan, IT

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Ask VICE is a series where readers ask VICE to solve their problems, from dealing with unrequited love to handling annoying flatmates. Today, we’re hoping to help a reader who wants to support a friend in a bad relationship but doesn’t know how.



E. is one of my dearest friends. She’s currently in a relationship that seems quite unbalanced, at least from my perspective. I know that the word “toxic” is often overused, so I won't go there, but I have a few questions.

I’ve noticed this dynamic change gradually over the past two years. When her partner R. is around, he tends to belittle her in front of everyone. When he isn’t there, E. is nowhere to be found. I’ve also overheard R. many times telling E. things like, “You don't understand anything,” or making decisions for both of them.

When this happens, E. makes herself smaller, smiles all embarrassed, or shrugs it off without really arguing back. I don't know if they do this when they’re alone, but it doesn't seem totally healthy to me.

E. and I have known each other for several years. We used to hang a lot – our evenings would end at dawn and we’d call each other all the time. That still happened in the early stages of E.’s relationship, when everything seemed great. Now we see and hear from each other less and less. E. always says she already has other plans with R. or that “R. prefers it to be just the two of us”.


I’m not being resentful here – I just recognise these kinds of dynamics because I’ve had similar experiences in the past. But when I talk to E. about it, she downplays everything. I don't want our friendship to be even more strained than it already is, but I also don’t want E. to wake up one day and say, “Why the hell didn't you tell me everything you were thinking?”

How do I discuss the situation without getting on the wrong side of the argument? Are there ways to say painful things without sounding like you're trying to stick the knife in?

Thank you,


Hi A.,

Your careful observations make you a good friend, especially because you are gathering information before deciding on how to act. It’s also good that you refuse to use the term “toxic” to describe this relationship. Perhaps you understand that you would experience it as a stark judgement if it was used to describe you, perhaps you know that relationships are complex and that some dysfunctional aspects may come up and fade over time. 

That being said, the fact that your friend has been demeaned by their partner in public is a sign of concern. According to clinical psychologist and sexologist, Dania Piras, repeatedly belittling a partner is a textbook dysfunctional behaviour that often shows up in relationships for a variety of reasons.

Based on your description, this could be “a male-female relationship where there is still, unfortunately, a gender gap and paternalistic attitudes”, Piras explains. This situation could also result from “both partners having grown up in an environment where belittling was commonplace”, Piras continues. Unfortunately, not everyone who’s on the receiving end of this kind of power dynamic is aware of it, especially if they’re in love or if they’ve been conditioned by social or cultural pressures.


In any case, the relationship between E. and R. is going ahead for the moment, so what we can deal with right now is your personal discomfort about the situation. The questions you have to ask yourself, according to Piras, are: What is your goal? And what do you really want to say?

When you start dating someone new, it’s normal to focus on them and put other relationships on the backburner. That is especially true in many monogamous relationships, which “tend to follow unconscious rules that are part of mononormativity," says Piras. "Priority is given to the partner, friends come later, they are left a bit aside.”

At the same time, it’s also possible that a partner’s jealousy could be contributing to your friend’s estrangement from you. Regardless of gender and sexual orientation, some partners can “feel threatened by the close intimacy we share with someone else”, Piras says. Nevertheless, this is a nuanced issue so you shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

“If your friend doesn’t show discomfort or hasn’t asked you for help, you can’t expect to go into the conversation and speak your mind, unfiltered,” Piras says. The key is focusing on genuinely expressing your personal feelings: “There is a difference between passing judgement on other people's relationships – ‘He treats you badly, you have to leave him’ – and communicating how something makes us feel." 


According to Piras, you could start the discussion by saying something like: “Since you've been together with R., I feel a bit sidelined. I miss the relationship we had, I'd like to see you a bit more. What do you think? How do you feel about that?”

One thing you could also try is getting to know R. better. Becoming closer with him could, by extension, shorten the distance between you and your friend and make you evaluate the situation more thoroughly. In the end, if you still feel like E.’s relationship is problematic, you can start by talking about your own experiences and cautiously asking a few questions.

The most helpful approach to these kinds of chats is making sure it comes from a place of authenticity and honesty. “It takes very strong self-awareness and a good degree of distance to be able to talk about your own experience without implying that’s what is happening with the other person's,” Piras adds. “You have to keep that in mind; try not to put up walls.”

For instance, you could say, “When R. belittles you in front of everyone, I feel uneasy because I think you deserve to be treated with respect. How do you feel when these things happen? I see that you don't react, is that OK with you?”, Piras suggests. 

The worst thing you can do is go into this conversation with the expectation that you will be immediately heard or that your friend will react in a certain way. You need to keep in mind that E. “is a person who can think for herself, who lives her emotions, desires and perspectives autonomously”, Piras says. Even if you think you’ve been through a similar situation, you have to be mindful of the “risk of bias, the tendency to abstract one's own experience and make it universal for everyone”.

At the end of the day, your friend will only listen and accept help when she’s ready. If E. continues to refuse to share any vulnerability or is defensive, you can simply say, “Sorry, but I needed to share this. Know that I am always here if you have problems”. Planting that seed means you’re already halfway there to help your friend.