The Case For Dumping Toxic Friends

Adapted from flickr/eek the cat
Having better friends drastically changed how I see myself — and how I see other people.

I f we’d been dating, the other people in my life would have no doubt been relentless in trying to break us up. But we were friends, and breaking up with a friend is almost unheard of — as though our friends implicitly have better track records with treating us well than our significant others.

“I dunno; we’ve been friends for a long time,” is a fairly typical response if you dare ask someone over 25 why they’re friends with their bestie. Or you’ll get a list of times that person was there when needed — even if none of those examples are recent. Or maybe it’s because two people or a group grew up together; shared history is a strong bond, like having your memories alive to spend time with.

We keep destructive people in our lives for the common, yet ludicrous, reason that they are in our lives. Until we face a fork in the road where remaining friends with someone becomes an active decision rather than a passive one, most of us just allow toxic friends to hang around simply because there’s no protocol in our culture for cutting them out. We aren’t necessarily keeping them around despite their effect on us; often, because they’ve been around for so long, we don’t even realize the effect that those people are having on us.

Well, I’m over it.

Thanks to my former best friend of 10 years and a chance encounter right after we parted ways, I now make affirmative choices about who I spend time with — and my life has been far richer on every level.

In the spring of 2011, I had come to a decision: Dating was a waste of time. I’d just been ghosted by one of my closest friend’s closest friends after a couple dates, and I realized how much time I was wasting. Despite my craptastic track record (see: #ItsTotallyMe), I was fairly optimistic about at least being treated like a person for a change.

When it turned out that having dozens of friends in common made zero difference, I was over it. Dating felt like the lottery: sure, you only spent a dollar each time, but if you played every day, that money adds up over a lifetime. I didn’t want to wake up in 10 years wishing I’d done something more valuable with my very scarce free time.

I was working two jobs, as per usual, and had just devoted most of the previous six months to helping plan my best friend’s wedding — a maid of honor gig that had me flying from Chicago to Phoenix for a bachelorette party and driving all over Indiana to throw wedding showers (yes, showers plural), shop for dresses, and help work out tricky logistics for her Amish family members. I was exhausted and had run up quite the credit card bill. (OK, three credit card bills.)

Dating felt like the lottery.

As I was coming to this rather dispassionate dating decision, I wanted to share it with said best friend. Of course I did. We’d told each other everything for 10 years; she’d known me since my freshman year of college and even knew my friends from home. Surely someone who had been there for all the failures and all the tumbleweeds in my dating history would get this rather fact-based cost-benefit analysis.

I texted her to see if she was done with her overnight nursing shift. She was, but couldn’t talk on the phone: texting it was.

“So, that guy vanished. I’m kind of exhausted and feel like I’m wasting my time. I think I’m just done dating.”

I was hardly freaking out or even angry. I wasn’t crying or asking for advice. I was really just sharing a decision with my best friend the same way you’d share that you’re changing jobs or moving.

“Oh, no! Don’t do that! You just haven’t met the one yet!”

Her recent decision to “return to the church” and subsequent pivot to the more “traditional” had apparently washed away her working memory of my dating history, which included zero empirical evidence that “the one” — or, frankly anyone — was on the way.

I continued to give her the benefit of the doubt. She responded with unhelpful exuberance.

“Katie, you can’t just give up!”

The more she sounded like every unsolicited romantic advice-giver over the years, the more I wondered if she’d been paying any attention at any point during our friendship. And then I realized she was the entirely wrong person to talk to about a dating hiatus. She’d spent the four to six month breaks between relationships auditioning for her next relationship, unconcerned when a relationship ended as another great guy would shortly be on his way.

I wondered if she’d been paying any attention at any point during our friendship.

“Hey, yanno, I’m fine — really. I’m also talking to my cousin right now and you’ve been up working all night, so I know you’re tired. She’s got me; you get some sleep and we’ll talk later.”

She wouldn’t let it go. Four more exchanges — during which I did, actually, become not fine as my “best friend” continued to prove she hadn’t been around much the past several years — and I was in shock. I told her I needed her to stop, that her words hurt. She replied: “You’re emotionally exhausting.”

