A Toxic Friend: Signs He or She Is Using and Abusing You
What Is a Toxic Friend?
Toxic friendships are negative relationships that make you feel unhappy, unhealthy, and unequal.
Toxic friends will stress you out, use you, and wear you down physically and mentally. Many of us keep toxic friends in our lives for whatever reasons. We both like and dislike our toxic friends. We put up with all they give us repeatedly. We complain to ourselves, other friends, relatives, and whomever else will listen to us gripe about how they do this and that to us.
How You Can Become Trapped
But we never do anything about it. This lack of decision becomes a bigger problem than the toxic friend. We don't tell our friend that his or her behaviour causes us to feel a certain way. We wait until our negative feelings and emotions build up, and before long, we find ourselves exhibiting toxic traits as well. We become the best actors in the world and act as if nothing is wrong, hoping our friend will change or grow up. But the fact about such people is that they don't know how to, or if they do, they just don't want to. After all, if being manipulative works for them, and they get what they want out of life, why should they change?
Sometimes, you work up the nerve to tell the friend how he or she makes you feel, but every time you mention it, your point doesn't get through. Or he or she might try to turn the tables on you by saying you're the one with the problem.
This guide will help you recognize warning signs of a toxic friendship, how to go about confronting them about the abuse, and how you can change the nature of your relationship going forward.
Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Friendship
Here are some warning signs that your friendship with someone might be toxic. Keep in mind, however, that just because your relationship with a friend may exhibit some of these below characteristics does not necessarily mean that your friendship is irredeemably broken and unhealthy.
- They get mad at you over small things and ignore you.
- You're walking on eggshells all the time.
- There's an imbalance in "talk time."
- You're the only one who initiates talking and hanging out.
- You don't equally share details about your life with each other.
- They are inconsiderate about your time and energy.
- They only call you when they have a problem or need something from you.
- They do not respect your boundaries.
- They talk trash behind your back.
- They try to control what you do and how you feel.
- They're constantly negative and criticize you in a non-constructive way.
- You're overly competitive with each other (and possibly other friends too).
- They don't get along with any other important people in your life.
- You dread talking to and hanging out with them.
- They drain your energy and leave you feeling depleted.
Does This Sound Familiar?
If you find yourself identifying with many of the traits outlined here, it's probably best to sit down and talk with your friend about the nature of your relationship and how you both might want to go about improving it.
They get mad at you over small things and ignore you.
This is a pretty common aspect of a lot of friendships, but that doesn't make it healthy or fair. Sure, on some level, the idea of "small things" is relative to each person's values and focuses, and it's not necessarily wrong or bad for your friend to get upset at certain actions or words that they consider to be offensive, even if others don't think they're all that important. And yet, that friend also can't just get mad at every little thing you do and expect you to keep all of that in mind and totally change who you are just to meet their needs.
This behaviour is also often combined with periods of that friend ignoring you. This approach is commonly referred to as "the silent treatment" and can become a form of abuse.
But if every little thing you do sets them off—to the point where they frequently resort to ignoring you as a means of punishing you or teaching you a lesson—then why even bother being friends in the first place? At that point, the compatibility seems pretty minimal. You might be just relying on history or routine to carry a friendship that may have already run its course.
You're walking on eggshells all the time.
This is related to the above sign but can be a bit more complicated. Many people have their really complex mix of traumas, insecurities, and other elements that make certain subjects a bit more touchy than others. That's totally OK. Being sensitive to certain things is no shame.
But if you feel like no matter what you talk about or what you do, and no matter how careful and considerate you are, everything seems to set your friend off into a spiral of defensiveness, that might be something else entirely. It's tough to form bonds and be vulnerable with each other if you're always scared of sending them into a breakdown with even the most innocuous of words or acts.
There's an imbalance in "talk time."
If you find yourself forever on the "listening" side of your relationship, but rarely feel listened to, that's a problem. Naturally, the listening-to-talking ratio between two people is never going to be perfectly 50-50, and it doesn't need to be.
Though if you feel like you're always there to lend an ear to them but never seem to receive the same support, you should definitely consider bringing up that one-sidedness with your friend. It's entirely possible that person just loves to talk and can get a bit carried away sometimes. Maybe they just need a little reminder to take a break and listen every now and then. But if they get super defensive and act as if you're attacking them, that's definitely not a good sign.
You're the only one who initiates talking and hanging out.
To be fair, some people are very busy or just aren't very good at setting up plans, relying on others to initiate conversations and meet-ups. That isn't necessarily terrible. Even so, constantly relying on others to put themselves out there and kickstart every interaction places an unfair burden on the initiators. It can make them feel overly needy and pathetic.
Although there are many factors that go into this and everyone is on some level just trying to figure things out as they go along, if your friend is really a friend, they should want to talk and hang out with you. And at least some of the time, they should be the one to make that clear without needing to be prodded into doing so.
You don't equally share details about your life with each other.
