One of the more unfortunate aspects of having friends and living in a society is the fact that you will, on occasion, witness behavior in a friend’s partner that qualifies as a “pink flag.” These are the instances where are no screaming red klaxons present—no signs of abuse, or indications that this is a situation that will irrevocably mess up their life for years to come. But there are, perhaps, several glowing Himalayan salt lamps that are gently whispering, “Wow, this person... kind of sucks.”
Maybe the person your friend is sort-of dating is incredibly judgmental or makes a lot of “jokes” that don’t really seem like jokes. Perhaps their significant other is super negative or really thoughtless or dabbles in microaggressions. And you get the sense that your friend knows it’s not OK… but then you find yourself thinking, DO they know this isn’t OK?! In a lot of these situations, it’s unclear if the friend notices what is going on and is bothered by it, and it’s even less clear if/when/how it would be appropriate to talk to your friend about it.
If you frequently find yourself thinking, Christ, what an asshole, about your friend’s partner, here’s what to do.
Figure out how your friend feels.
In some instances, it’ll be obvious how your friend feels about their partner’s behavior: they’ll either vent to you directly about it, or they’ll act so blissfully “Isn’t cute when Partner does that?” that you won’t have any questions. But a lot of times, it’s just not that clear. A lot of people mention things in conversation without actually telling the full story—so, not sharing how they actually feel about it, or saying whether it’s part of a bigger pattern of behavior that bothers them.
Figuring out which of these situations you’re dealing with is a good start, because it’ll ultimately help you figure out what your goal is—which is another important part of deciding how to handle it. Do you simply want to register an official complaint about the partner and then move on? Are you trying to get your friend to admit there is a problem, or do you want them to go a step further and break up with the person? Are you trying to explain why you’re not inviting the partner to hangouts anymore? Knowing what your intentions are will make it possible to speak to your friend from a place of good faith (and maybe also get what you want).
Don’t say “this person sucks and you can do better.”
To be clear: your friend’s partner sucks, and they can probably do better, but saying so in such harsh terms is a fairly nuclear option, and not the best one to lead with.
First, it’s likely your friend will get defensive if you say that. Yes, they might be down to talk shit about their partner’s latest screw-up, but that doesn’t mean they are cool with someone else doing it. It’s also the kind of thing that your friend won’t be able to unhear once they’ve cooled off a bit—now they just know you think their person is a deadbeat.
Even if they do eventually break up with the person (or seem well on their way), it’s still a good idea to be thoughtful with your language. Not everyone appreciates hearing, “That dumb ugly box of rocks doesn’t deserve you” or finds it empowering. Now they’re just the person who fell in love with and had their heart broken by a dumb ugly box of rocks!!! Discovering that your friends have long thought your partner is a garbage human can be fairly humiliating, so try to avoid making bold declarations about how your friend’s partner is sooooo far beneath them, it’s actually kind of criminal.
Ask lots of questions.
In general, it’s good to make a habit of asking your friends, “How is Partner? What’s new with them?” whenever you’re catching up. This also happens to be a great way to get a sense of how your friend is feeling about the state of the relationship overall! If the friend is annoyed by their partner’s behavior, it’ll probably come up, especially if you give them the space to say more than just, “They’re fine! They’ve been busy with work!”
Questions are also a good move when your friend is venting or otherwise telling you about their partner’s not-so-great behavior. Instead of launching into a rant about the partner, try asking your friend what they think about the situation and letting them talk.
Let’s say your friend and their partner (“Alex”) recently attended a show put on by another friend (“Kyle”). So, your conversation might sound something like this...
You: How was Kyle’s show? I’m bummed I missed it.
Friend: It was good! Alex was in a really bad mood the whole time though.
You: Oh? What happened?
Friend: Alex did [a bunch of obnoxious stuff]. Kyle definitely noticed—they said something to me about it at the after party.
You: What did you do after Kyle said that?
Friend: I apologized to Kyle… Alex was being really sulky, I definitely noticed it and felt really bad.
You: Do you think Alex was just having an off night or what?
Friend: I think it was both; I know Alex was in a bad mood about work all day, and was really snappy with me at dinner before the show, but it’s not the first time it happened.
You: Did you say anything to Alex about what Kyle said to you?
Friend: I brought it up on the way home and we kind of had a fight about it, but also Alex was super drunk so I’m not sure if it really made a difference.
