- Even the oldest of friends can slip into toxic habits – but that doesn’t have to mean the end of a friendship
- To repair a toxic friendship, you’ll need honesty and patience
- By spotting red flags early on, you can avoid seeing your friendship turn sour – and hopefully make it stronger in the long run
What does a toxic friendship look like?
The main feature of a toxic friendship is that it “emotionally harms you, rather than helping you,” according to clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior.
Still, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish when a friendship has taken a harmful turn.
The website Healthline states it’s important to note the differences between a friend who’s just going through a rough patch, and a friend who has become toxic.
“A good friend having a bad day might snap at you or seem distant, but they’ll likely apologize once things settle down,” Healthline notes.
“Toxic friends, on the other hand, tend to follow a pattern that never really dies down,” the site states. “They won’t show much regret or inclination to change, even when they realize they made you feel bad.”
So it’s useful to consider: is your friend simply acting out of character? Or has your friendship itself changed for the worse?
By keeping an eye out for certain red flags, you can act faster to stop a friendship from slipping into toxicity.
Is your friendship an emotional rollercoaster? If you’re feeling extreme highs and lows while spending time with your friend – fuelled by drama, big fights or gossip – your relationship may leave you feeling nervous and insecure.
Another key warning sign is when a friend doesn’t make an effort for you, but they still expect you to support them.
“Relationships get toxic when the other person isn’t as invested in you as you are in them,” notes psychologist Susan Heitler. “The opposite – feeling stalked by a friend’s incessant demands on your time – can be disturbing as well.”
Other red flags for a toxic friendship include a feeling that you’re “treading on eggshells”, or when you become fearful of losing or angering them.
When to salvage a friendship
There are plenty of good reasons to cut off a friendship – and it’s always important to distance yourself from someone who is harming you. You must put your own well-being first, and often a toxic friendship is best abandoned altogether.
But in cases where a toxic friendship can be recovered, the repair work can reap huge rewards.
The long-term picture of a friendship may be hard to envisage in the heat of a current fight, but true friends may shape your life for decades to come. One study in 2010 showed that people with many closer friends tended to live considerably longer.
Good friends “tolerate each other’s frailties, appreciate their differences, and honestly criticise when necessary,” points out Professor Saul Levine.
“Over many years, they participate in each other’s celebrations and marriages, and in their children’s and grandchildren’s milestones,” he notes. “They are there for each other during illnesses and setbacks.”
So if you decide a toxic friendship is worth salvaging, it’s best to take action sooner rather than later, and get your relationship back on a more positive track before it’s too late.
If you’ve chosen to give a toxic friendship a second chance, the first step is an honest conversation. By airing the elements of your friendship that distress or worry you, you’re taking the first step in breaking the vicious circle.
It may be the case that your friend hasn’t even noticed the harmful impacts of their words or actions.
Healthline notes, “If they behave in self-centered ways without showing outright maliciousness, talking to them about the impact of their behaviour could improve matters.”
“Use “I” statements and other productive communication methods to start a dialogue,” the site suggests. “Be open about how their behaviour makes you feel and consider setting boundaries for future interactions.”
Though it may sound cliched, the polite-but-firm approach can go a long way. An honest conversation doesn’t have to be a personal attack on your friend. Instead, you’re looking out for your own well-being within the friendship, as well as creating a more positive and rewarding dynamic between you.
While an increase in teasing and criticism doesn’t necessarily indicate a friendship has become toxic, if the criticisms are persistent and upsetting, it’s wise to set boundaries. Explain to your friend why a certain behaviour hurts you, and tell them where they’re overstepping the line.
This takes courage – but it is also empowering. Boundaries are central to a happy, healthy friendship, as therapist Kailee Place notes.
“Without boundaries, there’s potential for bitterness and resentment to grow, leading to fractures within the friendship,” she advises.
“Making your boundaries known with clear, assertive communication leaves little room for guessing or assuming, and in the end, little opportunity for negative feelings between people who care about each other,” she adds. “A healthy friendship will respect and welcome these boundaries.”
If your friendship has long been characterized by toxic behaviour, these adjustments could take a while. Repairing a toxic friendship may call for considerable impulse control, not to mention a major upheaval in communication style on both sides.
“Good friends are like cheerleaders: they root you on and take pride in your success. However, when jealousy interferes with a friend’s ability to be supportive, it can have detrimental effects on the friendship,” notes Dr. Amanda Zayde.
“If a friend has your best interests at heart, they will work to contain those emotions and express them appropriately, rather then through veiled insults or overt competitiveness,” she says.
Lead by example
Clear communication and boundaries won’t always be enough to fix a toxic friendship, but they may well help you to become a better friend in general.
By showing a friend you care enough about your relationship to put in the emotional work to repair it, you’re demonstrating the values you should expect in them – kindness, self-respect and honesty.
Toxic behaviour can be contagious. But when you lead by example, you can change a friendship for the better – and emerge with a stronger bond than ever.