7 December 2022

Is it ever a good time to tell a friend you don't like their partner?

| Zoya Patel
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If a friend’s in a toxic relationship, it’s probably best to let them know before they start cutting the cake. Photo: File.

I had the extreme pleasure of being MC at my best friend’s wedding over the weekend. It was a delightfully casual affair, and wonderful to see the happy couple together – I couldn’t have asked for a better partner for a woman who has been very special to me since we were just 12 years old.

But as I jokingly wrote my notes about all the unsuitable guys my mate dated in her younger years, it occurred to me that perhaps there would have been value in saying to her at the time that some of those guys were straight-up toxic. Looking around, I can see a pattern of behaviour in myself and my peers, of trying to be polite about our friends’ not-so-great partners until a breakup allows us to voice our real opinions.

Of course, there’s a big risk in sharing an opinion on a lover that will likely not be received well. If I think back to the times I’ve wanted to say, ‘Hey, I don’t think that guy is treating you right, or ‘I’m worried she is taking you for granted’, I’ve held back because I didn’t want to seem unsupportive or start an argument.

Worse, suppose I’m noticing some toxic behaviour in a friend’s partner, which could be building towards abuse. In that case, I’m always worried that if I call it out, my friend might stop talking to me about their relationship and then I won’t know if something really bad happens.

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Arguably, had I been on the receiving end of comments like that about my own partner, I would have been pretty offended. But at the same time, I would want to know if my friends thought there were terrible traits in the person I’m with or that their treatment of me wasn’t right.

And maybe it’s better to say something sooner rather than watch your loved ones get deeper and deeper into a relationship when it’s harder to extricate themselves. I’ve watched friends move in with controlling or manipulative partners who surveil their phones and refuse to contribute to the household finances. I’ve watched friends discover lies, affairs, and addictions that they knew nothing about and still get married, move overseas, or have children with their partners.

As much as I worry and stress about the impact of these relationships on my mates, I have to accept that relationships are complex, and it’s hard to ever really know what’s happening inside them from the outside. But is there a respectful and polite way to flag your concerns with a friend without risking alienating them or offending them?

It’s inevitable that people will enter our friendship circles via relationships with the people we love and that some of those new additions won’t click with us. I can handle mild dislike of a friend’s partner, but when they’re acting in a way that signals something more sinister or toxic underneath, my alarm bells go off and I struggle to know how to handle it without sticking my foot in it.

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I had one friend say to me, after breaking up with her (incredibly toxic) ex, that she had first considered that maybe the way she was being spoken to wasn’t ok after she heard me say something about my own partner. I had made some comment about how my partner and I have disagreements, but we never say anything ‘mean’ to each other, or try and hurt each other’s feelings. My friend was used to receiving belittling, nasty messages from her boyfriend when they were in an argument, and it was the first time she had considered that; actually, it wasn’t ok to be treated that way by someone who was meant to love you.

After I heard that, I kicked myself for not saying something to her sooner to help her make that realisation and get out of the relationship. But it’s also heartening to know that she got there on her own and that I was here to support her when that time came. Maybe just by sharing what I thought a good relationship should look like, she had the chance to contrast that with the reality of hers and make that decision on her own.

When it comes to friends in bad relationships, is it better to keep your thoughts to yourself? Or does it pay to be upfront and tell our friends when their romantic interests aren’t up to scratch?

If this story has raised any concerns for you, 1800RESPECT, the national 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line, can be contacted on 1800 737 732. Help and support is also available through The Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 02 6247 2525, The Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT 02 6280 0900, and Lifeline: 13 11 14. In an emergency call 000.

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Very few people appreciate being given advice that was not requested, as it is often implicit criticism of them, their actions or their decisions. Most people don’t like being told there’s anything wrong with them or their choices, so it is better to ask questions about what they like about their friend / partner and what are the things that bother them or they’d like to change. After all, no-one is perfect and everyone has some habit or behaviour that annoys us. Sometimes that can be changed by discussing it with them, but if they’re extremely defensive and aggressive in response, that’s a concern to be reflected upon.

We all compare ourselves to others and most of us are unsure of what we’re ok with when going into new relationships, especially if young and inexperienced, so we look around for information to guide us. However, we do not want criticism of our choices. Talking about your own relationship as the writer of this article did, was a very good way of prompting reflection on one’s own relationships. Eventually, most of us learn that mutual respect is essential for a good sustainable relationship.

Some people live in their own little bubble and don’t like to hear the opinions of others. They like to go about their naive life and think that things are good. It is frustrating to others who have to watch it. I am thinking about the domestic violence situations that I have witnessed and when I tried to tell the person I was concerned, they ended the friendship with me.
Personally, I appreciate frank and fearless advice from others, but some people can’t cope with anyone challenging their version of reality…

When people think their new friend/partner is wonderful, they’ll naturally be resistant to hearing anything different. Timing is part of the issue, as well as how you communicate your concerns. Telling people anything negative about themselves or their friends is rarely appreciated, so any communication on the issue needs to be carefully planned unless you’re highly skilled in such delicate issues.

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