Dana is a 24-year-old woman who is dating seriously. She tells her good friend Arielle about her upcoming plans for engagement. Arielle is concerned that Dana is in an unhealthy relationship. She wants to be supportive but doesn’t know how to help her friend. Arielle wants Dana to know “I’m here for you,” and maintain open communication with her. Arielle asks herself, “Why doesn’t she see what I see that could be harmful?” Whenever Arielle approaches the topic and tries to talk to Dana about her concerns, Dana repeats “I know he’s not perfect—nobody is. We can make it work.” This leaves Arielle wondering, “What can I do to help?”
Caring friends and family members often find themselves in very difficult predicaments such as Arielle’s. If she says something to Dana, Dana may become defensive or shut down. She finds it difficult to stay quiet because she truly wants to make sure she does what she can to protect Dana. The question that remains is what more can a person do to help a friend or loved one in a situation where there is concern about an unhealthy relationship?
Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) recommends using the TOCHLIS tips for communicating when you find yourself in this position.
Trust: Show her that you trust she will make the right decisions, and that you will be there for her, regardless of the outcome. She may ask for your opinion, but consider that nine out of 10 times, when a person does this, what she really wants is your validation. If you state an opinion, make it clear that what you say is your opinion! You don’t need to agree with her to be supportive of her. Make it clear that you will continue to support her.
Observations: Bring up facts and observations; don’t make your own assessments. Your personal interpretations can be helpful at times and may be true; however, they may cause a friend’s defensiveness to escalate.
Check for cues: Taking cues from your friend, while you are discussing your concerns with her, is crucial. You may have said the “right things” in supportive ways; however, if your friend is unable to hear your feedback or hear what you have to say at that moment, accept that and don’t push further. You can revisit the topic at another point. Sometimes these cues seem more explicit, such as a verbal request asking you to stop talking or switch the topic. Other times, you may encounter more implicit cues, including looking away, raising her voice, changing her tone and rolling her eyes.
Listen: Remind your friend that you want to listen and help support her. Just remember, listening is most effective when done without having an agenda of influencing or changing your friend’s decision! Ask her how you can best help her during this confusing and difficult time. You may also ask her if she would consider talking to a professional such as a Project S.A.R.A.H. therapist.
Share: Share your personal reactions to what occurred or what you saw. This is most effective when done in a calm and respectful manner while making it clear that it is your personal viewpoint. For example: “Something inside of me made me scared when I heard him tell you ___.”
Project S.A.R.A.H. therapists are available to provide professional assistance in promoting healthy family communication and relationships. We have prevention programs that teach teenagers and young adults what they can do if they find themselves concerned for a friend in a potentially unhealthy relationship. For more information call us at 973-777-7638.
Shira Pomrantz, LCSW, is the director of Project S.A.R.A.H. and works with adults, adolescents and children suffering from domestic violence and trauma. She has extensive training in the internal family systems (IFS) model, which is an empowering and non-judgmental approach of psychotherapy. Shira’s warmth, creativity and emotional sensitivity help her address her clients’ needs.