It happens over time and sneaks up on you. You can’t quite put your finger on it, you just know you feel uneasy after you’ve spent time with a certain friend.
Because you’re so caught up in the relationship, it can be hard to see. And then it starts to feel like an obligation to connect with him or her.
You may be in a toxic friendship and not know it. Or you may be in a toxic friendship and not know what to do. Take a look at this checklist to see if any of these apply to your situation. In the following examples, “her” applies equally to “him.”
- You feel bad or anxious after you spend time with her.
- She never asks what’s going on in your life.
- She has a negative outlook on life.
- She’s quick to interject her opinion or to criticize.
- The friendship is no longer a two-way street.
- You’re walking on eggshells.
- It feels like you’re on an emotional roller coaster.
- She either contacts you incessantly — or doesn’t stay in touch at all.
- You’re so wrapped up in her life that you forget about your own needs.
- It’s all about HER.
Florence Isaacs, the author of “Toxic Friends/True Friends,” defines a toxic friendship as one with no balance.
“One friend’s needs get met while another’s are forgotten,” Isaacs said. “A toxic friend is draining, unsupportive and focuses only on his or her feelings. It’s extremely stressful.”
In a healthy friendship, there are ebbs and flows. One of you may be going through a crisis and need extra attention. The balance tips one way or the other — when it’s always one-sided, though, take note. Toxic friends take a lot from you, but give very little in return.
Great friendships extend life and well-being
A 10-year Australian study showed participants with solid friend groups were 22% more likely to live longer, according to psychologist and author Sharon Livingston, Ph.D., in Psychology Today.
Unfortunately, Livingston said, a bad friend can have the opposite effect, yielding increased vulnerability to all the stress-related body signs: higher blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, lowered immunity, higher blood sugar, depression and anxiety.
Eggshells and roller coasters
At first, you laughed and commiserated together. It was so much fun to be with her. Then, something flipped. Now you feel out of control.
“It started out as an amazing connection, and you felt so bonded,” Livingston said. “But you no longer know what to expect. You always worry she’s going to react negatively or get upset with you. Then something wonderful happens — suddenly you’re flying high again in the friendship. Then, she falls off the radar.”
The emotional toolbox
You didn’t get here overnight, and this isn’t going to be solved overnight. According to organizational expert Marie Kondo, there are only two reasons why we can’t let something go: an attachment to the past or a fear of the future.
Realize that you deserve respect. Think about setting up a conversation to discuss your concerns and set some healthier boundaries. There’s a sample script below. You’ll need to be consistent and not give in, though. If you’ve explained your concerns, and your boundaries keep being violated, that’s a red flag.
Where’s the exit?
It may be time to “reboot” the friendship. The longer you put up with your friend’s poor treatment of you, the more you can become defensive, cynical and irritable, observes psychology author Michelle Liew.
The pandemic has given us more time to look at our lives. And, since many of our activities have been curtailed, you have an opportunity to decide how you want to re-enter this friendship — or not.
Look in the mirror
Take a look at the checklist to see if any of these traits apply to you. Do you always rush in with what’s happening in your life? If a friend shares a health concern, do you jump in with, “I’ve had the same thing.” If so, you could be inadvertently discounting what the other person is saying by bringing the subject back to you.
Take time to listen. You may want to share your experience later. Don’t go there immediately, though. Make sure your friend feels heard.
A helpful script
Psychotherapist Jared Green advises it’s possible to end a friendship with integrity. He’s developed a template that may be helpful in taking responsibility and jump-starting a conversation, and I’ve added my insights.
Start by appreciating your friend, explains Green. Go back to the beginning of your relationship. This part goes something like this: “When we first met, and for many years, I felt free/easy/joyous/seen/heard in our friendship.”
Chances are, you haven’t been truthful about what’s going on for you, says Green, so start with an apology. “I need to apologize for not bringing this up sooner. I just haven’t felt this way in our friendship for a long time.”
Then share how you feel now. “These days, when we’re together, I don’t feel able to be myself. I feel trapped, and I can’t express what really matters to me.”
Finally, declare a new possibility.
“Although the friendship we once had will always be very important to me, it’s not going to work for me to continue connecting on a regular basis. I’ve heard that friendships happen for a reason, season or a lifetime. Maybe our reason or season has passed. Things change, and people change.
“I hope you’ll take this in the spirit in which it’s intended. You may be feeling some of these things as well, and it’s not healthy to ignore the elephant in the room, right? Could we agree to move on ... respecting one another? What are your thoughts?”
Be ready for pushback. You can’t control how your friend will react. He or she may plead to keep the friendship intact. That’s the time to bring up your boundaries and decide if you want to give it one more chance, with accountability.
Your friend may get upset and lash out, wanting to have the last word. That’s OK, and it could be a blessing in disguise.
No matter who ends the friendship, you’re doing each other an enormous service if it has turned toxic.
The important thing is that you act with integrity and remain authentic to your values, even if it’s painful all around. And I’ll close with one of my favorite sayings.
“Never cut what you can untie.”