Do you have issues with your no-longer-best girlfriend? Is your coworker driving you crazy? Megan Carpentier is here to give you the life advice that you don’t want to hear, told in the way you absolutely need to hear it.

My friend is dating a guy I can’t stand. I don’t think he’s abusive or anything, but he’s very controlling and tells her who she’s allowed to hang out with and where she’s allowed to go. The last time I said something critical about him she didn’t speak to me for five months. I want to tell her I think he’s bad for her, but I don’t want her to cut me off completely. What can I do?

Actually, according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, telling someone who they are allowed to hang out with and deciding where that person is “allowed” to go are two symptoms of an abusive relationship. They say:

Does your partner:

  • Embarrass you with put-downs?
  • Look at you or act in ways that scare you?
  • Control what you do, who you see or talk to or where you go?
  • Stop you from seeing your friends or family members?
  • Take your money or Social Security check, make you ask for money or refuse to give you money?
  • Make all of the decisions?
  • Tell you that you’re a bad parent or threaten to take away or hurt your children?
  • Prevent you from working or attending school?
  • Act like the abuse is no big deal, it’s your fault, or even deny doing it?
  • Destroy your property or threaten to kill your pets?
  • Intimidate you with guns, knives or other weapons?
  • Shove you, slap you, choke you, or hit you?
  • Force you to try and drop charges?
  • Threaten to commit suicide?
  • Threaten to kill you?

If you answered ‘yes’ to even one of these questions, you may be in an abusive relationship.

It is rare, actually, for an abuser to start off with violence; rather, many abusers start off by isolating their victims from other sources of support before intensifying their behavior. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that she repeated your criticism to him and he “requested” that she shun you. He might not be hitting her (or he might be and she’s adeptly hiding it), but abuse can take many forms other than physical and all of them can be very damaging.

The difficulty, as you’ve seen, is that criticizing someone’s partner makes them extremely defensive on the other person’s behalf. It’s not like your friend doesn’t know that her boyfriend is controlling, of course — she knows that as well as you, but she’s chosen to accept it for whatever reason, be it love, or fear, or a sense that she’s simply tolerating his insecurities “for now.” Maybe she thinks it’s normal, or feels by now that it is normal; maybe she’s the sort of person who equates jealousy or possessiveness with love. One of the hallmarks of an abuser is that he or she makes the victim feel as though they’ve caused the abusive behavior — if she didn’t flirt, or had the “right” friends or went to the “right” places, then it wouldn’t be an argument, for instance. Your friend could be tolerating his behavior for any one of a number of reasons, and by criticizing him you are implicitly criticizing her for staying — and no one likes to be criticized.

The question with this, or any, relationship is how it makes her feel, and what she wants to do about it. People who are in abusive relationships often are isolated from friends or family, for reasons like the one you’ve just described, and you’ve correctly diagnosed that criticizing her boyfriend (again) will likely garner the same results as last time: she may well isolate herself from you.

Instead, go to her and say, “I really regret that time when I criticized your boyfriend and we didn’t talk for a while. You’re my friend, and that sucked, but I also worry that it made you feel like you can’t talk to me about him or your relationship without another lecture from me. I want you to know that I care about you, and I want you to be able to talk to me about anything, including him, without worrying that it will be more drama then it’s worth — so I promise that when you do talk about him, I will focus on your feelings about the situation and not mine about him.” And then do it — because your feelings about him won’t change hers, but reinforcing the idea that she deserves happiness and helping her see that she might not be getting it from this relationship might begin to help.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has other suggestions that are relevant to your particular situation:

  • Be supportive.
  • Be non-judgmental.
  • Encourage him or her to participate in activities outside of the relationship with friends and family.
  • Encourage him or her to talk to people who can provide help and guidance.
  • Remember that you cannot “rescue” him or her.

For people on the outskirts of a relationship known to be violent, they also recommend acknowledging that you are concerned, helping the victim develop a safety plan and being supportive once the relationship is over. But, what all this advice comes down to is the need to balance your desire to convince someone to leave with the knowledge that, in order to be able to leave, they need emotional support (and sometimes more) from someone who isn’t their abuser. Being critical is more emotionally satisfying than listening to someone repeat the same sob story over and over again, certainly, but what your friend needs from you is a safe space to even acknowledge there’s a problem in the first place.

If you have a problem with a friend, relative, coworker, or other person in your life, email Megan at advice@thegloss.com. If you have a problem with your boyfriend, you should probably just try talking to him.