How to Recognize a Toxic Friendship

Most of the time when we talk about the health of relationships, we focus on family or romantic bonds. But, friendships serve an important role in our lives, hopefully for the better. But, sometimes you have to deal with a toxic friendship and it can have a negative impact on your mental health.

Friendly relationships are subject to the same standards of health that these other relationships are, but because we prioritize romantic love, we overlook the ways that friendships can be both helpful and hurtful.

Many people wonder if friendships can be abusive or problematic (absolutely they can!). But it can be hard to discern if a friendship is toxic. While the following standards are true for all kinds of relationships, these warning signs are common indicators that you are in a toxic friendship.

You Always Feel Drained (or Bad) After Hanging Out

This can be a tricky one to figure out, especially for introverts who often feel worn out by social interaction (yes, introverts feel drained even from time with close friends). But if you find yourself chronically feeling down or frustrated after spending time with your friend then it might be a toxic friendship.

All relationships have to have an element of reciprocity. That is not to say that all relationships are transactional (that’s a post for another day) however healthy relationships require you to both give AND receive. This may not be in the same amounts or in the same way, however this exchange of energy, love and care is a requirement for a healthy friendship. If you don’t often feel this way with a friend then it could mean that you’re not having your needs met by the friendship (and the friendship could be harming you). You might be caught up in a dynamic that’s become inequitable, unsustainable and toxic over time.

They Don’t Support Your Goals (Or Vice Versa)

If you have a friend that always seems like a “Debbie Downer” when you talk about your hopes, dreams and goals then it’s likely that the friendship is toxic. Healthy friendships are based on based on mutual desire to see the other succeed in all areas of life, even if one of you isn’t quite where they want to be.

Former friends don’t have to turn into enemies.

While we all may experience jealousy or envy from time to time (after all, these are normal emotions) if unchecked, they can wreak havoc in a friendship. If you are single and find yourself hating your friend’s partner (who is otherwise good to your friend) it might be time to spend some quality time with yourself to heal personal wounds that may be negatively impacting your friendship. If your friend makes a commitment to run an ultra-marathon (which you could never fathom doing) and you can’t seem to support or feel positively about it, ask yourself what really is bothering you about their goal. Instead of acting out based on your emotions, spend some time reflecting and try to proactively address what’s coming up for you instead of negging your friend or minimizing things in their life they are happy about.

Of course, it’s naive to think that we are going to agree with everything that our friends do. That’s not the point! But, if you’re always looking at their choices negatively then chances are it’s you with the problem, not them.

You See Them Less and Less

One of the tell-tale signs that a friendship has become toxic, or just no longer viable, is if you notice you’re spending less and less time together. If you find that you see your friend less over time, it could be an indicator that the relationship has eroded.

Frustration, disappointment and resentment build up slowly over time causing a small rift to develop into a deep chasm. Of course, circumstances can create barriers to connecting or spending time with your friends and that’s OK. All relationships come with their ups and downs. But when that distance is coupled with negative feelings like resentment, jealousy, anger, etc. then it’s likely that there’s more to the story.

As a therapist, I believe that almost all relationship issues can be worked on. If you find yourself in a toxic friendship, take some time to do a bit of self-exploration. Consider how you got there and how each of the parties involved might have contributed to the separation. If there is still deep care there, and both parties are open, there may be real hope for reunification. An apology to someone you’ve hurt is a great start to a healing process. It will take some work but true friendship is worth it. 

Related listening: How to Cope with a Friend Break-Up (Viva Podcast)

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