Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I love my best friend (and roommate) but I hate her boyfriend of two years. I don’t think he’s very respectful to her or me, and I despise his humor, which I find racist and offensive. I hang out with her less when he’s around, and at times I’ve called him out on his racism (to no avail). But I do make an effort for the sake of our friendship, although being near him is getting harder and harder for me. What can I do? Say something to my friend? Try to get to know them better? Stay quiet and hope he goes away?
A: It’s really painful when we see someone we love in a relationship with somebody we disapprove of. And it sounds like this has the potential to cause a rift in your friendship, or already has, which also must be very painful.
Since there are a number of variables here in terms of what you can and cannot control, it’s easy to understand your struggles regarding how you should respond to this situation. It’s complex, for sure.
Sometimes we really have to weigh whether or not saying something is going to have the effect we want. Will saying something help? Will they listen? Will it ruin your relationship? There is a risk of a potential disruption in your relationship, no matter what you choose. Not because of you and your relationship, but because of the behavior of her boyfriend, which is out of your control.
So let’s look at the options you identified and unpack them a bit.
Option 1: Try to get to know him better
You indicate that your friend has been in a relationship with her boyfriend for two years. The assumption here is that you have had opportunities to be around him for two years as well, and now it is getting harder to be in his presence. What you describe are patterns of behavior that make you uncomfortable, so it sounds like you do indeed know him. Questioning if you should spend more time getting to know him implies that you are doubting your intuition about the situation. From your brief description, it seems that trying to get to know them better won’t help change his behavior.
Option 2: Stay quiet and hope he goes away
This is certainly an option. It’s usually the one we choose when we want to avoid conflict. This is understandable because it can be scary to confront a situation that may be difficult, and one where you can’t predict the outcome. However, to avoid the issue and hope it just goes away is like “sweeping it under the rug.” If you can visualize this, you might see what could happen. You continue to sweep it under the rug, and it bunches up to a point where you trip over it. What gets bunched up? Emotions of resentment, anger, fear, and worry, to name a few. As these emotions build, someone will trip over them — either you as they build in you, or your friend as she notices that you have become distant. Saying nothing and hoping that it will go away is probably the easiest option, but not one where there is potential for something more meaningful to occur.
Option 3: Say something to your friend
Although this will not be easy, this is the place to start: Talk to her. How you talk to her, however, is key. What’s important is conveying your message in such a way that she is receptive and can hear your love and concern for her. Here are a few ideas.
Find a place where you won’t be interrupted and one that’s conducive for talking. You’ll want to start by first conveying how much your friendship means to you and how much you have struggled finding a way to express your distress in what you are seeing. Don’t be judgmental. I remember when I tried to bring something up with a friend in a similar situation and I called her boyfriend a “jerk.” She ended up marrying the guy, which made things very awkward for me every time I was around them.
So try instead to talk about the behavior that you are witnessing and give concrete examples of his racist jokes and disrespect of her. Explain what those behaviors elicit in you, whether that’s discomfort, worry, anxiety, or something else entirely — and explain why. Follow this up by expressing what your greatest wish is for her. For example, you might say something like: “My hope is that you will be with someone who loves you, adores you, and treats you with the utmost respect.” Then, can you support her and maintain the friendship even though you may not support their relationship? Can you tell her that? It doesn’t have to be black or white — you can be supportive of her even if you are not supportive of their relationship.
You don’t have to bring the topic up again and you might want to let her know this — now that you’ve shared your concerns, it’s not necessary to keep pointing them out. Chances are, she is also feeling his disrespect but could be disregarding her own intuitive nudges because she wants the relationship to work. She may disagree with you, but she will absorb what you are saying, and, at a certain level your words can come back to her, especially as his behavior confirms them.
Another benefit of being non-judgmental is that it creates safety and trust in a relationship, and your friend may be more likely to share her own concerns. If this is the case, be ready to be there for her. If she does bring things up, be empathic and elicit conversation by being reflective and by asking open-ended questions. Open-ended, powerful questions can’t be answered by a simple yes or no. They are meant to elicit exploration and discovery. Some examples can be:
Sometimes, all we need is someone to help us process just by listening and asking the right questions. It’s amazing what can happen when we can give someone that space to just explore. I remember dating a guy when I was in my early twenties — and it was definitely not a healthy relationship. When I found out he was cheating on me, I was devastated. My sister was the one who sat and listened to me as I talked about this relationship. She never said a word, but just listened to me as I talked. By the time I was finished, I had come to the conclusion that she and others in my sphere already had: This relationship was not good. She never said “I told you so!” Not once. She just gave me the space to process and, finally, I saw that what I thought I wanted in this man didn’t match my true wishes and values.
Option 4: Speak up to him
So what should you do when you feel offended by his jokes and his disrespect of you? Let’s define what disrespect actually means. Disrespect can mean that your boundaries are being violated, which can bring up uncomfortable feelings. These feelings relate to a sense of being disempowered, and one way to change that is to speak up. In our society, especially as women, we are socialized to be nice. So sometimes speaking up about offenses or what is making us uncomfortable seems like we’re not being nice, or maybe we worry we’ll be perceived as something even worse. But this is a misconception. Expressing your feelings and being firm about what you will do if your boundaries are violated is simply that — standing up for what you value and for yourself. It’s drawing a line in the sand, so to speak.
For example, in response to a racist joke, you might say: “Your jokes aren’t funny to me and I’m offended. Would you please stop?” followed by “I’ve asked you to stop and since you won’t respect my wishes, I will leave.” Firm and to the point. Similarly, if his comments or behavior become disrespectful toward you, apply the same type of response: “I’m uncomfortable with [what you just did or what you just said], so please stop. If your behavior continues, I’m going to leave.” You may get a comment of “What’s wrong with her?” That’s okay. You don’t have to explain or defend yourself, and I would advise against that as it could get you embroiled in an argument. If it’s truly important to him to want to know why you’re upset, he’ll apologize and he’ll do his best to stop. That’s what we do when we respect someone and their wishes. If he does apologize and seeks information about his behavior, then perhaps you can have a good dialogue.
This is not guaranteed and should not stop you from standing up for yourself! It can be scary to confront someone, but with practice it does get easier. And you may want to let your friend know, as a heads up, that this will be your response as you move forward. (For more help in creating healthy boundaries, check out Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day, by Anne Katherine, and The Gaslight Effect by Dr. Robin Stern.)
Perhaps some of the options that have been unpacked here will resonate with you. Ultimately, no one can tell you what the correct course of action should be. Only you can know this. But trust your intuition and let it guide you — sometimes it is your greatest gift. Wishing you the best of outcomes!
More from Asking for a Friend here.