Five signs you’re in a toxic friendship
Grab your phone and read the last five messages from your friends…
By Katy Ward
Grab your phone and read the last five messages from your friends. Are they full of support and encouragement? Perhaps you’re making plans that you’ll definitely keep, or sharing a private joke. Great.
It’s not always the case. Although I have a tiny circle of close companions, I’ve also found myself trapped in several unhealthy friendships over the years, which were characterised by petty jealousies and decades-old grievances.
But why do we allow ourselves to stay trapped in these destructive cycles?
‘It could be that you can’t let go because you feel that you’ve put so much into the friendship in the past that it’d be a waste of all those years to let go now,’ says Gill Hasson, author of How To Deal With Difficult People: Smart Tactics for Overcoming the Problem People in Your Life. ‘But whether they were your friends for a month, a year or even half a lifetime, they’re not now.’
And the potential for rifts has only intensified thanks to recent global events. ‘There’s a lot of polarising discussions happening right now regarding personal safety, public health, politics, and the way certain groups have been marginalised and continue to be marginalised,’ says Rebecca Graber, senior lecturer in psychology at Brighton University. ‘You might find that you and your friend differ significantly in some ways.’
We speak to a selection of experts to identify the warning signs you could be missing that signal you’re trapped in an unhealthy friendship…
#1 – You’re not yourself
If a person is truly your friend, he or she will accept you for who you are. Or, to use the buzzwords of 2021, if you can bring your authentic self to the relationship. ‘If your mood changes when you’re around your “friend”, it may be time to re-evaluate your relationship’, says Natalie-Claire Luwisha, executive life coach for women in STEM.
Another warning sign could be that you adapt your behaviour to reflect your friend’s preferences. ‘Do you constantly change your mind about what you want to do because of their influence?’ she asks. ‘Do you find yourself speaking and behaving like them in order to fit in or be liked?’
In one of the most worrying scenarios, you may find yourself making life decisions – such as ending a relationship – based on your friend’s preferences. However, it could as subtle as changing the way you dress or not speaking up if you have a difference of opinion.
#2 – Your “friend” doesn’t celebrate your successes
Say you’ve had a great date with someone you met on Bumble – your first instinct is normally to share the news with those closest to you. In an unhealthy friendship, however, you may fear how your friend will react. ‘Whenever you accomplish a goal, you’re not sure if you want to tell them because it feels like a competition between you and them,’ says Natalie-Claire.
Likewise, you may find that your friend is only ever pleased for you in your accomplishments if he or she can go one better. Sure, you had a great date, but her boyfriend is about to propose.
#3 – You only have one friend
We all love the idea of having a bestie: the friend with whom we can share anything… the exasperating mother, the boyfriend who does that slightly peculiar thing in bed.
If you only have one friend, however, it can be an indication of something sinister. Controlling friends may attempt to alienate you from other friends or family. They may ask why you need anyone else. The answer is that well-rounded people have a healthy balance of relationships. Nobody deserves 100% of your attention.
#4 – Your plans constantly change
We all know life gets in the way sometimes; you’ve made dinner plans and have to work late, or the baby isn’t well. If a friend is normally reliable, we make allowances. But it could be time to re-examine your relationship if this happens frequently and with little notice.
‘[A controlling friend] allows you to initiate all the ideas, make all the plans, and be responsible for changing them if they’re not convenient,’ says Gill.
#5 – You question your friend’s motives
Good friends do favours for you from time to time – and that’s fine, if it’s a reciprocal arrangement. If, however, there is an imbalance in your relationship, it could signal that all is not well.
‘Sometimes it’s obvious. Say, a so-called friend takes your money or your partner. Or they’re blatantly using you: an ex-sister-in-law who is only being friends with you as a way of finding out what your brother – her ex-husband – is up to,’ says Gill.
However, things can be more subtle. ‘We’ve all had friends who have gone through difficulties – addiction, relationship break up, bereavement, financial problems. When this happens, it doesn’t mean that you should walk away. But if, over the months and years, you do all the emotional work and they’re never around if you need them, it’s time to pull the plug.’
Just good friends…
Despite the devastating consequences of toxic friendships, it would be unfair to overlook the revitalising effect healthy relationships can have.
‘Communication is the foundation of any relationship, but that’s certainly the case with friendships,’ says Dr Graber. ‘That doesn’t mean that there’s never any conflict, but communication should be generally affirming and show there’s mutual understanding.
‘Another mark of a healthy friendship is a sense of what psychologists might call “alliance”. You know that the other person is in it with you and that they’ve got your back. You always feel that this person is there for you.’
Luckily, there are steps you can take if you’ve fallen out with a friend and would like to make amends:
- Go into difficult encounters recognising you have a long history with this person and would like to remain close.
- Listen constructively to your friend’s position, even if this involves criticism of you.
- Accept that the past 18 months have been difficult for everyone and make allowances.
One final piece of advice?
‘There’s an expectation women’s friendships have to be very emotionally heavy, but just having fun together can be important,’ says Dr Graber. For many of us, this could be a vital message as we begin to reconnect with old friends and forge new relationships in a post-lockdown world.