This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
“Sooooooo,” my friend started as soon as the door was locked and I sat down to pee. The word was delicate and spindly, hanging in the air of our friend’s basement suite as a party teemed outside.
“We got back together this week.”
Her eyes barely met mine as I perched on the toilet, running through everything I’d said about her ex-now-boyfriend-again in the few months they’d been apart. I don’t remember hearing much over my roaring guilt and embarrassment for what I had said about him in my panic to comfort her—comments that seemed to expand in the space between us, filling the five days she had waited to tell me.
Listing the reasons someone was wrong for your friend feels like the natural thing to do once the break-up or fight-induced sobs subside—especially when we can’t stand the person our friend has decided to share their life with. I barely knew this friend’s ex outside of their relationship, but the way he ended nearly three years via text seemed like a good indication of his character to me, and I ran with it.
But while we may think our friends want our honest opinion of their partners, any unflattering views we may have can easily be interpreted as a poor reflection of a friend’s decision or desirability. The support of family and friends is generally a good thing for a relationship and its success. Expressing disapproval of a friend’s ex—however valid the criticism may be—could be a perfect recipe for your friend to rebel, especially if they feel judged, and for the friendship to deteriorate if they get back together.
“We engage in cognitive strategies help us maintain a positive image of our relationship and our partner,” said Rebecca Cobb, who studies the psychology of relationship success at Simon Fraser University. “So if we see that disapproval (from friends) as interference, then we might actually react in such a way as to defend our feelings about the relationship and maintain a sense of connection to the partner, even if other people don't like that person."
There are legitimate reasons you might be concerned by your friend’s choice of partner, like in the case of emotional, physical or psychological abuse, or perhaps for your own safety and comfort. Those concerns are best brought up gently, says Cobb, for similar reasons as avoiding mentioning minor annoyances—you could end up making your friend feel more judged than cared for when they need support most.
But not all faults are worth bringing up, she added, depending on how long your friend has been with this person and how serious the relationship may become. “This romantic partner may not be a permanent part of their life,” she said, especially when you’re young. “And do you want to risk losing them over something that might not be a long term commitment?”
Knudson said taking stock of where your concerns are coming from is important before you voice them. Are you jealous, lonely, or perhaps just tired of hearing about their fights? Any criticism you have is shaped by your place in life, just as a friend’s decision to date this person is shaped by theirs.
Samantha had almost always approved of the men one of her close friends dated. But something about the guy her friend was seeing the summer after their second year of university rubbed Samantha the wrong way, and she held her tongue.
“He wasn't horrible by any means, they just ended up having a lot of problems I felt made them really incompatible for each other,” Samantha said. “And he wasn't always the nicest person, especially to her friends, and without reason.”
One night, the boyfriend got really drunk and started calling Samantha names, causing her then-boyfriend to intervene. The two men exchanged words and Samantha and her boyfriend left, deciding later that night that they didn’t want to be around him. After she told her friend as much—“I love you and we’re so down to hang out with you whenever, but like we said, we don't want to be associated with this dude,” she told her—it became a “sticking point” and their friendship, already deteriorating with time and distance, unraveled quickly from there.
Samantha, now 22, doesn’t regret bringing it up, but she’s more careful about what she says about her own on-and-off relationships. When Samantha and her own boyfriend broke-up a few months later, she was reluctant to tell her friends of her intentions to reunite because they had made it clear they thought the relationship was unhealthy and she should stay single for a while. “You know your friends want what's best for you,” she said, “but you're feeling like they're judging you if you want something different from what they think that is.”
Worse than forcing someone to reckon with their partner’s shortcomings—and their own vulnerability to them—misplaced or malicious disapproval can also trivialize the pain they’re going through when they fight or break-up with the partner. A common reaction when I told friends about a previous break-up was, “Well, he wasn’t that cute anyways.” Fair point, but it became a thought that festered in my mind every time a wave of heartache would hit. If he wasn’t that cute, I thought, why do I still feel like this? Pointing out how wrong a partner was for someone, however serious the reasons may be, can make vulnerable friends second guess how safe it is to share their vulnerability with you, said Knudson.
On the flip side, building in enough distance to stay sane when you feel you can’t support a friend’s relationship is sometimes necessary, even if it comes across as being unsupportive. There are times when you feel like your friend is seeking your advice and support over the same relationship problems and that can be draining, especially if you don’t think anything is going to change. You’re allowed to share that frustration with them.
Cobb says there is a time and a place to air genuine concerns about a friend’s partner when their wellbeing or yours is on the line, and that people should use those moments to “take stock” of whether the relationship is right for them.
When solicited, being kind, open-minded and honest in your opinion of a friend’s partner will take you far, says Knudson. A joke at the expense of an ex many years down the road is probably harmless, she said, but no one can predict the future. Your friend isn’t with this person to annoy you, notes Knudson. They’re with them, for better or for worse, because they meet their need for connection. “I think sometimes we can be bad at not being able to have empathy or being able to get into somebody else's shoes,” said Knudson.
Or just say nothing at all.