How To Know If You’re In A Toxic Friendship—And What To Do About It

Friends are bound to have quirks, but when their behavior proves to be an exceedingly negative force in your life, it's time to reexamine the friendship.

June 22, 2018
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In high school, Michelle (whose name was changed for privacy) was incredibly close to her group of friends. They rented a summer beach house together, went as a group to prom, and counted on each other for emotional support during times of stress.

The friends drifted apart during college, and when Michelle moved away to take a job after graduation, things got worse between them. Michelle’s mom was sick with multiple sclerosis, but her friends didn’t ask how she was doing or offer support. They refused to be flexible with their plans and didn’t keep in touch. Michelle learned they had been talking about her behind her back. And then things came to an ugly head.

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“During a visit home, at a bar, one of my so-called friends confronted me, criticizing me for something trivial like failing to wish her happy graduation,” Michelle recalls. “More hurtfully, she criticized my choice to live and work far away from my ill mother. …Such criticism in a public place really stung.”

Michelle realized that someone she had long considered a close friend was, in fact, a toxic presence in her life. She made the difficult choice to cut that person out of her life for the sake of her own mental well-being.

It can be hard to recognize when your friend is exhibiting toxic behaviors, and it can be harder to figure out whether those toxic behaviors are just bad habits or signs that this person may not truly be your friend. You may have a long history of friendship with a person, which can make it difficult to objectively evaluate the relationship. And they likely aren’t terrible all the time—otherwise, you wouldn’t be friends!

But the truth is that successful friendships shouldn’t negatively affect your well-being. Sometimes a friendship doesn’t last, and that can be hard to accept. If you often feel upset or stressed after spending time with a friend, it may be worth evaluating their behavior.

“It is very important to define the lines that others may not cross.”

—Fran Walfish, PsyD

Here are seven toxic friendship behaviors that could be causing issues:

1. They embarrass or belittle you constantly.

“Many of my clients in toxic friendships will describe feeling small and unimportant when they are with their friend,” says Maureen Maher-Bridge, a licensed social worker at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Harding Hospital.

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“They will tell me that they frequently feel criticized and demeaned and end up doubting themselves,” she adds. “They feel less confident and often blame themselves for feeling this way. A healthy friendship can offer honest, constructive criticism. A toxic friendship is critical without empathy or an understanding of how their criticism might make the other feel.”

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Vartika, who is based in India and works in social media, remembers a friend who did this to her.

“One day we got into a fight over something silly, and I was about to let go,” she says. “But then, she decided to insult me by blaming my mental illness. She said this disease had gotten into my head, making me hallucinate things and go berserk.”

2. They are controlling or possessive of you.

Alaina Leary, an editor from Boston, had a high school friend, Ellie (whose name has been changed), who she describes as “extremely possessive.”

“When I started college,” Leary says, “she became very jealous of a new girl I befriended, Christine (whose name has also been changed). Christine quickly became my best friend and the person I trusted most because she’s a genuinely empathetic and caring person. [She] was really jealous of that and would often bring up how much she hated Christine—for no reason, having never met her—in front of all our old high school friends at sleepovers and parties when we were all back in town from college.”

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While a certain level of jealousy is inevitable in friendships, one friend trying to prevent the other from forming other relationships enters the realm of possessiveness and fosters a dangerous codependency.

3. They make your private business public.

That could mean they share your secrets with other people or gossip about you behind your back. It could also mean they confront you in public about private concerns—like Michelle’s so-called friend did.

Michelle said that having her private life discussed in a public place, in front of other people, was particularly hurtful.

In an article for Psychology Today, counselor Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, wrote that some friends simply don’t understand the potential consequences of letting your secrets spill: “… if you find out that a friend is broadcasting your secrets, take control of where the friendship goes: Edit what you share. Edit the time you spend together. And edit your expectations.”

4. They compete with you over everything.

Maybe for every story you tell, they have a similar story or experience to share. Maybe they simply can’t stand losing to you at board games, beach games, trivia, or other fun activities. Maybe they compete with you professionally, hit on your romantic interests, or run out and buy a new dress every time you do. If you feel like you can’t do anything without your friend turning it into a competition, it’s likely worth discussing with them.

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Generally, people who are competitive about their houses, kids, dinner parties, and so on are either insecure or arrogant and want to prove superiority,” wrote Melanie Greenberg, PhD, in an article for Psychology Today.

