The psychologist Dr. Irene Levine has written of the “social stigma” associated with ending a friendship. Whereas it is accepted that romantic relationships often fail and that lovers separate, even after decades together, there is a widespread sense that friendship should be forever. Indeed, so common is this view that many people will endure friendships that can only be described as toxic.
The Nature of Toxic Friendships
So what makes a friendship toxic? First, a distinction needs to be made between toxic friends and friends who merely irritate or annoy you. A toxic friend is often an enemy in disguise – whether deliberately so or not. And this is far more common than many people acknowledge. Take a moment to consider this: how many of your friends sincerely care about you and genuinely want you to be happy and successful? Be honest! How many of them do you suspect would like to see you fail in your promotion or marriage?
For the sake of convenience, toxic friends could be divided into two sorts: the spiteful and the depressing. The first are the most toxic of all. Usually, such people will keep their nastiness hidden behind smiles and kisses. In essence, they want what is worst for you. You are a competitor, and your success is their failure. People derive a great deal of their self-esteem from how they compare with others. Unfortunately, some take this to an extreme and see everyone, especially their friends, as rivals; your success diminishes them and makes them feel worse about themselves. So what do they want? Obviously, they want you to fail. And the most toxic friend not only wants you to fail but tries to bring it about: discouraging you from taking new career opportunities and sowing seeds of doubt about a new partner or a new home (especially if these look promising).
The second kind of toxic friend can be harder to deal with. These are the people who drag you down. Maybe they are pessimistic, miserable, or depressing, always moaning about aches and pains, focussing obsessively on dark subjects, and so on. Others of this type will get you down for different reasons. They may not be depressed, or even say or do depressing things, but because of their personality and lifestyle you always feel worse for having visited them. For example, you may be a dreamy introvert whose college friend has become a greedy, ruthless businessman. His conversation now consists entirely of boasting about deals and how he outwitted or cheated a rival. And the more time you spend with him, the more lonely you feel.
Before turning to signs to look out for, it is worth pausing to ask why people maintain these toxic friendships, often over a lifetime. Some will remember a friend’s birthday, buy her Christmas presents, invite her to parties, meet her for coffee and all the time utterly loathe her. First, and perhaps most obviously, people do so because they fear being alone. Many would rather put up with spiteful, boring, depressing friends than have no one at all. This is a mistake, however. In fact, you are likely to feel more, not less, lonely in the company of such people and may be surprised by the tremendous sense of relief or release if the friendship ends. Some keep up these friendships out of habit, others do so because they fear losing a mutual friend in the process. Many are scared of the anger and recriminations that will be sure to follow. Then of course there are those who do not recognize a toxic friendship in the first place – or, more commonly, do recognize it, but refuse to face it.
Of course, most of your friends will have faults. Maybe John is too serious or takes things too literally; Sarah may be bit too shallow and vacuous; and Tom may talk obsessively about horror movies, Led Zeppelin, or Manchester United. Most people have faults, from irritability to drunkenness. That does not make them a toxic friend, however, not if they also have a good heart and do their best to cheer you up, to celebrate the good times and comfort you through the bad.
Signs You May Be in a Toxic Friendship
Make a list of all your friends. Next, consider this: how do you usually feel when you have spent a few hours in their company? Do you leave feeling better or worse? Some people will literally sit in their car and sob after an evening out with a particular friend, not just once but almost every time they meet. A sure sign is the sense of relief you feel when you drive away from their apartment. Or maybe you come away feeling bored, irritated, or depressed. Some people are quite ingenious at undermining others and will do so in such subtle ways that no one even notices. Maybe you often come away from coffee with one friend feeling deflated, unsure, and even scared and yet have no idea why.
Or consider the way you feel about an imminent get together. Do you approach it with the thought “let’s just get it over with”? Do you always knock at the door thinking “oh God, I hope she is not in one of her moods?” Do you enjoy their company? You may find this question difficult to answer. Probably, you will pause and say “well, er, sometimes.” Toxic friends are usually conscious when they have gone too far and will be just kind or just amusing enough to persuade you that you do want them in your life – or will create enough confusion to make you wonder if you are the one with the problem.
Toxic friends also tend to be users. They may barely recognize you as a separate individual, with your own worries, problems, insecurities, hopes etc, and instead treat you as little more than a therapist crossed with a punching bag. Others use their friends as an audience, there to hear about triumphs and successes and to boost up their ego (often by putting them down).
How to End a Toxic Friendship
First, you must accept that you cannot change this person. They are what they are. In all probability they do not believe there is anything wrong with their behavior and see no reason to change. Stop trying to rationalize or justify the way you feel. Remember, a friendship is not a job! You do not have a duty to be friends with this person. Obviously, if you have a friend who is usually kind and generous-hearted but whose divorce or money worries are making them difficult and unpleasant, that is different. You know that this is not your real friend, and in cases like that it would be dishonorable to abandon them.
Next, you must choose your method. Essentially, you can either go for the sharp, sudden break, or for what might be called the ‘fade out’. In the sharp break, you confront your friend, maybe face-to-face, maybe by text, letter, or email. Try not to be too accusatory (the last thing you want is a feud). Instead, focus on how you feel. So, for example, if you have a toxic friend who continually snaps at you, don’t say “I think we should stop meeting for coffee. I am sick of how angry, aggressive and rude you have become.” Do that and the other person will grow angry and defensive. Instead, say “I come away feeling as if I am the bad guy and that I’ve done something wrong.”
In general, it is better to allow the friendship to die a natural death. This is obviously much harder if you have known the individual for years, if you have mutual friends, or if you live in the same street. If it is an option, however, the process is very simple. Don’t just block them on social media or refuse to answer the phone. Simply be distant and vague. Make excuses, tell them you are busy etc and gradually you will fade from their life. With any luck they will quickly replace you with someone else.
Do not underestimate the impact a toxic friend can have. At their worst, such people can wreck your self-esteem and even trigger mental illness. Friendship is tremendously important for a happy, healthy life, but it needs to be based on affection and mutual understanding. It is absurd to be loyal to old friends at the expense of new ones. Do not make the mistake of assuming that the longer you have known someone the deeper the bond will be. This is nonsense. If someone doesn’t ‘get’ you, if the two of you just don’t click, then no amount of time or effort will change this. But the opposite is also true. You can meet someone with whom you share a great deal in common and find that within a few months you are inseparable. Never forget, all the time you waste on toxic friendships could be spent finding something better.