Friendships can be affirming, joyful parts of our lives—or they can suck the life right out of us. Here are ten red flags you might be living through the latter.
No one enjoys throwing in the towel on a close friendship — not when genuine intimacy has been shared (and laughter, and drinks, and 3 a.m. “Why won’t the baby stop crying?!” texts…). But the value of that intimacy drops if it’s accompanied by consistently hurtful or thoughtless behavior, which no amount of shared history can make okay. If you’re starting to wonder whether the bad outweighs the good, these 10 red flags will help you decide if it’s time to bail.
1. You dread their calls and texts.
This is the most obvious sign, though it can be weirdly hard to admit. But if all you’re getting out of a “friend” is stress, hurt feelings, arguments, cutting remarks, or dismissiveness, why bother? “It’s important when evaluating a friendship to make sure you feel valued, loved, and like you can be your authentic self,” says Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., friendship expert and author of the forthcoming book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends. “Authenticity is linked to mental health — if you’re constantly scanning what you’re saying before you say it, you’re using up a lot of energy, and that can be draining.” However, if you’re bummed to see them in your inbox because you’re upset about something you haven’t addressed, Franco recommends speaking up. “Look at the history of the friendship: Has it always been this way, or is it more recent? If it’s the latter, it might be a good sign that you need to have a conversation.”
2. You’re locked in a competition against your will.
“A green flag for friendship” — a good sign, in other words —"is that you’re rooting for each other to succeed,” says Franco. “We include friends in our sense of identity, so when they win, it feels like we do.” A real friend is genuinely pleased when, for example, you land a promotion or get engaged. A not-so-real friend, however, takes your news as a personal affront — usually because they’re envious, viewing all good fortune as a zero-sum game that only one of you can win. Typically, says Franco, they’ll clue you in to their sourness by denigrating your joy: You probably only got that promotion because so-and-so quit last month, they might say, or THAT was the best proposal he could come up with? “Typically, you see this behavior when you have something the friend wants,” says Franco. “Competition can be a way to express something too vulnerable to say, like I’m inferior, I don’t feel special, I’m insecure. It’s a better idea to touch on that rather than let it make you act out.”
3. You’ve become a human dumping ground.
Venting is something we all do, and with good reason, since letting out work frustration or post-marital-spat irritation is preferable to quietly seething. But there’s a point at which venting just makes you feel worse — and if you’re absorbing someone else’s constant rage-vomit, you’re likely to hit that point quickly. “In this situation, it’s dependency, not friendship,” says Franco. “Think of a friendship as a meal: the appetizer is fun experiences, the entrée is mutual vulnerability, and dessert is relying on each other for support. Friendship needs to be all of these things—if you just have one, or if one person is getting these things but the other isn’t, this isn’t true intimacy.”
4. You never know what will set them off.
“We look for predictability in friendships to feel safe,” says Franco. “In fact, a friendship is a series of predictions: If I’m vulnerable, you’ll be safe and affirming. If I do something nice for you, you’ll appreciate it. If we lose that predictability, we lose the sense of safety.” So, if a friend tends to be tetchy, touchy, or otherwise sharp with you in ways you rarely expect, you’re left feeling perpetually on edge. Franco explains that research on “ambivalent friendships,” in which this sense of predictability has been lost, shows that we experience higher blood pressure when we can’t predict someone’s behavior than in situations where we can count on a friend to be negative. In other words, we’d prefer the predictable jerk to someone who might be nice or mean at any given moment. Bottom line: Unless you’re a fan of constant anxiety (and hypertension), this kind of friendship just isn’t going to work.
5. You feel judged, ridiculed, or bombarded with unsolicited opinions.
“There’s a concept called identity affirmation,” says Franco, “which means you have a sense of who you are independently of others. If you’re high in identity affirmation, you’re more likely to maintain friendships because you’re not imposing your values or assuming that everyone has the same values that you do. When we give unsolicited advice or judge someone, what we’re really doing is imposing our values on them.” If your friend can’t get their head around the idea that there are other opinions in the world beyond their own, how can you ever confidently share yours?
6. All you talk about is the past.
As a beloved mafioso once said, “Remember when is the lowest form of conversation.” Felonies aside, he’s not entirely wrong — provided that’s the only form of conversation you’re having. If inside jokes and had-to-be-there memories are the sole thing you have in common, it’s hard to sustain a real-time close friendship. “For some, that shared history is of real value, unlocking a side of their identity they have less access to,” says Franco. “But it’s important to also have friends who can offer you real intimacy. The more we can recognize what our various friends offer and adjust our expectations to that, the less frustrated we’ll be.”
7. They’re drama magnets.
Every time you hang, it’s a different story: her coworker hates her! She had another all-night fight with her husband! And, great, here she goes describing some situation you can already tell will devolve into a mess. Who has the energy for this? “People who attract drama often don’t have much self-awareness,” says Franco. “They tend to be insecure with a narcissistic streak—because they don’t think about other people’s needs and values, they’re constantly surprised when people don’t behave the way they want them to, and they react strongly to that. It’s really hard to be friends with someone like that.” So…maybe don’t.
8. They habitually flake.
“Human beings are so afraid of rejection, and when someone flakes, they trigger that fear in us. According to risk regulation theory, we evaluate how much to invest in a relationship based on how likely we are to be rejected.” As a result, flakiness can destroy a friendship, because even if they’re truly overwhelmed and can’t hold up social commitments, it’s far too easy to interpret the flaking as an indictment on your bond. Once you feel that way, you withdraw, the other person withdraws based on your withdrawal, and that’s the end of that. If a valued friend is forever canceling plans, Franco advises talking to them about it. “There are times in life when we’re flakier,” says Franco. “Like when we have a new baby or are going through a mental health issue. But we need to communicate that: ‘I have a lot on my plate, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.’”
9. When the chips are down, they’re nowhere to be found.
A fair-weather friend isn’t just disappointing, but hurtful. “It feels like betrayal,” says Franco, “because we’re even more sensitive to rejection in vulnerable moments. It’s hard to ask for support when we need it, and if we don’t get it, it can stick with you more. You’d relate to it differently if it were an easier time.” This can be exacerbated if you’ve always shown up for the friend in question, leaving you to feel that you’re giving more than you’re getting. “If I feel like you don’t value me,” says Franco, “the friendship is effectively destroyed.”
10. You’re forever chasing them.
Call it the “Just Not That into You” principle: If a person wants to see another person, they find a way. If they don’t, well…why keep trying? Ask yourself: If I stopped reaching out, would I ever hear from this person again? If you’ve initiated every dinner date (or are always traveling to them, or writing chatty emails that get five-word answers), take a hard look at this friendship. Actually, says Franco, you may not even be in one anymore: “If it’s not reciprocal, it’s technically not a friendship. Friendships typically end not because of some big fight, but because someone didn’t reach out, and people feel scared to address it because friends aren’t supposed to have needs or ask for things—it’s supposed to be good vibes only! It’s self-perpetuating: they don’t reach out, so you withdraw, so they withdraw, too.”
Franco’s best friendship advice? “Try to assume people like you until you have clear evidence otherwise.” But the other half of that equation is just as wise: Once you have that evidence, don’t ignore it.