A few years ago, I was dating someone who treated me pretty poorly. When my best friend John told me as much, I didn’t take it well. I cut him off for the next six months of my spiraling, toxic relationship. After the girl and I broke up, I slept and cried for a week, then texted John to reignite our friendship over tacos.
During that meal, I admitted he’d been right about her and apologized for being unable to hear him out. We promised each other that, going forward, we would never be “yes friends” — we would always be honest about each other’s relationships; we would never let the other wriggle around in a bad situation for longer than necessary.
For a while, it worked, and eventually, I extended the policy to my larger friend group.
“Rob is literal garbage, you need to run away screaming,” I told my friend Natasha.
“Guillermo has an emotional age of 12, it is probably illegal for you to date him,” I said to my friend Nora.
“Your boyfriend is completely untrustworthy, please dump him immediately,” I told John, about a year after we’d made our promise. I had met his new boyfriend over drinks, experienced a bad vibe, and felt I had to share.
Soon after, I stopped hearing from him as much. I watched Instagram videos of him and his boyfriend on boats and beaches, smiling on a train in Connecticut. (He didn’t even tell me he was in Connecticut!) Although we didn’t acknowledge it, I sensed there was a rift between us. I sensed I had done something wrong. But had I? What about our binding agreement over tacos?
I began to wonder whether radical honesty was really the best approach. Were there certain circumstances where it’s not advisable? What should one do if a friend has an untrustworthy partner if not tell him? What should I do now?
I spoke to Dr. Linda Carroll, a psychotherapist, life coach and author of Love Cycles. She walked me through what to consider when you dislike your friend’s significant other, and how to decide whether to be forthright, be a so-called “yes friend” or perhaps something in-between.
Step 1: Know when they can’t hear it
When we fall in love, Dr. Carroll explains, “our bodies are downloaded with a love potion.” We chemically change as our brains flood with endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine and we form a kind of druggy brain attachment to the object of our affections. In this stage, she says, “we don’t see red flags ourselves and we don’t want to hear about them because we want the fix.” We create a bright shadow around this person, believe everything we think “fits the model that the person’s right and it’s going to work.”
Those first few months, she suggests you hold off from sharing your dislike. “Your information is not going to be welcome,” she says. “They can’t hear it.”
Step 2: Decide whether your concern is objectively legit
While you’re waiting for your friend to get a little less lovesick, Dr. Carroll suggests exploring your own motivations.
Ask yourself: “Is this person bringing up something in me? Are they triggering a response from an old partner I’ve had? Do I have a certain kind of prejudice against [this type of person]?” Consider the red flags. Are they small, like the person is messy or impolite or full of annoying habits? Or do you have real data, like you know he or she has a history of violent behavior?
If you do approach your friend, it can’t be just because you don’t “like” the person. “You need to know what’s really happening,” she says. “Only if you’ve cleared it with yourself and you know that you really feel distressed about what you’re seeing,” should you say something. You don’t have to have the same feelings for your friend’s partner as your friend does — even if that’d be nice — but it’s fair to want your friend to be safe and cared for.
Step 3: Soften your approach
If you’ve thought about it and your motivations are pure, try starting by “asking your friend’s permission to share,” advises Dr. Carroll. For instance, “I have some feelings about your significant other that I’m not comfortable with and I feel like I should tell you, do you want to know?” This allows your friend to buy into the conversation and to process any information without feeling defensive.
And if the answer is no, drop it. Your friend is not ready to hear it and he or she has told you so. Try again in three months.
Step 4: Let it go
If your friend is not receptive, it’s important to try not to convince him or her, Dr. Carroll says. “They’re just going to push all the much harder to convince themselves that this is the right person and close out whatever you say.”
Honor what you feel without arguing your point. Reiterate that everything does come from your perspective, and that your friend may have information that you don’t. This provides an opening for your friend to “come back to you months later when the love drugs wear off.” Plus, if the relationship is actually dangerous, it’s crucial that your friend doesn’t feel isolated.
Step 5: Stop feeding yourself bad thoughts
What if your dislike is not legit? What if this person is annoying, but not evil? What if they suck, but don’t need to be shut down?
“If you don’t like this person, that’s fine. But don’t continue to look for evidence,” Dr. Carroll says. “Allow yourself to see that they’re bringing joy to your friend and it’s not for you anyway. Allow yourself to be open to changing.” And if you never change? “You don’t have to like each other, you just have to be kind,” she says.
After hearing the above, it became clear my best friend’s and my policy was misguided. “So what do I do now?” I asked Dr. Carroll.
She laughed. “Apologize! You’re human.”
Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.