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 relationship — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q. A friend of mine is a big partier, and she usually stays out late several nights a week — and always ends up with regrets the next morning. I don’t want her to think I’m judging her lifestyle, but I genuinely think she’d be happier (and healthier!) if she changed a few of her habits. Is there a nice way to say that without offending her?
A. Your concern for your friend’s well-being is admirable, but I hear the vulnerability you feel in confronting her. Good friendships are a source of great joy, and I sense that you don’t want to risk losing her. But watching her put her well-being at risk is clearly stressful for you. Speaking the truth to your friend will take courage.
It’s not unreasonable to expect close friendships to be strong enough to sustain the truth. Friends can help us grow by giving honest but gentle feedback. Keep in mind, however, that if her partying involves alcohol and drug abuse, she may deny the extent of her destructive behavior. Planning ahead for your conversation can help you feel prepared for potential angry or defensive responses.
Think it through
Time your talk carefully. Do not talk to her while she is intoxicated or high. Choose a time when she is sober and clearheaded, but still feeling the effects of a regrettable incident. Waiting too long will give her an opportunity to minimize her behavior and deny any problem with her partying.
Talk to her privately, or if other close friends are also concerned, you can invite them to join you. Choose a location that will be comfortable and feels safe. If you’re concerned that your friend may have an angry outburst and run off, choose a neutral location that will require both of you to be on good behavior.
Do your homework. Arming yourself with information on the effects of alcohol and drug use can help you to feel more confident in discussing your concerns. When partying is a problem it affects sleep, grades, health, work performance, moods, and relationships. It can also lead to risky behavior like unsafe sex or driving under the influence.
Make a list of the most concerning behaviors you want to highlight in your conversation. Also learn about what it takes to change problematic behaviors. Gaining understanding of the challenges your friend may face can help you approach her with more empathy and compassion.
Write out what you want to say in letter format. This will give you an opportunity to make several drafts until it sounds just right. The letter can also be read to your friend if you are concerned that you will freeze up or say the wrong thing.
Be prepared with a list of resources should she ask for help in changing her behaviors. If she is in college, campus health centers will be able to provide information on support groups or counseling services. If she is an older adult, suggest she see a counselor.
Have the talk
It’s important that you express care and concern for your friend without lecturing, shaming, or criticizing. Maintaining a positive connection with her can help you be more influential. Arguing, judging, and moralizing will most likely yield a defensive response that shuts down the conversation.
The more gently you bring up a difficult subject, the better it will be received. Follow these guidelines when you talk to her.
1. Start out by telling your friend how much she means to you. This helps to soften things. Say something like, “Our friendship means a lot to me, and I really care about you.”
2. Then tell her what you feel about her behavior. This means you start with “I” instead of “you.” Starting a sentence by negatively describing your friend, such as “You party all the time and end up doing stupid stuff you regret,” is a criticism that will not be received well. Instead say, “I am sad and worried about how partying is affecting you lately.”
3. Give a specific example of how partying has negatively impacted her. Just give the facts, such as, “At the party last night you drank so much that you threw up. And today you are hungover and had to call in sick to work. This seems to be happening frequently.”
4. The final step is to offer support. Say, “I am here to help support you if you want to work on changing this pattern.” If she is resistant or dismissive, you can try again at a later date.
It is very difficult to watch someone you care about making poor choices, but ultimately, the decision to change is up to her. If her behavior doesn’t change, you may wish to set some boundaries. This is another way of communicating your concerns and practicing self-care.
More from Asking for a Friend here.