Telling your friend you think he’s dating the wrong person is one of the more fraught conversations two people can have. Go about it wrong, and you can come off as jealous, conniving or over-reactive; a shit-stirrer who’s all too willing to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. Go about it right, and your unsolicited opinion might rob your friend of a person he actually cares about. The third option isn’t any prettier — stay silent, and it might seem like you don’t notice or care that your friend is unhappy. Worse yet, you might miss an opportunity to help him if he’s in an unhealthy or abusive situation.
With so much at stake, what should you do? Is there a right way to tell your friend he’s dating the wrong person?
I don’t know about “right,” but according to the A-team of communication experts, relationship therapists and advice columnists I rounded up, there are definitely more tactical ways to do it. Below, they’ve provided some expert-approved communication strategies you can use to suggest your friend might want to scour the sea for other fish, all without sending your friendship off the deep end.
However, before we roll a montage of you practicing your big speech in front of a foggy bathroom mirror, let’s find out whether this difficult conversation is one you even need to have in the first place.
Check Yourself Before You… You Know
Unless you have a really good reason to suggest your friend is dating the wrong person, you probably shouldn’t. Other people’s relationships are none of your business, and you may have an entirely different concept of what’s “right” for someone than they do. You may also not have the full story — your friend’s partner might seem horrific, but you never really know what’s going on between them and your friend. Most of the time, it’s okay to keep it that way.
However, if you must go down this conversational K-hole, advice columnist S. Bear Bergman recommends taking some time to reflect on what your motivations are for having this conversation in the first place. Namely: Are you more concerned about your friend, or about yourself?
“Make sure that you’re having this conversation for the right reasons,” says Bergman. “Is your objection based on them being different from past partners? Different can be good! Is it based on a sense of them being ‘wrong’ in some way that’s actually about race or social class? That kind of objection you can keep to yourself.”
If you find that your discomfort with this person is generated from an issue that you have — friendship jealousy, projecting your own insecurities or not understanding their tastes or culture — there’s no point in risking your friendship to have this talk. You’re the one with the problem, and so, it’s on you to work it out. Instead, try to find something you have in common with their partner and ride it out.
That said, there are a few occasions in which you should probably voice your opinion, no matter the cost.
All the Times You Should Speak Up
- When your friend’s partner is behaving in a controlling, cruel, manipulative, abusive or violent manner toward them.
- If your friend’s partner treats them with malice and contempt, mocking or ridiculing them in a way that seems more hurtful than playful. According to relationship expert John Gottman, this is one of the most obvious signs a relationship is unhealthy.
- If they’re doing something behind your friend’s back that puts their health, safety or livelihood at risk.
- If your friend starts acting out of character and violating their own ethics around their partner in a way that’s harmful to them.
- If your friend seems constantly unhappy, despondent, resentful, afraid, angry, confused or insecure in their relationship.
Talking to the Them About All of the Above
If you’ve got a valid reason to poke this bear, spend some time analyzing — or at the very least, guestimating — what your friend’s communication style is. It might seem like overkill, but it’s important if you want your friend to really hear what you’re saying. After all, communication styles are like languages, and it’s easier to hear someone when they’re speaking your language.
There are many communication styles, but this handy Forbes article boils them down to just four:
I won’t repurpose the whole thing here, but it’s worth reading to suss out which your friend might respond to the best so you can speak to them strategically. For example, if you determine that your friend prefers to communicate in terms of facts and statistics, coming at them from a place of emotion — You seem sad! I’m scared for you! — might not have the desired effect.
Similarly, timing matters. That is, if you come at your friend with criticism about his partner or relationship when everything is hunky-dory between them, it’ll be much easier for him to get defensive or disregard your genuine concern as conniving or over-dramatic — everything’s fine, why are you freaking out?
So provided your friend isn’t in a life-threatening situation that needs immediate action, it’s a good idea to wait for some sort of incident or revelation from your friend to present itself so you have context and justification for bringing the topic up. The most strategic moment would be when he’s venting or lamenting to you about his relationship — that way, what you have to say will seem more conversationally appropriate than an unsolicited opinion.
Of course, not every situation will have such a clear conversational opening. Your friend might not be a big talker, or he truly might not think there’s anything to talk about. In that case, your opinion will be more of a surprise, and you’ll have to bring it up a little more delicately. Both Bergman and Dawson suggest taking your friend out for coffee, drinks or a walk and easing it in over the course of the chosen activity. Shooting for a time when you’re both sober (or soberish) and have more than a few minutes to talk is also smart.
