What do you say to a friend in a toxic relationship?

Dealing with a friend in a toxic relationship can be extremely difficult. As their loved one, you want to help them and make sure they are safe and happy. However, it’s often not as simple as telling them to just leave the relationship. There are many complex reasons why people stay in abusive relationships, and as an outsider, you may not fully understand the full context. Your friend may even be in denial about the toxicity of their situation. However, one thing is clear: you should never ignore abusive behavior. If your friend reaches out to you, they are doing so because they trust you. How you respond can have a huge impact. With compassion and care, you can provide much-needed support during this challenging time.

Why Do People Stay in Toxic Relationships?

Before diving into what to say to your friend, it’s important to understand why they may be staying in an unhealthy situation. Here are some common reasons:

  • Fear: They may be afraid of what will happen if they try to leave. Their partner may have threatened them or physically prevented them from leaving.
  • Believing abuse is normal: If they grew up in an abusive household, they may think this behavior is just part of any relationship.
  • Low self-esteem: Years of emotional abuse may have beaten down their self-confidence.
  • Love: As contradictory as it seems, they may still love their partner and hope the situation will improve.
  • Financial dependence: They may rely fully on their partner for money and other needs.
  • Isolation: Abusers often isolate their victims from friends and family.
  • Cultural/religious reasons: Their culture or faith may discourage divorce.
  • Children: They may stay because they don’t want to separate their kids from the other parent.
  • Guilt: Their partner may manipulate them into feeling like the abuse is their fault.

Understanding these barriers can help you empathize with your friend’s situation. Make it clear you want to support them, not judge them.

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Before determining how to support your friend, make sure the relationship is truly unhealthy. Here are some red flags of toxicity:

  • Control issues: Their partner isolates them, monitors their activities, or makes all the decisions.
  • Possessiveness: Their partner has extreme jealousy when they spend time with others.
  • Criticism/insults: Their partner regularly puts them down or humiliates them.
  • Explosive anger: Their partner has frequent outbursts of rage.
  • Physical abuse: Any form of unwanted physical contact like hitting, shoving, or throwing things.
  • Sexual abuse: Any unwanted sexual activity or pressure to engage in uncomfortable acts.
  • Gaslighting: Their partner denies abusive behavior and makes them question their own sanity.
  • Unpredictable moods: Their partner has severe mood swings leaving them constantly on edge.
  • Isolation: Their partner cuts them off from friends and family.
  • Blaming: Their partner blames them for the abusive behavior.

If you notice a combination of these signs, or even just one very serious warning sign, your friend may be in an unsafe situation. Let them know you are concerned for their safety and well-being.

How to Talk to Your Friend

The conversation about a toxic relationship is extremely delicate. Here are some tips on the best way to approach it:

Pick a good time

Don’t launch into this tough talk when emotions are running high or time is limited. Have the conversation when you’re both calm and not busy or distracted.

Voice concern, not judgment

Your friend likely feels isolated and defensive already. Avoid language that will put them on the spot like “you need to leave this jerk.” Instead say “I’m worried about you and some of the things you’ve told me about your relationship.”

Ask questions

Rather than telling them they are in a toxic relationship, ask questions to help them evaluate the situation more objectively, like “How does your partner speak to you? Do you feel respected?”

Acknowledge their feelings

Even if their relationship seems clearly unhealthy from the outside, your friend’s emotions are valid. Let them know it’s understandable to still have love for their partner while also recognizing problems in the relationship.

Express concern for their safety

If there are signs of physical abuse, convey that above all else you want to ensure they are safe. “I’m worried for your physical safety” is very different than a judgmental “you need to get out.”

Assure them this isn’t their fault

Victims of abuse often take on blame themselves. Remind them that no matter what their partner says, abuse is never justified.

Be patient

It likely took a long time for your friend to realize something was wrong. Don’t expect them to take action immediately. Change takes time. Let them know you’ll be there for them whenever they need you.

Provide resources

Give your friend the number for the domestic violence hotline (1-800-799-7233) or other local resources. Offer to help them contact a counselor or look for someone to talk to.

Have realistic expectations

Even when you say all the right things, your friend may choose to stay in the relationship. As frustrating as this is, you must respect their choice while still offering support.

Put safety first

If your friend decides to leave, create a safety plan together. Their abusive partner may lash out if they feel control slipping away. Help identify the safest way to exit.

Look after your own well-being

Being the support system for an abuse victim can take an emotional toll. Make sure to practice self-care and seek outside support if you need it. You can’t help someone else if you’re running on empty.

What Not to Do

Here are some common mistakes people make when speaking to a friend in a toxic relationship:

  • Ultimatums: Giving a “me or them” ultimatum usually backfires. It adds pressure instead of support.
  • Insults: Criticizing their partner will often put them on the defensive.
  • Manipulation: Trying to manipulate them into leaving could damage your friendship.
  • Blame: Comments like “I don’t know why you stay with that jerk” come across as judgmental.
  • Jumping to solutions: Don’t insist they take specific steps like filing a restraining order.
  • Minimizing abuse: Making excuses like “he was just drunk” invalidates their experience.
  • Gossiping: Speaking about them behind their back destroys trust.
  • Pushing too hard: If they refuse help, arguing will just push them away.