One of the best parts about having a great friend is knowing that someone out there really gets you. You can be your real self around them and they'll still love you. That kind of bond can help people get through even the toughest of times, and it's a big part of why friendships are so powerful and necessary. But if you don't ever really share the details of your life with someone—from the random minutia of your day to your deepest secrets and vulnerabilities—then it's not so easy for those super important connections to form.
The news of your life, both good and bad, should be shared with your friend. It's a significant part of what makes them one in the first place. But if you never share those details—and perhaps more importantly, if neither of you really ever asks about them—then what connections are left tying you two together?
They are inconsiderate about your time and energy.
With so much to think about and do and experience, who has the time or energy to waste on a friend who doesn't respect that? That doesn't mean you should be constantly seeking to extract perfect efficiency from your friendships or demand that every moment you spend together is some huge, majestic adventure worthy of a five-film series. It just means that if your friend really cares about you, then they should value what little time and energy you have while on this planet.
If they are habitually late to the point that you can't even remotely count how many hours you've spent just waiting for them to show up, that's not good. If they routinely bail on plans that you set up together—even when they know how much some of those events mean to you—that's not good. And if when you try to bring up the subject of their inconsideration about these things, they then try to shame you and act like it's no big deal no matter how many times it happens, that's really not good.
That doesn't mean that your friendship can't be built in large part on plenty of moments of you two just hanging out together, not doing much, but loving it all the same. Quite the opposite. But it does mean that both parties should have a healthy respect for each other's time and energy, so that there's not an imbalance wherein one person is frequently in limbo, waiting on their friend, wondering what they could have been doing instead.
They only call you when they have a problem or need something from you.
Someone who only talks to you when they need something isn't so much a friend as an opportunistic businessman. Of course, friends should totally help each other out all the time, and there's no shame in asking for it. But if your friend only wants to talk with or be around you when they need to extract your labor or skill, then how is your relationship any different from that of business-customer? And what does that say about what they actually value about you?
A friend should want to talk to you. They should want to hang out with you. It shouldn't always require you performing some service for them for your presence to matter and be wanted.
They do not respect your boundaries.
Respecting your boundaries should be a bottom line requirement for even the most peripheral of acquaintances in your life. And if your friend can't rise up to meet the same bar that you hold for people you barely know, then your relationship needs some serious reevaluating.
Good friends don't repeatedly encourage bad decisions that could ruin your life. They don't ignore your wishes and intentionally do things that they know deeply upset you. What good friends should do is respect your boundaries and, in the interest of your ongoing health and growth as a person, help you to maintain them.
Now, if you haven't fully and clearly communicated those boundaries, then some of the blame for their violation could potentially fall on you. But if you've gone through the trouble of laying out your boundaries to them—ideally, multiple times—then anyone who continues to violate them likely isn't a very good friend.
They talk trash behind your back.
To some extent, it's almost inevitable that people will occasionally talk about other friends when they're not there. A little gossip or venting can be a healthy thing in moderation. It's only when it enters into a kind of relentless and mean-spirited tearing down of a person when they're not even there to defend themselves that it might point to something more toxic.
If you're frequently hearing about a friend saying cruel or slanderous things about you when you're not around, it might be time to consider if they're your friend at all. After all, what kind of friend consistently tries to bring down the people they supposedly care about?
Your Boundaries Are Important
Any person that doesn't respect your boundaries doesn't respect you. How can you have a loving, healthy friendship with someone who doesn't respect you as a person?
They try to control what you do and how you feel.
Control issues are a red flag for people that you should generally avoid in any part of your life. It can be particularly pernicious if that controlling person is your good friend, however, because you're more likely to want to please them and go along with whatever they want you to do or feel—often at the expense of your quality of life.
Be especially wary of a friend that wants you to think and feel the exact same way as they do about someone or something. A true friend would want you to come to your own conclusions and feelings about an issue and seek to hear your honest thoughts about a situation. If your friend constantly tries to correct what you're doing or feeling or thinking, then they're not allowing you to be your own person. This can have severely detrimental effects to both of your lives and should not be allowed to continue.
They're constantly negative and criticize you in a non-constructive way.
Even the most indomitable of spirits can find it hard to foster hope and motivation and a positive outlook in extremely negative atmospheres. Of course, everyone has their own histories and ways of looking at the world. And someone who is blindly positive in all circumstances—to the point where you can't even express any less-than-ecstatic feelings without them dismissing you and forcing positivity into every nook and cranny—isn't great either.
Yet, even the most cynical and pessimistic people still need the occasional lights in their lives—especially when something legitimately good actually happens. Beware of those who seek to bring down every modicum of happiness or hope that they see. Those people can make it incredibly difficult for others to feel anything but dread. They might try to dress up their negativity with tired defenses about "being right." But even if that happens to be true on some level, so what? Everyone needs some joy in their life and at least a few things to look forward to. And if your friend never lets you feel good about anything, how are you ever supposed to grow and enjoy what life has to offer?
