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Rotten Valentine? How to Help a Friend in a “Bad” Relationship.

As a therapist, I have many friends who come to me for relationship advice. Often friends tell me that they are in a relationship in which their partner is not treating them very well. I have on occasion hinted at the fact that perhaps its time to separate from that person. In almost all of these occasions, the friend returns to their partner for more mistreatment.

People stay in less than ideal relationships for many reasons. Some stay because they are afraid of not meeting anyone else. Others stay because they are emotionally or economically dependent on their partners. However, people often stay because in addition to all the mistreatment they are receiving they are also receiving something very rewarding. This could be a common experience, love and or sex. By simply giving advice to leave we don’t acknowledge their ambivalence. In this way, the word “bad” is not a very accurate description of these relationships. Even though the partner may be hurtful, they could be providing many “good” things in addition to the “bad”.

So if giving advice doesn’t work, what should we do? Chances are that if your friend is with someone who has treated them badly, they have most likely been criticized and judged by everyone else in their life. By simply not telling them what to do and listening and supporting them you are a step ahead of everyone else. As I’ve said to my clients, “I’m not here to judge you or tell you what to do, that’s your friends and family’s job. I’m here to help you figure out what you want to do and then assist you in getting there”.

You can aid your friends by helping them to clarify for themselves what they want to do. Most people in a relationship that isn’t working are aware of the downsides but getting them to say it for themselves can be much more powerful than you telling them what is wrong. Ask your friend, “Why do you want to stay” and “what do you think will happen if you do stay?” Help them to envision the future by asking them “What will your next five years be like if you stay in this relationship”. People in relationships that are not working well often have a lower sense of self due to their situation. You can be a great friend by pointing out what they are doing well in other areas of their life, “It’s pretty impressive you are able to concentrate so well at work when you are dealing with this in your relationship”. Lastly you can show them that you understand their predicament. “It must be so hard to love him and feel the need to leave at the same time”.

Many people benefit from talking about these relationships with a mental heath professional. If your friend sees you as non-judgmental and supportive they are more likely to see a therapist if you make the suggestion for them to do so. So, don’t just do something, sit there…and listen!

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