The pitfalls are plentiful, which is why you must keep communication compassionate, open and non-judgmental.

When to Back Off

As much as you may want to save your friend, recognize when persevering does more harm than good. Here are signs it may be time to take a step back:

  • You’ve had multiple talks but nothing changes.
  • Your friend cuts you out or asks you to stop bringing it up.
  • The relationship consumes all your time and energy.
  • You feel constantly frustrated, resentful or angry towards your friend.
  • Your involvement is jeopardizing your own mental health.

Of course, first make sure your friend knows you are there for them if they need you. But trying to force someone to leave a relationship rarely works. Look after yourself first so you can be strong enough to support them when they are ready.

Encourage Them to Seek Help

Beyond speaking with friends and family, professional help can be incredibly valuable for abuse victims. Here are some options you can recommend:

Individual counseling

Seeing a therapist helps build self-esteem and safely explore the reasons for staying in the relationship. Recommend your own therapist if you have one.

Group counseling

Support groups connect abuse victims so they don’t feel alone. Local shelters often run free groups.

Couples counseling

If both partners are willing to address the abuse issues, counseling can improve the relationship or clarify the need to separate.

Religious leader guidance

Speaking with a pastor, rabbi, imam or other trusted religious figure provides spiritual counsel.

Domestic violence hotlines

Experts at hotlines like 1-800-799-SAFE offer guidance on safety planning and local resources. Calls are anonymous.

Lawyer consultation

A lawyer can advise on legal options like restraining orders and child custody if they decide to leave.

The right help provides professional guidance tailored to their situation. Don’t force your friend into any of these options, but strongly suggest speaking to an expert.

How to Support a Friend Who Leaves an Abusive Relationship

If your friend does decide to leave, they will need significant support building a new life. Here are some specific ways you can help:

  • Let them stay with you if needed to escape an urgent situation.
  • Help them find new housing, even if just researching options online.
  • Assist them in moving out when the time is safest.
  • Provide funds if possible for housing deposits, moving costs, etc.
  • Help track down local women’s shelters.
  • Recommend divorce lawyers and provide references.
  • Offer to accompany them to court dates or meetings with lawyers.
  • Provide meals, childcare or other physical assistance.
  • Help fill out paperwork for government assistance programs.
  • Suggest job leads or provide career advice.
  • Be a listening ear when they need to talk through challenges.
  • Remind them the difficult process is worth it.

Even once the relationship ends, your friend will carry emotional damage for a long time. Be patient, compassionate and willing to provide long-term support.

What to Do if They Return to the Abusive Relationship

Unfortunately, it’s common for abuse victims to return to toxic situations even after leaving. Known as the “cycle of violence,” reasons for returning include:

  • The abuser apologizes and promises change.
  • They feel lonely without their former partner.
  • The abuser threatens them into coming back.
  • They worry their partner cannot care for themselves.
  • Financial necessity forces reunion.
  • They lack family support or housing options.
  • The abuser manipulates them into feeling guilty for leaving.

If this happens, your friend needs you more than ever. Here is how to respond:

  • Tell them you are always here to talk and they can lean on you for strength.
  • Remind them the relationship was damaging, even if their partner is temporarily on good behavior.
  • Acknowledge how hard it is to leave but encourage them to stay determined.
  • Offer even more hands-on help getting back on their feet.
  • Suggest speaking to a domestic violence counselor.
  • Ask what resources could make leaving easier.
  • Reassure them you know they have the courage to do this.

Returning to an abusive partner is heartbreaking but extremely common. Your friend needs your unconditional support now more than ever.

Know When to Call For Professional Help

While you want to respect your friend’s choices, there comes a point where the authorities must get involved for safety. Call the police if:

  • Your friend talks about wanting to commit suicide.
  • They confide their partner has made death threats towards them.
  • You witness their partner physically abusing them.
  • You have reason to believe their life is in immediate danger.

Likewise, Adult Protective Services should be called if:

  • The victim is elderly or disabled and unable to protect themselves.
  • You believe they are severely neglected by their caretaker.
  • Their living situation is hazardous.

Discuss calling the authorities first so your friend understands it comes from a place of care, not betrayal. But in certain crisis situations, you must act quickly.

Remember to Care for Yourself Too

Helping an abuse victim takes an incredible emotional toll. Make sure to practice self-care:

  • Take time for yourself when feeling overwhelmed.
  • Talk through challenges with other friends to avoid isolation.
  • Set boundaries and limits on your involvement.
  • Join a support group for friends and family of abuse victims.
  • Say no when demands become too taxing.
  • See a counselor if you experience signs of anxiety or depression.
  • Focus on your own needs and relationships.
  • Recommend a crisis hotline number your friend can call any time.
  • Encourage other friends and family to share the support burden.

You can better help your loved one when you replenish your own emotional reserves. Don’t become a victim of this toxicity too.


When a friend is trapped in an abusive relationship, it’s hard to know the right thing to say. But listening compassionately and offering non-judgmental support empowers them to regain control. Understand why they stay, voice concern for their safety, provide resources, and never place guilt or pressure. Most importantly, reassure them you are there no matter what. With time, care and resilience, your friend can escape the toxicity for good.

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