How do I tell my girlfriend that she is in an unhealthy relationship?

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Hi VICE,

One of my very best girlfriendslet me call her Elisa, is currently in one relationship which seems quite unbalanced to me. i know the word’poisonous‘ is used too much and too often, so I won’t talk about that, but I have a few questions.

I’ve been biting after a bit noticing their relationship dynamic over the past two years. Elisa’s partner, I’ll call him Robert here, fits to belittle her where everyone is. I also never see Elisa without Robert there. I have often heard Robert say things like “you don’t understand” to her or he makes unsolicited decisions for both of them.

When this happens, Elisa cringes and smiles in disbelief, or she shrugs without really saying anything back. I don’t know if they do this when they are alone, but that seems not healthy.

Elisa and I have known each other for a few years. We always saw each other a lot, we went out together until the sun came up and we also called each other all the time. It was like that when Elisa and Robert first got together, when everything still seemed fantastic. Now we see and hear each other less and less. When I ask Elisa out now, she says that she already has other plans with Robert, or that “Robert would rather be alone”.

Just to be clear, I’m not hateful. I recognize the dynamic because I have had similar experiences in the past. But when I talk to Elisa about it, she downplays the situation. I don’t want our friendship to be strained anymore, but I also don’t want Elisa to wake up one day and say, “But why the hell didn’t you tell me what you were thinking?”

So how do I discuss the situation without getting into a tiresome discussion? Are there ways to say hurtful things without feeling like a backstab?

Thank you,

ONE.

Hi,

Your keen observations mean you make a good friend, especially when you gather information before acting. It’s also good that you refuse to use the term “toxic” to describe this relationship. You would also experience this as sharp judgment if it was used to describe you. You seem to understand that relationships are complex and that dysfunctional behavior can come and go over time.

Still, it is a worrying situation for your girlfriend to be humiliated in public by her partner. According to clinical psychologist and sexologist Dania Piras Repeatedly belittling a partner is a textbook example of dysfunctional behavior that occurs in relationships for a variety of reasons.

Based on your description, it could be “a male-female relationship where, unfortunately, there is still a gender gap and paternalistic views,” Piras said. This situation may also be the result of “the fact that both partners grew up in an environment where there was a lot of belittling,” says Piras. Unfortunately, not everyone who encounters this kind of power dynamic is aware of it, especially if they are in love or under social or cultural pressure.

In any case, the relationship between Elisa and Robert will continue for now, so what we can deal with now is your personal discomfort with the situation. The question you have to ask yourself, according to Piras, is: What do you want to achieve? What do you really want to say?

If you’ve just started dating someone, it’s natural to focus on that person and put other relationships on the back burner. This is especially true in many monogamous relationships that “tend to follow unconscious rules that are part of” mononormativity,” Piras continues. “The partner is prioritized, friends come later, they are a bit on the sidelines.”

At the same time, her partner’s jealousy can contribute to the alienation you feel towards your boyfriend. Regardless of gender and sexual orientation, some partners may “feel threatened because of the close intimacy we share with another,” Piras said. Still, this is a nuanced question, so don’t jump to conclusions.

“If your partner isn’t uncomfortable or hasn’t asked you for help, you can’t expect to be able to share your thoughts freely in the conversation,” says Piras. Concentrate on expressing your personal feelings honestly. “There’s a difference between judging other people’s relationships – ‘He’s treating you badly, you should leave him’ – and communicating how something makes us feel.”

According to Piras, you could start the conversation with: ‘Since you’ve been with Robert, I feel a bit on the sidelines. I miss the relationship we had, I want to see you more often. What do you think? What do you think of this?’

You can also try to get to know Robert better. Approaching him can narrow the distance between you and your boyfriend and allow you to evaluate the situation more thoroughly. Finally, if you still feel that the relationship with Elisa is problematic, you can start talking about your own experiences and ask a few questions.

The most meaningful approach to this type of conversation comes from sincerity and honesty. “It takes a very strong sense of self and a fair degree of distance to be able to talk about one’s own experiences without implying that the other person is,” continues Piras. “You have to remember that so you don’t put up walls.

For example, you could say, “If Robert puts you down in front of everyone, I feel uncomfortable because I think you should be treated with respect. How do you feel when these things happen? I see you’re not responding, so you okay with that?’ suggests Piras.

The dumbest thing you can do in this situation is to start the conversation with the expectation that you will be heard immediately or that your girlfriend will react in a certain way. You have to remember that Elisa is “a person who can think for herself, who experiences her feelings, desires and perspectives independently,” says Piras. So even if you think you’ve been through a similar situation, be aware of “the risk of bias, the tendency to abstract your own experience and make it universal for everyone.”

Ultimately, your girlfriend will only listen and accept help when she is ready. If Elisa continues to refuse to show any vulnerability or act defensively, you can just say, “I’m sorry, but I had to share this. Know that I’m always there for you if you have problems.’ Getting that message across is half the battle.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

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