8 signs of a toxic friendship
We hear and read about heartbreak everywhere – in songs, movies, plays, novels - but we hardly ever hear about the end of a friendship. Yet, losing a close, long-term friend can be as painful as losing a romantic partner.
There seems to be an element of shame and stigma at play. Perhaps it's the fear of being branded as immature for placing too much importance on the relationship. Or, worse, as incapable of sustaining meaningful friendships. This feeling of shame can be experienced at any stage of life, but particularly when you lack a solid sense of self-identity and are therefore more susceptible to what others might think of you.
Friendships, however, end much more frequently than we think. A sociologist from Utrecht University asked 604 adults about their friendships, and when he returned to interview the same people seven years later, he found that only 30% of their close friends were still close and most of the subjects had replaced half of their friends.
Another study found that both men and women have more friends until the age of 25, from which point the numbers start falling quite rapidly and continue to fall decade after decade. While some other research shows that 12.5% of adults have no close friends at all.
Getting married and having kids seem to be determining factors in pushing friendship down the list of priorities. But even when childless and single, work can end up taking over your life and cause friendships to suffer.
Of course, you can’t possibly stay in touch with all the people you have socialised with in life; but why do close, long-term friendships come to an end?
Frankly, for similar reasons as to why romantic relationships also end: people grow apart. One person might grow and develop, while the other one remains stuck in old thought and behavioural patterns. What probably started off as a great connection gradually turns stagnant, if not oppressive, until one or both parties decide it’s time to move on.
A major difference is that with friends, the breakup is much easier from a practical point of view. Unless there is some kind of business partnership in place, no lawyers need to be involved in order to get disentangled.
Another important difference is that you don’t usually have sex with your friends - although, admittedly, many married and cohabiting couples stop having sex long before breaking up.
In any case, most friendships aren’t as passionate as romantic relationships and, consequently, their closure is rarely as clear-cut. Friendships, in fact, are often ended without any confrontation or even explanation, which can hinder the healing process.
At times it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes you decide to cut someone out of your life. It is often a buildup of factors and the signs tend to be there quite early on. But for one reason or another, consciously or unconsciously, you choose to turn a blind eye to them.
So what are the signs that a friendship has become toxic?
- You don’t feel 'seen' or ‘heard’ by the other person. When you talk, they don’t really listen to you.
- Your friend shows little or no interest in your work and your life outside and beyond the friendship.
- They’re not there for you when you need them most; they can’t offer you any moral support in moments of vulnerability.
- They are far more critical with you than they are nurturing and seem incapable of expressing any affection or gratitude.
- You stop sharing with them your ideas or plans for the future because you know they'll try to discourage you.
- You worry that anything you say or do could be taken the wrong way and they might get upset with you.
- They’re very good at blaming you but can never own their mistakes, let alone apologise for them.
- You feel bullied. Healthy conflict and confrontation are necessary for the growth of any relationship - being attacked and intimidated, however, isn’t.
While having close friends is proven to be directly linked to better health and a longer life, toxic friends can make you depressed, anxious and downright ill.
Just like dysfunctional marriages often last longer than they should, unhealthy friendships can also drag on unnecessarily. This can happen for a number of reasons; familiarity, concern for the other person, fear of loneliness, a sense of loyalty or simply fear of letting go. You’ve known each other for a long time and shared many experiences together, so letting go can feel like leaving behind a chunk of your life.
If you are suffering due to the end of a close friendship, one way of dealing with the pain is to talk about it with a neutral person and ultimately accept that nobody is to blame and that nothing in life is permanent. Everything changes, including us. Therefore our relationships need to evolve, too.
Sometimes it is possible to restore a damaged friendship through honest conversation, but at other times you may just need to walk away for good, and the relief will be greater than the pain. You will gain freedom from the negativity, as well as time and energy to cultivate other, healthier friendships.
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About Nico De Napoli
Nico is an accredited life coach specialising in existential, mindfulness and somatic coaching. He has over a decade of experience in mind-body coaching and stress management.