There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and at least one of your friends dating someone you don’t like. Maybe your friend’s partner is pretentious, or blunt to the point of rudeness, or they make fatphobic or racist or sexist comments that bother you, or maybe they’re just downright unpleasant. Either way, we’ve all been there. And while you may be getting the secondhand ick, know that this — however unfortunate — is a common experience. But when do we, if ever, get the go ahead to confront our friends over their controversial partner?
As with most things, it’s complicated. Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, in-house expert at the Paired app, understands that it’s hard to watch our loved ones romantically involve themselves with someone we think doesn’t deserve them. “We want to protect the people we love from pain,” she tells Refinery29. “At a certain point, though, we would be protecting them so much so that they don’t know how to function fully in society, so we can’t do that all the time.”
DeGeare is right — we do need to let our friends make mistakes so that they can learn and grow from them, and we need to remember that they’re independent people who can make decisions for themselves. If you don’t approve of their partner because you don’t like the way they dress or maybe they don’t tip their servers well, it’s probably more appropriate to keep it to yourself.
“You should not expect to change your friend's mind about who they're dating,” says Erin Pash, MA, LMFT, CEO and founder of Ellie Mental Health. “That is not your role. Your job is to be there to be a supportive person and if you can't support them, remove yourself from that boundary.”
While we can’t protect our friends from everything, we can speak up when we feel that they’re not acting like themselves or going against their morals when they’re in a relationship. “I think there’s a level of holding our friends accountable to the values that we know that they have,” DeGeare says. “It’s not saying, ‘You can’t date this person because of their behaviour,’ but a very trusted close friend can say, ‘Hey, you’re showing up in a way that feels very outside of the scope of what you believe in. What’s going on?’”
Plus, honesty is often the best policy when it comes to our close relationships. “Ultimately, any sort of secrets and things that we keep from our friends are going to start to impact our friendships,” says Pash. ‘“It's really, really hard if you keep saying no to plans, if your friend and their significant other keep inviting you out on double dates and you keep declining.” Pash says that being clear is kind, and that you “have to be able to have clear conversations with your friends and make sure that you're putting up your boundaries.”
If you find yourself really disliking your friend’s partner, the first step is to identify your personal feelings about the situation — what is it, exactly, that bothers you about this person? Do you actively feel unsafe around this person, or are you unfairly judging them? “If you just don't like their personality, you're going to have to suck it up sometimes,” Pash says. “But if they’re mean to your friend, if they're abusive, if they're rude to you, that's where we have to protect ourselves.”
Once you’ve got the root of your distaste down, share with your friend what you need to feel comfortable to continue the friendship. Is it spending time with them, one-on-one, without their partner present? Is it more separation than that? Decide what will make you feel best, and have an open and honest conversation about your needs as a friend and why.
“It’s really important to lead with curiosity in your friendships, and it’s going to strengthen and deepen your friendship if you do it well,” DeGeare says. There are instances where you can, and should, confront your friend about their partner, especially if it’s impacting your day-to-day life — for example, if their partner is a die-hard Trump supporter and you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community. You also have to be ready to put boundaries in place if they’re not interested in listening, and you should ask yourself if you’re in a space that can hold the potential pushback from your friend.
While DeGeare acknowledges that people do end friendships over these kinds of things, it’s also important to understand that people are capable of growth and change — meaning that your friend’s shitty partner may mature or change their ways in the future (or maybe they already have!).
Being a good friend also means not leaving them behind just because you don’t agree with their choice of partner. “Don't ostracize them into that relationship because what if they did pick someone [and it turns] into an abusive relationship, and then they're going to further isolate [themselves]?” DeGeare says. “That person may be a part of their journey, which, as shitty as that is, just because you see the potential pain [doesn’t mean] we can do that work for our friends,” DeGeare says.
Friends are incredibly crucial to our wellbeing and helping us feel fulfilled in life, and we can’t let their romantic partners (with exceptions, of course) ruin our relationships with them. Who else would we get through tax season with?