Friend, Foe, or Frenemy? How To Recognize A Toxic Friendship

4 min
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What does a healthy friendship look like to you? Like most other types of relationships, a real, genuine, and good friendship should involve mutual respect and trust. It should involve open communication, and be one where you feel accepted, seen, and heard; where your boundaries are acknowledged and respected (and theirs are in kind). Perhaps it’s a positive influence on your life, wherein you feel supported in your endeavors and reaching your dreams and aspirations. What doesn’t belong in them is conditional or one-sided care, gaslighting, jealousy, and one-upmanship. On a less dramatic level, a healthy friendship should also not involve an unequal amount of effort being put into making the relationship work.

Toxic friendships exist on a spectrum. Sometimes, there are unhealthy toxic traits or habits within an otherwise good friendship; and other times, the friendships aren't really friendships at all. Toxic friendships can really weigh on a person and even cause emotional distress and angst. No one deserves to be stuck in a bad relationship ー and that rings true for our friendships, as much as it does for our other relationships. Here are some red flags that can make you think twice about whether someone is truly a friend or not, and what you can do about it.

They only get in touch when they want something

A healthy friendship is a relationship of give and take. But if you feel like you are always the one reaching out for a catch-up, or to see how your friend is doing, it may be time to re-evaluate. Perhaps you have noticed that they only message or call you when they want something from you. It’s not like you need to keep score, but the key factor in mutual respect and care is that it is indeed a two-way street. If you are always the one who is giving, without ever receiving much in return, this can make you feel like you are being used, under-valued, and unappreciated. If you’re not sure where you stand, you can rebalance yourself by giving this person exactly what they give you. Do less, or even better, do nothing, and see what happens.

They put you down

One big red flag that you are in a toxic friendship is when your so-called friend makes fun of you on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean a sense of humor or making space for light-hearted teasing ー when teasing is done in a loving way, or makes a person the focus of an inside joke that is not hurtful to them, this can be seen as prosocial behavior that can actually help strengthen bonds. However, when the teasing has taken a darker turn, and has essentially become a subtle form of bullying, the behavior must be put to a stop. The difference is when the comments make you feel badly about yourself and affect your self-esteem, and the “friend” in question carries on, despite you having communicated this to them, perhaps even repeatedly. After all, a true friend should have your back and elevate you, not make you feel like you are less than worthy. In fact, studies have shown that having a great circle of friends is good for our health and well-being ー it can even boost the immune system and help us live longer. If you find yourself in a friendship where there is more stress than love, this is something that needs to be addressed ー at the very least for your own peace of mind, even if you don't plan on staying friends. If you are attempting to resolve the behavior before giving up on the friendship, try to use positive communication tactics when speaking with your friend about the issue. For example, try saying, "When you say this to me, I feel this way", as opposed to, “You make me feel this way when you do this,” since the latter could be construed as more aggressive and playing the blame game. Expressing how you really feel should not ruin a genuine connection, and sometimes, people are only able to see how their actions are affecting you once you tell them.

They don't respect you or your boundaries

Boundaries can be difficult to navigate, since they are very personal to each of us. But some of them are more universal indicators of an imbalance of that all-important mutual respect. For example, if your friend is always late, this can show a lack of respect for your time, since it may imply that their time is more valuable than yours. If they consistently fail to show up at social gatherings (whether these are only with you or a group of friends) or cancel last minute, perhaps this is a sign that they don’t actually enjoy spending time with you or your group. Consistently-crossed boundaries beg the question, "Is this something you're willing to put up with"? While it is important to accept our friends for who they are ー that means with their qualities and their flaws alike ー some character flaws can simply be too much to look past, particularly if they make your relationship an incompatible one. If you feel like your friend is constantly treading on your boundaries or crossing them, consider speaking to them about how that makes you feel. Make it clear that staying friends will be difficult if they continue to do so. Depending on how important this friendship is to you, you could also choose to distance yourself for a while, or let the friendship naturally fade out if need be. 

Much like relationships, friendships involve a lot of emotions ー many of which can get messy. Even if you want to be a good friend, you can’t always be sure if the other person also wants to be a good friend to you too ー or they may have a very different definition of friendship to yours. Although not all friends will exist on the same level ー some of them will be closer to you than others, while some may only be with you for a certain season or chapter of your lifeー when a friendship is starting to make you question your own self-worth or self-esteem, or if it’s starting to cause you psychological distress, then it may be time to take a closer look at whether it’s a relationship worth continuing. If you do decide to call it quits, that doesn’t make you a bad person: it simply means that you’re putting yourself first. Paying attention to the signs, listening to your gut, and making a conscious choice about the way you interact with the people in your life is a great place to start in deciding whether a friendship is healthy or toxic, and in the case of the latter, whether it’s one that’s worth trying to save or in need of a break-up.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Friendship Importance Around The World; Recognizing Toxic Friendships; Influences Of Friends And Friendships: Myths, Truths, And Research Recommendations; Social Relations And Life Satisfaction: The Role Of Friends; Friendship Importance Around The World: Links To Cultural Factors, Health, And Well-Being; What Is A Good Friend: A Qualitative Analysis Of Desired Friendship Qualities.

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