We might not immediately think our friendships carry as much weight as family or spousal relationships, but research shows they can be just as fulfilling – or damaging. And that means a toxic friendship can take a serious toll on your physical and mental health.
Realizing a friend you love and trust is actually harming you is shocking. Thanks to the turmoil of middle school, most of us know what it’s like to deal with a bully or stereotypical “mean girl.” With this experience behind us, we figure we’re better judges of character as adults. We’re more thoughtful about who we befriend and confide in.
A toxic friendship, though, is much more complex than simple meanness. It’s not something we expect and can even develop out of a healthy friendship over time.
I recently realized a woman I’ve known for more than 10 years and considered a close friend isn’t actually a friend at all. After supporting her through a life crisis, she subtly started distancing herself from me. Her slow response to my texts and calls, when once she responded within seconds, struck me as odd, but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. I even checked in to make sure everything was okay with her. When she finally responded, it was with a curt “Fine!” and three happy face emojis.
She stopped checking in. She never seemed available when I suggested we get together. Just when I’d given up, she’d ask me for a last minute coffee date or to go for a walk. I always made time for these rare outings, which usually meant me listening to whatever mini-drama was happening for her. I’d give her my heartfelt support and advice and in between we’d laugh like we used to. I’d leave hoping our friendship was on the upswing, only to be ignored for weeks on end – again.
I finally knew this wasn’t a healthy friendship when I called to share that I’d won an award for my writing. She could barely eke out a “congratulations” before inundating me with the latest fight she’d had with her brother. When I posted my news on Facebook, she didn’t bother to comment.
My feelings were deeply hurt, but I didn’t say anything. I worried I’d lose whatever was left of our meager friendship if I mentioned it. That’s because over the years whenever I’d expressed my confusion or upset over an interaction, she’d respond unkindly, and in some instances, put the onus for her actions on me. Somehow it was always my fault when she excluded me or didn’t support or encourage me. My self-esteem plummeted, my stomach ached, and I found myself awake in the middle of night wondering what I did wrong.
Turns out, this is the textbook definition of a toxic friendship. In an interview with RealSimple, psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever, Dr. Irene S. Levine says this kind of unpredictability takes its toll.“It can make you anxious, nervous, or depressed when you don’t know what to expect from a friend whom you’re supposed to rely on.”
Other red flags your friendship may be toxic? When a friend needs you constantly for everything. While being a supportive friend is a good thing, managing an extremely needy friend is exhausting. It’s also a huge time suck, which means you have less time for your other relationships and yourself.
Another warning sign is a friend who doesn’t see her own flaws and becomes defensive when you confront her with your feelings about something she’s done or said. You might also stop looking forward to seeing her and feel relieved when she leaves. Tiptoeing around someone to keep them happy or even-keeled is intense work. Finally, if a friend betrays your trust, she’s no friend at all, no matter how hard you try to excuse or explain her actions.
Friendships naturally ebb and flow. Life and time pull us apart and push us closer together. These shifts happen and aren’t triggered by jealousy, malice or an imbalance in the relationship. True friends understand this dynamic. I can go for weeks without talking to my best friend across the country, but when we connect, we laugh and listen as if no time has passed. A toxic friendship, though, leaves you feeling drained, depressed, and tense.
The obvious solution is to disengage, but before ending a friendship, try talking it out. Be brave and ask if something’s bothering her. If she shares her feelings, see if you can respond positively and also be heard yourself. It might lead to a renewed and balanced relationship. With some toxic friendships, however, you might just get more of the same negative feedback you’ve already received. That’s when you know it’s time to step away.
Friendships should fill us with joy, not angst. They should be balanced and supportive, not one-sided and slippery. They should make us feel good inside and out. It isn’t easy, but if you’re in a toxic friendship, put yourself first and make the break.