The Keys to A Tactful Conversation
Once you’ve figured out how your particular friend communicates and found the right moment to talk, it’s time for the moment of truth. What should you say to convey your concern without offending your friend or alienating yourself? Dawson’s got a rough script for you:
- Express what you want to talk about.
- Share your feelings about the situation using “I” statements that convey your own observations so that you’re not putting words in your friend’s mouth or telling them how they feel.
- State any observations (not judgements) you’ve had about his relationship and/or partner.
- Affirm how you feel about them and your friendship.
- Ask relevant questions.
An example: “So, I’ve been wanting to talk with you about Taylor. I’ve been feeling sad and uneasy. Since you started seeing her, you haven’t been playing music or coming to shows, which I know makes you happy. I care about our friendship, and you’re important to me. How are things going with her? What do you like about her?”
Notice that in this example, the speaker keeps the conversation limited to the differences he’s noted in his friend’s behavior. He’s not judging anyone or making any wild accusations about the girlfriend in question; he’s simply speaking the facts as he sees them.
“It’s a good idea to express your concern but avoid judging, shaming or attacking your friend or the person they’re dating,” says Dawson. “Doing so can make you seem irrational or unhinged, which can invalidate your opinion.” Using a calm, neutral tone that skews more inquisitive than accusatory can also help, she says.
Most importantly, Bergman encourages people to listen to their friends instead of just talking at them. Then, he says, reflect back to them the ways in which those things may not match what they’ve said they want or need in their life or in a partner. This makes it seem like they said it, not you.
Finally, Dawson warns against using ultimatums or manipulating your friend into choosing you or their partner. In such cases, “no one wins,” she says.
Adopt A Physical Stance That Says, “I Just Care About You, Man”
Though words like, “Your partner is a storybook nightmare” convey a lot of meaning, body language tends to convey even more — 93 percent of human communication is made up of non-verbal cues like posture, eye-contact and microexpressions. That’s good to know for any communicative situation, but it’s particularly clutch info to have before you broach a delicate, potentially friendship-ending conversation with someone you care about.
That’s why Reiman recommends tweaking your body language when you broach this topic with your friend to appear friendlier and less threatening. “Most men find face-to-face interactions to be confrontational, especially if one is about to tell the other they feel they’re dating the wrong person,” she says. “That’s why it’s a good idea to stand at a slight angle when you talk to your friend, roughly four to six feet apart. Tilt your head downward (this demonstrates you’re not trying to be an alpha male, but a friend), touch the person lightly (perhaps on their shoulder) and look them in the eye (if your head is tilted downward, you’ll be looking up at your friend). Posture like this conveys that you’re not telling your friend what to do; you’re merely suggesting a thought you had and gently speaking your truth.”
Obviously, this is an idealized situation — you can still have this conversation without looking up at your friend from four to six feet away — but given that this conversation might put your friendship at risk, it’s not a bad idea to take your body language into consideration when you deliver your verdict.
Navigating the Worst-Case Scenario
Even if you deliver the most prepared and brilliantly persuasive monologue about love and friendship to your boy, Bergman cautions that he still might not be interested in what you have to say. It’s possible he might defend his offending partner out of fear or conditioning, or flip the script and make it seem like you’re the problem. “If that’s a worry,” says Bergman, “be even more gentle and make sure to emphasize and repeat often that if they ever need to talk, you’re 100 percent there for it.”
Translation? Don’t push it.
Then, you wait. Because again, unless there’s reason for alarm — and unless you muttered it incomprehensibly under your breath as you nervously sweated through your boxer-briefs — you really only need to mention things once.
However, if your friend keeps bringing up issues they have with their partner or coming to you for advice, continue to repeat the process of making neutral observations, getting them to say what’s wrong with their partner and offering your help if they need it. (In the event your friend is being abused or is in danger, direct them toward resources like Loveisrespect.org and offer to alert the proper authorities if they want you to.)
It’s probable, though, that once the bad relationship seed has been planted (or reinforced), your friend’s weird romantic imbroglio will likely play itself out. Meanwhile, focus on being there for him. “The more care and safety we can create for our friend, the more opportunity there is for them to really see what their choice is about and make changes on their own volition,” says Dawson.
And that really should be the end-goal here — for your friend to make his own decision, when he’s ready. It’s his relationship, after all. You’re just the looking glass that helps him see it more clearly.