We’ve all been there: your friend excitedly tell you that they’re dating someone new and that they can’t wait to introduce you. You invite the new couple to your house for dinner, reminding yourself to be open-minded about whoever your friend happens to bring over. As the night progresses, you discover that your friend has fallen in love with someone who laughs like a hyena, makes low-key misogynistic comments, and doesn’t lift a finger the whole night to help you clean up after dinner. You tell yourself that “maybe they were just nervous” or that you “just need to get to know them better,” but every hang-out thereafter comes with a side of red flags that you feel compelled to bring to your friend’s attention.
So, what’s one to do in this unfortunate situation?
From my perspective, there are three main factors that come into play when considering this topic: your friend’s happiness, the trajectory of the romantic relationship, and your motivations for saying anything in the first place, which are all discussed below. I invite you to reflect on these three questions the next time you catch yourself in this unfortunate predicament:
1. Is your friend happy?
This is the most important factor to consider. While this might seem hard to hear, whether or not you like your friend’s partner is irrelevant. Your friend is a grown adult who (obviously) knows their partner on a much more personal, intimate level than you do. If your friend seems happy, it’s important to consider the idea that their deal breakers simply might not be your deal breakers, end of story.
I will say: this is a really tough pill to swallow. For example, as a feminist, I can barely stand being in the same room as someone who mansplains psychological theories to me as if I have no experience in the field. But if your friend couldn’t care less, then that’s all that matters.
Now, what happens if your friend has expressed that they aren’t happy? This is very tricky territory. I would be wary of giving your friend a laundry list of all of the reasons why you dislike their significant other. After all, if the two of them kiss and make up, your friend now knows all the reasons why you can’t stand the person they’re still dating, which makes for an incredibly awkward, elephant-in-the-room situation.
In these cases, the best path forward is usually to support your friend through validation. Don’t push them to break up with their partner; rather, continually validate that it makes a lot of sense to you why they feel the way they do. You might also give specific examples of times when you’ve noticed the problematic behaviour they’re discussing. For example, let’s say your friend is dating someone who appears to be a really big pothead, while she/he someone who you’d describe as being very motivated and ambitious. Perhaps they’ve just had a fight with their S.O. about his/her drug use and are venting to you. You might respond by saying, “If I were in your shoes, I can totally see how it would be hard to be as motivated as you are and be with someone who you feel is a bit lazy. I remember when you were over and he smoked a lot of weed while we were all being social and playing games, which was even hard for me to see as your friend. I totally get why you’re considering breaking up with him/her.”
In these situations, the key thing is to employ restraint, as hard as that might be. This is not the opportunity to talk about every situation where your friend’s partner has done something annoying. Keep in mind that doing this could reinforce an “us against the world” dynamic between your friend and their S.O., which is likely the exact opposite of what you want. Rather, try to position yourself as somewhat of a neutral party in these situations—as if you were a therapist yourself! Remind yourself that your friend is a big girl/boy who can make decisions for themselves, and that if their partner’s behaviour is as problematic as you think it is, they’ll see the light of day eventually.
2. What is the trajectory of this relationship?
Has your friend admitted that this is just more of a casual relationship or have you heard them talk about marriage and future plans with this person? If the latter scenario applies, I’d highly advise that you just keep your mouth shut unless you’re willing to lose your friend. If this is someone they see as husband or wife material, the bottom line is that they plan on keeping this person in their life forever. While you might be the best of friends, marriage typically comes with a circle of primacy where the partners prioritize each other over friends and family members. In other words, I’d put good money on the fact that your friend would pick their partner over you if you voiced your concerns. This isn’t because they don’t love you dearly, it’s just that this sense of devotion and loyalty is part of the package when it comes to marriage or very serious, committed, long-term relationships. So, if you’re not crazy about your friend’s potential husband or wife, you’ll likely want to keep your opinions to yourself so as to not risk your friendship.
3. What is your motivation in sharing your feelings with your friend?
Let’s say your friend is dating someone who constantly talks about themselves. You think to yourself, “I can’t imagine my dear friend being someone who is so self-absorbed!” However, it’s important to ask yourself whose needs you are paying attention to in these situations. It might actually be that telling your friend you don’t like their S.O. would alleviate the discomfort or annoyance that you're experiencing rather than your friend’s. Perhaps your friend has zero problem with the fact that their partner is extremely talkative and doesn’t consider this to be a deal breaker at all. Maybe, in fact, you just prefer that people are less talkative and ask more questions. The bottom line here is that your preferences are irrelevant in these situations. They are just that—preferences. And surely, you can suck it up for the 2 hours that you’re at a dinner party with someone who’s a little talkative.
Some Additional Considerations
If you absolutely cannot stand your friend’s significant other, it might lead to the disintegration of your friendship as well, unfortunately. When a relationship reaches a certain level of seriousness, people can often become a “package deal” with their significant others. For example, inviting your friend to your Christmas party might mean inviting their partner a well. You have two choices here: you suck it up and invite your friend and his/her partner or you stop inviting them to these types of events altogether. In my opinion, neither is right or wrong, they just come with different consequences. The consequence of route A is that you end up continuing to hate your friend's partner and feeling resentful of him/her. The consequences of route B are that you and your friend aren’t as close any more. In the latter scenario, you might discover that the best way forward is to just spend time with your friend one-on-one rather than in a group setting.
Additionally, I’d caution against voicing your frustrations to mutual friends simply because it’s not nice to do so. Your friend and his/her significant other are not the butt of some joke; this is who they’ve chosen and it’s your job to be a grown adult and accept this. If you need to vent about it to someone, pick an individual who isn't tied to your friend group or someone you trust implicitly. Don’t make it the topic of conversation when your friend isn’t around. That’s just mean.
Finally, the only time I would say it’s appropriate to really share your feelings is if your friend is in a relationship that appears to be emotionally and/or physically abusive. Additionally, if your friend’s health is worsening due to being so unhappy in the relationship, I believe it’s safe to share your concerns. Signs of emotional abuse include: name-calling, guilt-tripping, extreme jealousy, isolation, and more. If these signs are present, it might be worth having a difficult conversation with your friend about how you’re worried about the safety of their physical and/or mental health.
The Bottom Line
As the expression goes, we can’t help who we love. Sometimes our friends choose significant others who we think are totally bizarre, mismatched, and who “we wouldn’t pick.” To that I say: of course you wouldn’t pick them… that’s why you aren’t the one dating them! At the end of the day, we have to have faith that our loved ones are picking partners with whom they are content. It is simply not our place to get involved in voicing why we have problems because it is not our relationship. In other words, I find that the best path forward is to just keep your opinions to yourself.
That said, it is okay to distance yourself from your friend and his/her partner if you feel like you just can’t stomach hanging out with them. Just know that this does come with the price tag of weakening your friendship, but if you can live with that then it’s your prerogative entirely.
If you're struggling with your own romantic relationship and need some extra support, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about individual or couples therapy.