should i tell my bff to break up with her boyfriend?
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dear mixed feelings,
My friend and I have always been single together, for several years she has been my partner in crime and one of my best friends. [Last year] she started dating someone and now it is a serious relationship, she seems happy and I am so delighted for her…but I am worried she is settling.
Their values don’t fully match. He is clearly not a feminist. His values are OK on a surface level but as soon as you dig deeper it becomes evident he is subtly sexist, racist, and transphobic. My friend and I have always shared a common ground in having strong opinions, fighting for what is right, and [share] an understanding that all people are equal. She isn’t defending him when venting [about] their discussions but still stays with him. I am very surprised by this. I really don’t like him and think she deserves so much better, but I feel like I can’t tell her how I feel as it might drive them closer together.
I am always clear in our conversations that his behavior isn’t ok and he has to do better but I haven’t said anything about her leaving him. Honestly I just wish they would break up. Do I just continue pretending I approve? What do I do? — Lilyofthevalley, she/her
Man, it’s such a drag when friends’ boyfriends suck, isn’t it? If only you could release them from whatever love spell they’re under, and then they’d see how lame this dude is and bounce. I’ve been on both sides of this situation, so I understand your anxieties about broaching a topic as touchy and personal as your friend’s choice in a romantic partner. I also know how it feels to have judgemental friends telling you what to do with your relationship (spoiler alert: it’s not great).
Here’s a personal anecdote of what not to do: One of my closest friends who I lived with for a few years in my 20s started dating this dude who was like a sentient plank of wood—the shitty kind that Ikea furniture is made from. I never got what my friend saw in him. He was always getting too drunk, spending her money, and even cheating on her one night—and she never left him. I held my tongue through most of this because I figured that stuff sucks to deal with and I’m sure she feels bad enough without me piling on.
It wasn’t until she secretly and gradually moved him into our apartment because he was broke, that I was like Nuh-uh! So I confronted her and said what I felt: Look, I know you and [redacted] are working on some things, but I’m not supporting this freeloader. What does he even do for you? You haven’t been happy with this dude in so long. You could do way better. If you can believe it, that was not well received at all. And then I became the enemy. She pulled away and ended up moving into her own apartment with that boyfriend on a whim, and never talked to me again. So maybe don’t do that.
your support matters
If you’ve ever been in love, you know that it’s never one incident that breaks the camel’s back—it’s often a slow, gradual drip of red flags and misgivings that accumulate over time until they become undeniable, and then until they become intolerable. Even so, some people still linger in those relationships a little bit longer. There are lots of reasons a person stays with someone who isn’t necessarily right for them—self-worth, past trauma, internalized romantic conventions, and ego (plus, much much more). I’m sorry to say that your input will probably have little effect on what your friend decides to do about her boyfriend that she hasn’t already resolved to do on her own. It sounds like she is already aware of his flaws and misalignments in values, and she needs to process that in her own way before making a decision.
None of this is to say that your feelings on your friend’s dude are wrong or bad—you’re looking out for your friend’s best interests—but your support helps. Supporting a friend through something you don’t necessarily approve of is an emotionally mature and generous gesture, and while that doesn’t have to involve enabling, it will require you to accept that your friend is her own person who knows what’s best for herself. And while you’re hearing all about his disappointing behavior, remember that you’re only seeing it from the outside. There’s a lot you’re missing out about their dynamic because you’re just not in that relationship. Your friend might be venting to you about him while trying to work things out in a way that works for them.
you’re on the same side
It’s a very human thing to want to salvage a relationship—especially in a culture that values romantic partnerships as the pinnacle of personal fulfillment. It’s also very human to see the best parts of the person you love and root for them, even when you also know that person may not be the best match for you. So when you want to broach the subject in a serious way, lead with empathy, care, and vulnerability. And don’t spring it on her willy-nilly, no one likes being ambushed.
Tell her that you want to talk about something important and ask when she has time for it. Putting the ball in her court may make her less likely to get defensive. You can go for a walk—sometimes it helps when you’re not positioned facing each other, forcing eye contact. I’d suggest opening with how much you love her and how much she means to you, that this isn’t easy for you to bring up with her, and that you might be nervous about how she’ll receive it. When it comes to your specific concerns about his behavior, it’s best to zoom out to the bigger picture, focusing on patterns and repeat offenses, rather than each and every little thing. Above all else, author and licensed couples therapist Dr. Alexandra Solomon encourages coming in with gentleness, affirmations, and vulnerability. It’s a reminder that you’re both on the same side.
This is not the time to do a Powerpoint presentation on why she should dump her boyfriend. Judging people for personal decisions they make in relationships is a surefire way for them to feel unsafe opening up to you about their feelings. Your friend is already feeling uncertain about her relationship, so judging her choices will make her feel like she has even fewer people in her court. Keep in mind that you’re a third-party observer—you don’t actually know what’s going down within their relationship. You’re just a concerned citizen who saw some stuff that made you feel like your friend might need some support. Filtering your message through that lens offers your support without judgment, which is the one thing you want to avoid here.
You might feel like you have to do something about her situation, but having these talks, letting her vent to you when she needs to, and keeping a nonjudgmental line of communication open are all supportive actions that matter. Hard truths take time to sink in and it doesn’t happen at once. Temper your expectations and remember that this may be the first in a series of conversations. But know this: you cannot rescue your friend. That isn’t your role, and the impulse to be the savior is an opportunity to gut-check, Dr. Solomon recommends. If you find yourself getting way too invested in your friend’s boyfriend issues, take a step back for your own peace of mind.
what about you?
I noticed you mentioned that you’re worried that bringing this up will drive them closer together, rather than drive the two of you apart. You can and have expressed your discomfort with your friend’s partner’s behavior and that might be the most you can do until you’re ready for a larger conversation. In the meantime, it might be wise to explore why their relationship irks you so much so you can better explain your feelings to your friend. This might be a good time to gut-check again, says Dr. Solomon, and to figure out where the “ghosts in the room” are. “We get particularly activated when we observe dynamics that remind us of painful things we've either observed or experienced in our own lives,” she says. It bears asking yourself, “what does this dynamic between your friend and their partner remind you of from your own life?”
It’s possible that your friend’s relationship is holding a mirror to some aspect of yourself that needs care and attention. Perhaps it mirrors something from your past experiences that reads as threatening because that didn't go down well for you. And let’s not forget that since your best friend has a BF, she has less time for you. That’s just how it works, circumstantially, but still might make you feel some sort of way. “When our friend falls in love, we're supposed to be happy [for them] and cheerlead,” Dr. Solomon says, “But right next to celebration for our friends' relationships can be grief because when our friends are building intimate partnerships, there is just less time, attention and energy available for us.” This is a totally normal reaction to have, even when you adore your friends’ partners. It doesn’t make you a jealous, selfish, or bad friend, but that feeling requires a bit of care for yourself.
In the future when you perhaps fall head-over-heels for someone who turns out to be not super compatible after a while, you may need to take a few detours before letting them go, and you will definitely value friends who are there for you without making you feel shitty about not doing it “right”—because there is no easy way to extract yourself from a problematic relationship. Sometimes you have to do it a couple times before it sticks. As someone who’s been in a few and whose friends gritted their teeth through my on-and-off-agains, I appreciated the hell out of those mates who had the patience to listen to me and the generosity of spirit to graciously affirm my feelings while trusting me to do what I needed to do in my own time. Those friends are the true diamonds!
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