I never bothered her with my pedestrian problems again.

Without her in my life I suddenly had all this room — room for my inner voice, room for time with other people, room for all the things that persistent toxicity crowds out. I’d realized just two months earlier that my abusive ex wasn’t a friend either, which meant the two relationships I’d put the most time and effort into basically vanished at once.

It only took a few days to feel relief rather than panic, but I wouldn’t fully learn my lesson about priorities until the chance meeting a month later that changed my life.

I’d done something completely out of character: I treated myself to tickets for a show I wanted to see. As I was finishing up the conversation that started during the show’s VIP meet-and-greet over french toast and coffee, part of my brain was distractedly wondering how I’d landed across the table from actor, comedian, and radio host Hal Sparks. We’ve been friends for years now, but I still marvel at how he saw it so quickly.

We were talking about his son and his parents and the passing of time when I offered a short story about the stretch I spent caring for my ex’s sick father — right after he’d broken up with me.

He stopped me mid-sentence with a quizzical look on his face — like he believed me, but had to ask about it because I’d made it sound like no big deal.

“Let me get this straight. Your ex-boyfriend’s father was terminal with cancer, so you moved him in with you?”

“What was I supposed to do, leave him in west Texas to die?”

He couldn’t believe I was still making this into no big deal.

“How many jobs would you say you were working at the time?”

I put up three fingers as I took a swig of coffee.

“Mmmhhmm. Yeah,” he said, nodding an I-told-you-so.

I looked across the table at this person I’d known for an extraordinarily short amount of time and considered that he might have seen something about me that my best friend of 10 years and the ex in question whom I’d just realized wasn’t a friend never noticed. Hal had decided I was worth spending time with because my capacity to give was rare and valuable. I had no idea whether we’d ever have another conversation — let alone that we’d stay friends and even work together, but my priorities had changed forever.

While there are relationships in my life with immeasurably valuable and lengthy history, I no longer prioritize my time or emotional labor based on how long I’ve known someone. Nor do I allow the mere existence of a friendship be the reason I nurture it. Some friendships naturally have more or less contact than others — but that’s different than treating someone poorly, repeated unwillingness to follow through with plans, or never offering emotional care.

What I discovered almost immediately after enacting this shift in priorities was how much energy and time I had for people in my life I’d never really reached out to. I started planning lunches, dinners, drinks, baseball games, and concerts with friends I hadn’t made the effort with before, but realized I wanted to get to know better. Former co-workers I had never moved into to the “Folks I Do Things With” category turned out to be amazing, interesting people! I suddenly found the time to volunteer — trying everything once or twice before finding myself feeling most at home with a group of clinic defense escorts. I was hooked immediately to the hands-on help of providing protection for patients being harassed as they approached reproductive health clinics.

I no longer prioritize my time or emotional labor based on how long I’ve known someone.

As I got together with those who were willing to put plans on a calendar and reciprocate, who asked how I was in addition to updating me on what was new and interesting with them, I began to feel more valued. I got to do more, see more, learn more. Seeking out people with different experiences who I had always thought were good human beings, but had never had room for in my life — a notion that seems pretty ridiculous now — changed how I saw everyone. I even started valuing my time alone more because I looked at it as spending time with myself, a person who was worth being around.

Having better friends drastically changed how I see myself and how I see other people. It was that change along with suddenly being surrounded by more support and love that allowed me to start writing again. New friends gave me the space to explore what I wasn’t happy with and what I wanted out of life without being gaslighted or told to “calm down” the way those who can’t be comfortable listening to someone in distress will automatically react. I realized I trusted their feedback and support more because they were choosing to have me in their lives the same was I was choosing them. I started looking for old notebooks and realized I hadn’t written anything at all in ten years. It took six months to heal from that realization, but I sat down and created my blog thanks to the encouragement of new friends.

Establishing better criteria for who I spend time with has affected every part of my life.

When I tell people I ended a best friendship or use the phrase “former” to describe her, people look shocked. I often ask why that’s so different from ending unhealthy romantic relationships; why should the criteria be any different? From my experience, breaking up with shitty friends shouldn’t be so unthinkable; it should be a pivotal part of valuing ourselves.