By asking questions in an open and non-judgmental way and simply listening, you make it easier for your friend to realize on their own that perhaps something isn’t OK here. (I mean, who among us hasn’t realized via talking about something how angry we actually feel about it, or how wildly messed up it is?) And even if your friend doesn’t come to that conclusion, going this route still opens the door for you to tactfully share your thoughts. In the above scenario, for example, you might say something like, “Ugh, that’s really hard. I used to get incredibly pissed when my ex did things like that.” Or “Oof, that’s a bummer; it sucks to feel like you’re stuck babysitting your partner when you’re out with your friends.”
Criticize the behavior, not the person.
This is good life advice in general, but it’s especially wise to keep in mind when you’re talking to a friend about their significant other. If you label their partner (e.g., “Alex is incredibly immature”), you essentially erase all of the person’s good qualities and shame your friend for dating such a piece of shit in the process. If you call out the behavior instead (“That’s a pretty immature thing to do”), it’ll be easier for your friend to actually hear what you’re saying, and maybe even admit they agree.
If they ask you what you think about their partner, be honest. (But don’t say “this person sucks and you can do better.”)
As exciting as it is to finally be asked for your opinion and as tempting as it might be to go OFF, it’s still important to be cool. You should definitely be direct and truthful, but it’s still worthwhile to use a light touch. Be gentle; focus on the way you’ve seen the behavior affecting your friend; share examples from your own life when relevant; and don’t say anything you can’t take back if you’re someday asked to give a wedding toast to the happy couple.
So, that might sound something like…
“It’s tough—I know how much you care about Alex, and how much you want to make this work, but from my perspective, things don’t really seem to be getting better. It makes me sad to see you putting so much energy into someone who doesn’t seem to be giving you nearly as much in return.”
“Obviously, I don’t know the ins and outs of your relationship, but I’ve noticed that Alex has been really [negative/drunk/aggressive] the times we’ve hung out, and some of the stories you have told me have made me wonder if everything’s OK and if you’re feeling happy with how things are.”
“I’ve noticed that you’ve seemed really down and not quite yourself since you and Alex started getting more serious, and I’m worried about how the relationship has been affecting you. You deserve to be with someone who leaves you feeling more energized than drained, and I’m not sure Alex is really doing that right now.”
“A lot of the things you’ve talked about would be dealbreakers for me, particularly [example]. In my past relationships, I’ve found that not being able to agree on [how much complaining is acceptable/how drunk is too drunk/how it's OK to talk to my mom] is usually a sign that this thing isn’t ever really going to work. It's not really about who is 'right' or 'wrong'—I just don’t want to be in a relationship where I feel like the other person needs a ton of fixing.”
Maybe they’ll agree; maybe they won’t. It kind of doesn’t matter; you’ve given them something to think about, and there’s not much more you can do.
Feel free to be more direct if the partner is being nasty to you personally.
The rules are different if your friend’s partner is being awful to you, or even in front of you. In that case, it’s totally reasonable to say “Wow, not cool,” or “Yikes,” or “You OK, buddy?” or whatever phrase you prefer to communicate “Please knock it the fuck off” directly to the partner.
You can also talk to your friend about it later, particularly if it’s behavior that is making you avoid your friend. That might sound something like this:
“Hey, is Alex OK? The last few times we’ve hung out, they’ve seemed really unhappy to be there, which has made me feel stressed and unable to enjoy myself, and I’m wondering if something might be going on.”
“Hey, I know you like Alex’s sense of humor, but a lot of these ‘jokes’ are really not my style, and I didn’t love when they said [specific thing] to me. I don’t want to put you in a weird position, but I feel pretty [annoyed/uncomfortable/on edge] around them now, and I’m wondering if our next hangout could just be you and I one-on-one.”
Remember that your friend’s relationship is not your problem to solve.
It’s reasonable to want your friend to exit their bummer of a relationship, but this is ultimately not your life, and your friend doesn’t need you to save them. You don’t have to get them to see things your way or convince them to dump their partner. Sometimes, our friends will make less-than-ideal choices for themselves and that’s OK! It’s not great, but it’s fine. Even if your friend’s life is demonstrably crappier or less happy while they are dating this person, well, those kinds of mistakes are part of life, and not the kind of thing you need to (or even can) prevent.
If you’re really riled up about your friend’s relationship, you might need to hear about it less, or just find a way to care about it less. And remember that your friend has agency in their situation; at the end of the day, they are with this person because they like them—even if you don’t.
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_Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter._