Recognizing and Addressing An Unhealthy Relationship

Scary movies get your heart pumping and your head spinning. You sit, staring at a screen, ready to scream and tell a character to turn around and look behind them or not to open a door. You feel an internal sense of anxiety for this character but know that no matter what you say - nothing will change. You just sit there and watch everything unfold in miserable helplessness.

This is what it can feel like seeing someone you care about getting wrapped up in an unhealthy relationship. I have recently found myself in the position of such an observer, and I have come to find that many people find themselves in this role.

Approaching loved ones about these concerns can be extremely difficult. Recognizing the signs of what an unhealthy relationship looks like can also be tricky. The following suggestions are not exhaustive but can be useful in recognizing and addressing an unhealthy relationship.

Recognizing the Signs

Obsessive Tendencies

Even if your friend seems absolutely thrilled with the way their relationship is going, that does not mean the relationship is healthy. If you notice that you never hear from or see your friend anymore, despite your efforts, this may be a sign. Your friend may switch their schedule, or miss important events with friends or family to be with their partner. They may have dropped their other interests or activities in order to focus on their partner, or perhaps their partner is all they talk about. Simply, it seems like your friend has merged with their partner as opposed to being their own individual within the relationship. These obsessive tendencies may seem innocent in the beginning, but they are unhealthy and may lead to more extreme facets of unhealthy relationships.

Uncanny Change

Going along with obsession, becoming engrossed by another person means your friend is noticeably no longer themselves. Perhaps they went from a very organized person to someone who rushes out the door with a mess left behind just to get to their partner. Maybe your friend was super considerate and followed-up when you told them about a rough day. Now, it seems the only person’s needs that matter are their partner’s. Perhaps your friend used to plan get-togethers and now misses these gatherings for their partner. While some change may be normal, evident and troubling personality changes like these should raise concern.

Emotional, Psychological & Physical Abuse

These forms of unhealthy relationships are the most extreme. Recognizing them may feel clear, but these forms of unhealthy relationships can leave outsiders feeling conflicted. Emotional and psychological abuse can entail elements such as manipulation, verbal abuse or gaslighting. Physical abuse may be the most evident but does not outshine the extremity of these other forms. If your friend seems nervous or scared of their partner, despite defending them - this is a warning sign. Perhaps your friend is inhibited from going out or even texting friends and family by their partner. Maybe your friend is undermined, invalidated or mistreated by their partner. These signs are the most apparent but are also most difficult to address.

Addressing the Situation

Communicate with Your Friend 

Communication may seem obvious, but it is not easy. Your friend might not see the toxicity you see in their relationship. It is important to approach communicating your concerns in a way that is gentle but genuine. In situations where you worry expressing your thoughts verbally may not get your ideas out well, writing a letter is one alternative to avoid potential awkwardness while still expressing your worries. Meeting up with your friend one-on-one for coffee or lunch is another great way to address your concerns in a neutral setting.

Consult a Professional 

If matters seem too grave to address on your own, don’t hesitate to use other resources. UIUC has a stellar Women’s Resources Center and LGBT Resource Center that are always willing to help with these situations. They will be able to best guide you and assist in addressing your concerns.

Take Care Yourself

Sometimes, even if you do your best to address unease, your friend may not be receptive or may even respond with anger. Recognize that your friend genuinely may not see what you see in their relationship. If you are truly concerned or scared for your friend, the best you can do is keep an eye out for them but realize you may have done all the intervention you can. Do not feel guilty. You have taken action as a bystander. In situations that are more extreme, such as physical, psychological and emotional abuse - it may take up to seven times for the survivor to leave the relationship for good. In this regard, be there for your friend, be patient with them, but make sure you are taking care of yourself. 


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