What To Say When A Friend Mentions A Relationship Red Flag

Photographed by Bianca Valle.
Friends are great to have when you're dating, because you can throw your overly analytical relationship questions at them, and they'll usually give sound advice. If you're the friend, however, things could get tricky.
Some of your friends' questions might be slightly petty: Do you think I'm needy for texting back right away? Some could give you pause: Is it bad that their ex still hangs around the apartment? And some questions are red flags waving proudly in the wind: She said we can only hang out after midnight, in the basement of her apartment, while her roommates are away. Am I expecting too much?
It's natural to want to say whatever will make your friend happy, even if that means being overly negative to validate them or sugar-coating your response to spare their feelings. But if your friend mentions a red flag about their relationship, is it your responsibility to tell them that it's troubling? It might be, says Andrea Bonior, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in friendships and relationships.
"There's an art to this [telling your friend about the red flag], and not everybody can do it well," Dr. Bonior says. Some people want to give their opinion right away, but this is one instance in which it might be more valuable to just bite your tongue a little bit, she says. Instead of telling your friend exactly what you think, or telling them that it's totally fine, it's better to ask pointed questions. You might ask something like, What do you think about that? "It sounds like a therapist cliché, but really reflect it back on them," she says.
If your friend is expressing their concern outright, they might be waiting for you to echo or validate their worries. In that case, Dr. Bonior suggests you could say, It seems like that threw you for a loop, or, Seems like you're worried about this, and wait for your friend to open up. "Give them room to express their own concerns, and feel understood and heard," Dr. Bonior says. It's also best to have these conversations in-person, rather than via text, she says. So if they send you a folder of text screenshots and ask you to interpret them, ask them to wait until you have time to actually talk face-to-face about it, Dr. Bonior says.
When you do give input, keep in mind that your friend probably cares about your opinion, so it's important to be careful about your phrasing. Oftentimes, people respond too strongly to their friends' relationship issues, and they might say harsh things like, Dump them! or, That's so weird. Even though it feels like the right thing to say to make your friend feel better, it can come across as judgmental, Dr. Bonior says. And if you get into a pattern of always giving your friends frank, disapproving advice, they might feel like they can't actually rely on you for constructive feedback, Dr. Bonior says. "That person feels like they can't talk about it, which can turn toxic," she says.
That said, if a friend comes to you and says they don't feel safe in a relationship, or they're concerned that their partner's behavior is dangerous, that is a red flag that you shouldn't sugar-coat at all, Dr. Bonior says. "If there's a true red flag, you owe it to them to not be disingenuous and pretend it's okay," she says. These red flags could include violent, emotional, and sexual abuse, and sometimes the signs of abuse aren't always obvious.
For the less serious red flags, you should still be open and supportive, but you might want to say something like, That's kind of concerning. Is that something you want to keep an eye on? Or, I would be hurt, too, and I understand why you're worried. What are you going to do next? If you've "kept communication lines open" in the past, your friend will feel like they can trust you with this information, Dr. Bonior says. But sometimes, it's worth reiterating that you're there for them and would never judge them.
Even if you do all of this, there's always a chance that your friend won't take your sage advice, and that's okay, because it's not something you can necessarily control. What you can do is make sure you're there to answer their questions the next time they need it — even if those questions are just about when to text their crush back.