The notion of “toxic” people is popular these days, with most advice leaning toward cutting such people out of your life. In some situations, such as domestic violence, this should be the obvious choice. Friendships are a little different, however. It’s harder to know when you need to set limits.
Just like any other relationship, friendships require give and take. In addition, we have the idea that true friends stick together through thick and thin, so we you put up with foibles for the sake of the relationship. Sometimes, though, friendships are unhealthy.
Warning Signs of a Toxic Friend
It’s tough to know when to stick with a friendship and when to let it die. While we want to be loyal and dedicated to our friends, our mothers’ advice — “a real friend wouldn’t treat you that way” — echoes in our minds when friends do something unkind.
Consider these troubled friendship warning signs to help you decide whether to make a change. Does your friend do any of the following?
Tells lies and breaks promises
Sometimes plans fall through but if your friend makes a habit of dumping you for better options or lies frequently, you might need to reconsider the relationship.
Makes jealous demands
Friends enjoy your company but also want you to do other things you enjoy. A friend who demands your constant attention or is excessively jealous of your other relationships may have boundary problems.
Gossips about you
This is a no-brainer. Friendship is based on trust, so if your friend spills your secrets, there could be a problem.
Discourages healthy choices
Friends shouldn’t get too upset with you over healthy changes (such as skipping an occasional movie night to go to the gym). If they’re unwilling to compromise, they might be more concerned about their needs than yours. This same logic applies if they encourage you to do things that are bad for you.
Always asks, never gives
Friendship is a two-way street, and we all depend on each other. If the demands are too often one-sided in your friend’s favor, it could be a red flag.
Makes you feel bad when you spend time with them
Sometimes you can have a great time with a friend, but then feel down or irritable afterwards. Perhaps the person is a chronic complainer or a gossip. Maybe your friend weighs you down with criticism, unsolicited advice, or makes jokes at your expense. Over time, these habits take a toll on the relationship.
What to Do with a Toxic Friendship
If you’re concerned about a friendship, you don’t necessarily have to end it outright. You might be able to salvage the relationship, just on different terms. Below you’ll find a few suggestions.
Identify your own boundaries
What are you willing to tolerate? Think about what’s wrong with the relationship and what could make it better. Start setting those limits and see if the friendship improves. Of course, it’s best if you can honestly discuss these changes with your friend, but if not, you can see how things play out with some unspoken rules.
Tell them how their demands make you feel
If your friend is overly demanding or unreasonable, speak up. You don’t have to threaten to end the relationship; just let them know what you need. And see if they’re willing to compromise.
Cut back, not out
Even if you feel you’re being taken advantage of by a toxic friend, that awareness is power. If you still find value in the friendship, you can limit the circumstances under which you will interact with this person, without cutting them out completely.
Examine your own patterns
Sometimes we get into unhealthy relationships because we have our own issues to work on. Consider whether you inadvertently encourage people to take advantage of you. Work on being more assertive to prevent repeats of the pattern. In this case, talking with a therapist can help.
Friendships are essential to help us grow and enjoy life. Most friends are important enough to us that we’re willing to overlook their flaws, just as they overlook ours. Some relationships, though, can’t be sustained in a healthy way. If you’re in a toxic friendship, someone who takes advantage of you or doesn’t treat you well, it might be time to put yourself first and set the limits you need.