How do you know if your friendship is toxic?
Relationships are one of the gifts of being human—they support you, challenge you, and, in the best cases, show you something about life you would never have seen before.
But unfortunately, there are some friendships that drag you down. There are some friends that you’re just never that close to, but then there are friendships that can be destructive and hurtful. So how do you even know if you’re in a toxic friendship?
When you care for someone, it’s easy to ignore his or her flaws. But if you’ve got a friend who seems to poison the atmosphere, this person’s toxic personality might be dragging you down with it.
Signs of a toxic friendship
If you’re not sure the friendship is healthy—it just feels off somehow—watch (and feel) for signs. Your body won’t lie to you. If you feel afraid in someone’s presence, there’s a reason for it. If someone is always draining your energy with their endless complaints, notice this too. And when someone lies to your face, you experience a physical reaction, not just an emotional response.
Here are some of the more common signs of a toxic friendship:
- Any kind of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual) and controlling behaviour. Refusing to listen when you bring any of these points up are all traits of an emotionally immature person. And they’re not proof that your friend is a bad person—everyone has blamed someone else for something they did or shamelessly gossiped to bad ends—but if they define the person, you’re better off without them in your life.
- Trash talking others, blaming others, manipulating people, and situations. If you’re constantly on the receiving end of being criticised, blamed, or manipulated, this can be a sign that you’re in a toxic friendship. If the friendship is still in the early stages, you’ll often hear them talk about others in this way, but over time, you’ll eventually be on the receiving end of this behaviour.
- Constant competition and comparisons with others. If your friend is setting you up to compete with other friends, or unfavourably comparing you to others, this is toxic behaviour that can leave you feeling bad about yourself and negatively impact your self-esteem.
- You’re constantly walking on eggshells. If you feel that you’re constantly watching what you say how you say it, or are worried about how your friend will react to you being open and honest, this is not a good foundation for a strong friendship. True friendships allow you to be completely yourself in the presence of your friend.
- It’s all about your friend. If you find yourself being the one to constantly adapt to what your friend wants, or you find yourself the only one reaching out with very little or no reciprocity, this can be a sign of a toxic friendship. The opposite can also be just as disturbing if you find your friend is constantly making demands on your time and expects you to be at her beck and call.
How to deal with a toxic friend
If the friendship is important enough to save (maybe you’ve known this person for many years and they’re going through a bad patch), set boundaries with your friend. Before you meet up for coffee, tell him or her that you’re not willing to listen to three hours of gossip, criticisms, or blaming; you just want to relax in their company. And if they do start nattering on, gently call them on it.
If they won’t stop the toxic behaviour, make your exit. There’s a difference between supporting a friend in a hard place and enabling someone who just likes to vent endlessly. It’s not actually helping the other person either—rather than deflating their strong emotions, having someone to sound complaints off of reinforces their ego and place in the social pecking order.
When friendships end
Sometimes friendships end abruptly because one person did something so cruel or thoughtless the relationship can’t be salvaged. If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour, it’s not hard to know what to do. Protect your heart: firmly break off the friendship. But if you see them continually treating someone else really badly (and they don’t respond when you ask them about it), ending the friendship may be the best course.
Unlike romantic partners, people usually don’t share wealth and space with friends. So you have the freedom to end the friendship on your own terms.
How to end a friendship with integrity
If you decide you want to end a toxic friendship, it’s often best to address to person face-to-face. This way you can clearly and cleanly state why you’ve decided to end the friendship with integrity.
If it’s too hard to do in person, you could write them a letter or, if you must, an email. But be aware that dumping anyone via email seems cheap, and if the other party is vindictive, they could forward it a hundred times.
Chances are, if the friendship is so toxic you’re breaking it off you’ve already tried to talk to them about their behaviour, but if they need to hear it from you again, take a breath and explain why you can’t continue this relationship. Emotional manipulators often don’t face reality until they hit a brick wall.
Cutting off a toxic friendship is painful to be sure, but it’s the only way to clear space in your life for good relationships, those rare gifts of human life.
Do you need relationship help?
If you need relationship help, contact Clinton Power + Associates for a FREE phone inquiry call to discuss your situation and find out how we can help. Call us now on (02) 8968 9323 or book your free phone consult online.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.