by Andrea M. Darcy
Friends are forever, as the saying goes.
But is it actually a good idea to keep all friends forever? Can you have ‘toxic’ friends? And if so, what should you do next?
Are they really a ‘toxic’ friend?
The internet has led to an era of labelling. Words like ‘toxic’ and ‘narcissist‘ are bandied about far too easily, and real connection is sadly getting lost.
So first things first – yes, some relationships are unhealthy and it’s important to learn the signs of this. But it’s also important to ask good questions, like, is your friend really ‘toxic’? Or are they going through a hard time or a big life change that means they are not themselves? Is it possible you are actually bored with them, and creating this ‘toxic’ drama to avoid admitting to it?
Signs of an unhealthy relationship
The signs that a relationship isn’t a real friendship but an unhealthy alliance are the same as if you have an unhealthy relationship with a family member or with a romantic partner or colleague.
They can include the following:
It can pay to take a moment to consider how you ended up ‘friends’ in the first place. Did you slowly get to know each other and realise you shared mutual values or positive hobbies and interests? Or did you quickly unite over something negative and unsupportive, such as a love of drinking or both hating your boss?
[Read our comprehensive and free Guide to Relationships for more on the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship.]
When is it time to just walk away from someone?
Abuse in it’s various forms – physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse and financial abuse – are all valid reasons to make a clean cut.
If a friend hits you, even as an apparent ‘joke’ or if they later claim it won’t happen again, they need help and you need to take care of yourself.
Verbal and emotional abuse can be trickier. When to draw the line? With verbal abuse, be sure you do not have a real problem with overreacting and actually push people into criticising you. This can be a habit if you grew up with a critical parent.
With emotional abuse, learn the signs. Read our article on “Things You Say to Hide Emotional Abuse” for more information.
Financial abuse happens when someone steals from you or manipulates you for money. It can happen slowly over time and it can feel confusing. Talk to someone you trust if you need support.
How should you approach friendships that have started to feel strained?
Cutting someone out just because you no longer feel connected to them is neither fair nor wise.
It means you have missed an opportunity to learn about yourself, practise adult communication, and set boundaries. And you’ll probably walk right into a similar relationship until you finally learn these things.
So stop pretending things are fine, and try to deal with the situation with as much honesty and communication as possible.
Find a private moment and have a talk, making sure to keep your language blame free. Merely share your observations (preferably backed up with facts) and how you feel. Be open to the fact that you could be wrong – you might not have the whole story about what the other person is going through that is affecting their behaviour, for example.
What NOT to do when leaving a friendship behind
It’s also important to look at what NOT to do when trying to put a friendship to rest.
- do not bring other people into the discussion (it’s between you and them)
- do not gossip behind his or her back instead of talking to them directly
- do not approach them publicly or bring along other people
- do not assume it’s all their fault, either – relationships consist of two people.
Be honest with yourself and take responsibility for any way you might be contributing to the strain. What expectations do you have of the other person, for starters? Are these expectations fair? And how did this relationship begin? Did you, for example, meet them at university when you were lonely and they seemed exciting, choosing to overlook their unreliability that they did not hide but you now call ‘toxic’?
So it’s okay to move on from friendships, then?
We all grow and change throughout our lives, and it’s neither realistic nor healthy to expect to stay friends with everyone. If you no longer share interests or a mindset with someone, it’s okay to be honest with yourself and them that your friendship was great but has had its time.
What might be the sign that something isn’t okay, however, is if you constantly find you are ‘breaking up’ with friends. If you can’t stop throwing yourself into intense and damaging friendships you then feel a need to escape, do consider seeing a counsellor.
It might be that your childhood has left you unable to differentiate between what trust is and isn’t, suffering a fear of intimacy, or with low self-esteem that leads to destructive choices. A counsellor can help you get to the root of the pattern and change it. It could also be that you suffer from borderline personality disorder, a highly treatable condition.
Harley Therapy connects you with some of London’s top self-esteem counsellors who can help you form healthier relationships in the future.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and personal development teacher. She often writes about trauma and relationships. Follow her on Instagram for useful life advice @am_darcy