The S’s and The R’s — Signs of a Toxic Friendship, and What to Do About It
How to recognize and address a toxic friendship, with resources included.
At our absolute base, human beings are a social species. We have evolved to rely on each other for everything from the rearing of our young to our mental and emotional health.
Being without contact has been proven to have serious psychological and even physical repercussions; it can make us more physically and mentally exhausted, reduce our ability to deal well with stress, and increase our risks for heart disease and stroke. Especially now, when we are isolated and dealing with the extreme stress of a global pandemic, our friendships are lifelines and vital sources of support.
But what happens when those relationships start to cause more stress in our lives than they offer respite? What happens when we begin to dread the people that should be our support network?
There is a lot of conversation around toxic relationships when it comes to romantic partners, and while that is incredibly important to be able to recognize and rectify as quickly as possible, it is just as important to be able to recognize a toxic relationship with your platonic friends. These can be just as detrimental to your health overall, and can in some cases just as hard to escape because of tangled social circles.
If you began reading this article because you suspect you might be caught in a toxic friendship and need a way to verify and then address it, read on. Even if it is just idle curiosity, it’s important to be prepared to address the situation if it ever happens to you. If you’re wondering why I’m writing this? I wish I’d known these signs when I needed them.
Here are some of the telltale signs of a toxic friendship, and how to address one once you’ve recognized it. I’ve compiled this list from several reputable sources (linked at the bottom of the post) and separated it into two categories — the S’s and the R’s.
- Lack of support.
Friendship is essentially all about support. A good friend will be able to offer you, at the very least, emotional support when you need it most. This can come in the form of distracting conversation, being someone to vent to when you need to get something off your chest, offering advice on problems they have experience with, or just generally reminding you that you are not alone in the world. You should be able to do the same for them, meaning that you support each other in equal measure.
When there is no support on one end of a friendship, then there is a serious problem with it. If you find yourself constantly offering support to your friend by talking out their problems, bolstering their mood, or listening to them vent, but never being offered the opportunity for the same, the relationship is not balanced. Spotting a lack of support means recognizing that your “friend” makes excuses to turn the conversation back on themselves without addressing your concerns, or even ends conversations abruptly when you reach out for support.
- Lack of sincerity.
Even in the healthiest friendships, mistakes and conflict are bound to happen. There is no perfect friend; people make rash decisions, they act before they think, and they think selfishly. When these things do happen, you and your friend should be able to calmly discuss what happened and how you can fix it, even if you need to take time to do so.
What is not healthy is a “friend” offering an apology that doesn’t acknowledge that they have done anything wrong, or places the blame on you. Saying, “I didn’t realize that what I said would hurt you, I’m sorry” is an apology. Saying, “I’m sorry you took that the wrong way” is not an apology.
The same goes for congratulations and praise. You shouldn’t have to guess about whether your “friend” is sincerely happy that you’re happy, or if you’ve made them jealous.
- Lack of security.
On the topic of jealousy, a healthy friendship should allow for other friends. Having different social circles that you float between is normal and healthy; not everyone has the same interests and not everyone “clicks” well. Your friends don’t have to be friends with each other, and you don’t have to be friends with all of your friends’ friends.
In the same way that a toxic romantic partner will isolate you, a toxic platonic friend will isolate you from your other friends. If you find that your “friend” is upset that you dedicate time to a social circle they aren’t included in, it should indicate to you that they do not feel secure in their attachment to you and that they may feel threatened by your other friends, feeling that they might “steal” your attention.
- Lack of reciprocation.
Similar to the idea of support, a healthy friendship will feel reciprocal. If something good happens to you, you should expect your friend to be excited alongside you. If something bad happens to them, you should be able to offer condolences. You should also expect the reverse of these situations to be true.
If every life event becomes a competition, then the relationship isn’t healthy. If you find yourself having to defend your happiness or console your friend when something good happens to you, it shows that they do not respect your accomplishments. Likewise with bad events, if you find that your “friend” dismisses your pain as “not as bad as theirs” or refuses to talk to you until you “stop bringing them down,” they do not have respect for your emotional health.
Now, this isn’t to say that you have to ignore your own situation for theirs, or that they have to ignore their situation for yours. If they get promoted right as you get dumped, you should both be able to understand that you need different things in that moment without feeling like one is more important or valid than the other. Life is not a competition; if it feels like it is, there’s a problem.
- Lack of respect.
This is a vital, tell-tale sign that something is wrong in your relationship with another person. No one, no matter who they are, has the right to ignore your personal boundaries. Your friends should understand what is and is not acceptable for you, respect that without qualification, and be able to apologize when they accidentally violate one of those boundaries.
Unfortunately, there are people who will not respect boundaries. This can come in a form as simple as calling you after a certain time when you have informed them that you need to be alone or as dangerous as pressuring you to participate in an activity that makes you deeply uncomfortable or unsafe. If you have to repeatedly tell someone that they have crossed a boundary and they do nothing to rectify the situation, this is toxic behavior.
- Lack of responsibility.
A sign of maturity is being able to recognize the effects of your actions and take personal responsibility for them, regardless of intention. In a healthy, mature friendship, if you are hurt by something your friend says or does, whether they meant to hurt you or not, they should be able to apologize and correct their behavior. The same goes for you.
If your “friend” refuses to take responsibility for their actions and how they affect others, they are exhibiting toxic behavior. This particular sign goes along with the ideas of sincerity and respect. Saying, “I understand that what I did hurt you even though I didn’t mean to, how can I fix it?” is taking responsibility for your actions. Saying, “It’s not my fault you took it that way when I clearly didn’t mean it that way!” is not, and is in fact a way to victim blame.
What To Do About Toxic Friendship Behavior
So you’ve recognized that your friendship is toxic. Okay, now what? How do you fix it? Can you fix it? Is it worth it to even try?
That depends on the situation. I’ve experienced some toxic friendships that were salvaged, and some that were not. It all depended on whether or not the toxic behaviors can be addressed and corrected.
And that’s an important distinction to make: in many cases, what you are trying to address are behaviors. Behaviors can be changed. Your friend may not realize that they are being toxic; they may not understand that they have hurt you. It’s important to give the benefit of the doubt in a lot of these situations. Try having a clear, open discussion about the things that have caused problems in your relationship; present the problems in a way that defines them and their effects.
Here are some examples:
“It seems like every conversation we have revolves around something that only affects you; I feel unheard and hurt by this, and would like to be able to talk to you about the things that affect me, good or bad.”
“You apologized for saying this thing about me, but then said it again a week later. That really hurt me, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t make that kind of comment again.”
“You don’t seem to like it when I hang out with these other friends but haven’t given me a reason why. I feel hurt by this and want to know why you feel this way.”
These are of course very generic, so make sure that your phrasing is specific to your situation. Give your friend a chance to respond, and talk about it together without placing blame. It may take them time to break habits, but hopefully, things will improve if they are aware, sincere, and willing to address their actions and change these behaviors.
If your “friend” has done something that has caused you long-lasting physical, mental, financial, or emotional harm, that is abuse. If your “friend” refuses to change their actions, does not make any effort to take responsibility for their actions, or refuses to even admit that there was a problem, that is abuse. You are not obligated to continue to have a relationship with an abuser, no matter who they are. If you think that you might be in an abusive relationship, please reach out to an abuse hotline or mental health professional as soon as possible.
Your health and safety are your top priorities, and if they are put in danger by another person, you have the right to take care of yourself first. You are not responsible for the health and safety of anyone else unless you are their parent. Be kind to yourself, and know that you deserve to feel happy and safe in your relationships.