I DID A THING: Is My Friend in an Abusive Relationship?

I Did A Thing is our weekly advice column where the Her Campus editorial team helps you out when you ruin your own life (hey, we've been there). Email [email protected] for any and everything you need help with. We’ll answer you (anonymously!) on hercampus.com so we can all learn, together. We’ve got your back.

@honestlyjusthelp: I think my friend might be in an unhealthy relationship. How can I know for sure? I don't want to lose her as a friend, but I'm also really worried about her. I've tried to bring it up casually, but she just gets mad. What can I do to help support her?

@onelovefoundation: It’s difficult to know what to do when you suspect your friend is in an unhealthy relationship. You may want to help, but be afraid of pushing them away or worse, losing them as a friend altogether. And while we don’t know what is triggering your concern for your friend, we believe that when something feels off it usually means something is off. That said, there are few subtle and not so subtle signs your friend’s relationship is unhealthy.

Does your friend feel like they have to check-in with their S.O. throughout the day? And are they given the third degree when they miss a call or text from bae? Since unhealthy relationships are rooted in power and control, unhealthy partners may demand 24/7 access to their S.O. through text and calls. Also, does your friend feel like they need to walk on eggshells around their partner to keep them from getting angry or upset? Feeling like your relationship is full of ups and downs is a big indicator that emotions are not dealt with in a calm, healthy way. Does their partner get jealous easily or possessive of your friend?  If so, these may be subtle signs that their relationship is unhealthy.

Another warning sign that their relationship is unhealthy is if your friend indicates that their partner is pushing the pace of the relationship. Intensity is one of the earliest signs of an unhealthy relationship and can be really difficult to spot. Since unhealthy partners know the sooner you commit the harder it is to walk way, they will use manipulation tactics like grandiose gestures (a, la the Notebook) to win over their partner’s trust and affection. 

When it comes to unhealthy behaviors, we’ve barely scratched the surface so keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of all the warning signs. To learn more about the 10 signs of an unhealthy relationship, visit joinonelove.org.

If you are truly concerned that your friend’s relationship is unhealthy, the most impactful thing you can do is start a conversation. You may feel nervous, especially if your friend gets defensive whenever you bring up their S.O., but these tips will help facilitate an open and honest conversation between you and a friend:

  • Start with an Affirmation: We recommend starting this conversation with an affirmative statement like, “You’re always so fun to be around. I’ve missed you!” Once your friend feels comfortable, you can begin calmly voicing your concern for your friend.
  • Avoid being Accusatory: If you know your friend’s relationship is unhealthy, it’s okay to be angry at the situation, but getting angry with them will not solve the problem. The next time your friend interrupts you to answer an urgent text from their S.O. try saying this “I’ve noticed you’re always on your phone. Is there anything going on that you want to talk about?” Instead of, “Stop answering that. Just tell them you’re busy.”
  • Be Supportive: Listen to your friend and let them open up about the situation on their own terms. Don’t be forceful with the conversation and remind them that you want to help.
  • Focus on the Behavior: Instead of labeling their partner as “abusive” or “bad,” focus on the unhealthy behaviors you’ve seen and provide your friend with a safe space to talk about it. Sometimes, our instinct is to immediately label the relationship as abusive to drive home the severity of the situation. This instinct, however, can cause your friend to retreat and shut down. Instead, focus on the specific behaviors you’re seeing and how that behavior makes them feel. For example, saying something like “It seems like your partner wants to know where you are a lot and is always texting and calling – how does that make you feel?” pinpoints the specific behavior and gets your friend to think about how it makes them feel. This is one of the first steps in getting your friend to understand what is and is not an appropriate behavior in a relationship. 
  • Allow Them to Make their Own Decision: Maintain a calm demeanor when speaking with your friend and be open to what they are most comfortable with. The goal is to help them understand for themselves that something is off in their relationship. The last thing you want to do is tell them to “just break up!” Relationship abuse is very complex, and the most dangerous time is actually during and after a breakup. Also, your friend is already dealing with a controlling and manipulative partner and the last thing that they need is for you to mimic those behaviors by forcefully telling them what to do.

Lastly, the most important thing you can do to support a friend is to have more conversation with your them in the future. Ultimately, you don’t need your friend to admit they are in an unhealthy relationship. Your role as a friend is to let them know you care and are available to help whenever they need to talk. If your friend is in immediate danger, you should alert authorities (i.e., campus safety or 911) right away. 

If you or a friend are in an abusive relationship, please contact the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to get advice.

Check out more advice from @helpmehc. We've got your back.