2 Factors to Consider When Calling Out A Friend's Toxic Relationship

When stepping into someone else's turf, it is important to steer clear of the landmines.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | August 27, 2023

Friendships are incredibly important. We love our friends, care about their well-being and want to see them thrive. This is why recognizing potential signs of toxicity in a friend's relationship can be alarming.

If you observe any of the following in your friend's relationship, it's natural to feel concerned:

  • Constant criticism. You might overhear their partner belittling them, either in jest or seriously.
  • Control issues. You might notice their partner dictating what they can wear, whom they can see or even how they should spend their money.
  • Isolation. You might have your friend cancel on plans frequently. They might hint that their partner prefers them to spend time only with them.

Such situations can be distressing to witness, especially when the person affected is a close friend.

However, every relationship has its unique dynamics. Intervening directly, especially without knowing the complete picture, is risky. While the intention is pure, confronting your friend with your suspicions about the quality of their relationship can potentially damage your friendship and push them deeper into a world of toxicity.

Here are two challenges you may face when trying to help a friend out of a toxic relationship.

1. Addressing Cognitive Dissonance In Abusive Relationships Is Not Easy

While there's a chance that confronting your friend directly about their toxic relationship would make them see the truth and take action, there's also the possibility that it will backfire.

According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, victims of intimate partner violence often experience the process of cognitive dissonance, or a discrepancy between their beliefs about their relationship and the reality of the abusive behavior they're experiencing. This causes them to rationalize or minimize the abuse to cope with the situation. The study also found that victims are more likely to remain committed to an abusive partner if they have invested time, effort or resources into the relationship.

This psychological detachment from the gravity of the situation means that even a well-intentioned confrontation from a friend may be perceived as judgmental, intrusive or threatening. Feeling cornered, they might become defensive about their partner or the relationship itself, potentially leading them to harbor resentment towards you.

2. The Defense Mechanism Of Reactance Is A Crucial Obstacle To Overcome

Reactance occurs when a person feels that their freedom or choice is threatened or restricted. It can directly impact how your friend might respond to confrontations about their relationship.

This defense mechanism can propel an individual to restore their freedom, often doing the opposite of what's suggested. This notion of reactance becomes especially relevant in certain cultural contexts as well.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology highlighted the interplay of culture and reactance. People with an independent self-construal, common in individualistic societies like the U.S., are more affected by perceived threats to their personal freedoms. So, when you intervene in a friend's relationship in an individualistic society, you might inadvertently tap into this heightened sensitivity to personal freedom threats. Your well-intentioned advice could be seen as a challenge to their autonomy, potentially causing them to double down on their current situation and risk straining or severing your bond.

Alternatively, in collectivistic cultures where social order and family hierarchies reign supreme, people may be more sensitive to what others think about their relationship.


When helping a friend navigate a toxic relationship, it's essential to approach the situation with empathy and discretion. If you have decided to intervene, be prepared to tactfully diffuse any tense situations. Sometimes, the best course of action is to provide a safe space for your friend and ensure they know they can turn to you when they need to talk or seek advice.