“Ellie was very toxic about anything she was jealous about, like her friends’ success in college and their chosen careers,” Leary recalls.

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If you feel a little like Leary, Greenberg suggested a few ways to react: “Try to figure out why this person is being competitive and what their needs and goals are. Also, see if there are any common goals that you can use to get them to work with you, rather than against you.”

5. They pressure you into doing things you’d rather not do.

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Maybe they talk you into ordering another round of drinks when you’d rather switch to water, spending more money on an activity or meal than your budget allows for, or insisting you stay somewhere when you’re ready to leave. They may also pressure you into making potentially dangerous decisions.

“If you’re constantly worried that you might do or say something to set them off, [then the] relationship’s probably not healthy.”

—Emily Mendez

Emily Mendez, a mental health writer and former private practice psychotherapist, says you should ask yourself: Does your friend make you feel guilty for saying no?

“Maybe they accuse you of not caring just because you say no,” she says. “If you’re constantly worried that you might do or say something to set them off, [then the] relationship’s probably not healthy.”

6. They aren’t respectful of your boundaries.

Maybe she asks questions about things you’ve said you don’t want to discuss (like a fraught family relationship) or continues to do things you have asked her to stop doing (like eating in your car). Once you have clearly communicated your boundaries to someone, there’s no reason for them to repeatedly stomp all over them.

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“You can set boundaries and regain control by using gentle language that drives your point home,” said psychologist Fran Walfish, PsyD, in an interview with MadameNoire. “It is very important to define the lines that others may not cross. It is a quiet strength when someone can do this in a benign, clear, and matter-of-fact tone.”

7. The above issues are persistent problems.

“I will ask my clients to consider… whether these problematic behaviors in the friendship are ‘new,’ or if this is a pattern of unhealthy behavior,” says Maher-Bridge. “If the behavior is new, perhaps there is a reason why the friend is behaving in this way. Maybe they are going through a difficult time and are having trouble coping; ask yourself, are there other redeeming qualities about the friendship that I respect and value? Is the friendship one that allows you to talk about your concerns openly and honestly in order to address these issues?“

So is there any way to repair a toxic friendship?

Again, there’s a difference between a friend who is occasionally annoying and a friend who is a toxic presence in your life. In many cases, it’s totally possible to talk to your friend about their behavior and repair the relationship moving forward.

“We need to trust our intuitions and not disregard red flags. Weigh: How do I feel after spending time with this person?”

—Jessica Zucker, PhD

“It depends how severe the situation is, how uncomfortable you feel, and what you think the other person is capable of,” says clinical psychologist Jessica Zucker, PhD. “Ideally, you could attempt to have healthy, clear conversation in a non-threatening, non-defensive, and loving way. Is there any way to talk this through simply? Trying to have a straightforward conversation and seeing if there is room for growth, change, or understanding might be a good first step.”

If you are nervous about talking face-to-face, Zucker suggests writing a letter. “This gives you a chance to have an uninterrupted forum to express yourself and your point of view, with the opportunity to say what you want without getting into a sticky argument.”

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An ideal way to approach this is by stating the facts. In an email to HealthyWay, psychologist Holly Richmond, PhD, outlines a potential script: “I feel [emotion] (fill in the blank with sad, mad, frustrated, etc.) when you do/say [bad behavior]. I’m curious if you realize this, and maybe you can help me understand. We’re friends, and I know we don’t want to intentionally hurt each other’s feelings. I want to understand where you’re coming from. Can we talk?”

Zucker says that the next step depends on how your friend reacts. If they are defensive, mean, or angry, that’s not a great sign. Another red flag is when someone can’t or won’t recognize the hurt their behavior has caused you.

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If you do decide to move away from the friendship, Zucker recommends taking small steps. Maybe you interact with that person less through texting or calling, or maybe you stop following them on social media if their posts stress you out. After some time apart, you can evaluate how you feel without that person in your life. If you are sure you don’t want to maintain this friendship any longer, you can tell the person why—but you aren’t obligated to.

It’s easy to feel guilty about confronting someone for their behavior or even cutting them out of your life, but sometimes it’s the right choice to make for your own well-being.

It’s important that you have supportive, loving friends in your life—there’s plenty of research showing how friendships can improve your mental and physical health. No one is perfect, and we will all make mistakes. But the people you surround yourself with should be positive forces in your life.

“We need to trust our intuitions and not disregard red flags,” Zucker says. “Weigh: How do I feel after spending time with this person?”

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