You're overly competitive with each other (and possibly other friends too).
When it comes to games and contests, it's totally healthy and often very fun to get competitive with your friend. It's one of the best bonding mechanisms there is and can often lead to great memories that you both get to enjoy for years. But when competition infests nearly every part of your relationship, so much so that you can't even enjoy one another's successes without feeling the compulsion to outshine them or bring them down, it becomes something more toxic and harmful.
This also applies to each others' friends. For instance, if one of your friends does something nice for or with you, that shouldn't inspire your other friend to get upset or jealous. Good times with good people should inspire more of the same, not a flexing match to see who can be the "best at friendship."
They don't get along with any other important people in your life.
Plenty of people have different friend and family groups that don't have perfect overlap. That's natural and nothing to be too concerned about on its face. But if your friend doesn't get along with anyone else in your circle, and everyone else in your circle isn't a big fan of that friend, it might be cause for alarm.
Part of why this can be problematic is that it can create a kind of antagonistic dynamic, where both sides feel opposed to each other, both vying for your attention and support. This can place you in a perennial peacekeeper position, where you're constantly torn between both sides, trying to keep both plates spinning and everyone happy. This is very unpleasant and can really drain you after a while.
You dread talking to and hanging out with them.
Isn't the whole point of a friend is having someone you love talking to and being around? Someone who makes you feel good, that you trust and deeply care about. Then why continue maintaining a relationship with someone you dread talking to or hanging out with or even seeing in the first place?
It's one thing if you just don't feel great, but you already made plans with someone and don't want to let them down. It's something else entirely if there's almost no situations you can imagine where adding this person into the mix wouldn't significantly reduce your chance of having a good time. At that point, what distinguishes them from a person in your life that you actively dislike and would never consider an actual friend?
They drain your energy and leave you feeling depleted.
Doing really anything requires lots of energy, and there's nothing wrong with being tired after hanging out with your friends. Ideally though, that fatigue shouldn't resemble the same kind of soul-draining depletion that you feel after working a shift at a job you hate. That is, it's the kind of tiredness that comes partly from doing various activities, but much more so from all the different ways you have to perform in order for you to comply with your work's (or friend's) expectations of how you should be.
Your friend should be the kind of safe space where you get to be yourself and feel accepted. They shouldn't require the same kind of reluctant performance masking deep bitterness you reserve for your jerk of a boss that you constantly dream of telling off one day. If hanging out with your friend for a few hours leaves you in a kind of state where you feel like you'll need the whole weekend just to recover and recharge, there might be something wrong.
Two Big Questions to Ask Yourself
You might want to ask yourself some simple questions when in a friendship like this:
- Am I in a good mood after being with this friend? Is there a give and take? Am I entirely truthful with this friend? Do we respect each other? Would my friend talk about me in a negative way to others? Would I talk about my friend in a negative way to others? Does my friend criticize and belittle me? Do I hesitate to share my good news because of how it might make him or her feel? Does my friend abuse the friendship and take advantage of me? Do I even like this person?
- Why do we hold true to the BFF ideal? This isn’t a legally binding agreement. No one is forcing you to stay friends. It’s never an easy decision to break off the friendship. But if you saw one person physically abusing another, wouldn't you encourage them to end the relationship? Why is emotional abuse any different?
What You Can Do About a Toxic Friendship
No matter how deep the roots of your friendship go or how entrenched in their ways you might think they are, every relationship is capable of healing—as long as there is communication and people are willing to change. In order for that to happen, you have to confront your friend and be direct with them about the nature of your relationship and why you feel it is unhealthy.
Here are some actions that you should consider taking.
Talk to your friend about how their behaviour makes you feel.
This is the first thing you should do, and it's one of the most important. Set up a date to talk with your friend and tell them about how the things they do and say make you feel. Avoid finger-pointing or explicitly trying to make them feel bad. The point is not to get some petty revenge on someone you care about but to help them see how their actions affect others.
There will likely be some resistance here, but remember: nobody can take away your feelings. Be strong and steadfast in your sharing of how you've been feeling. If they're truly your friend, then how you're feeling (especially in relation to them and their actions) should be of great importance to them. This is your chance to make sure they know.
Give them a chance to tell their side of the story.
No matter how sure you might be that you're "The Victim," everyone deserves to tell their side of the story. So be sure to give your friend a chance to talk to you about how they view the relationship, what they think about what you've told them and how they're feeling. It is very likely that they will share certain perspectives that you hadn't thought of or adequately taken into account.
Be wary of letting them bully you into taking back everything that you shared, however. Allowing your friend to voice their perspective shouldn't invalidate yours.
Tell them that if they don't improve their treatment of you, then you might have to start distancing yourself from them.
This is the point where you have to establish boundaries. Though it may be difficult and might feel oddly formal, boundaries are an extremely vital component of every relationship—and really every aspect of your life.
Lay out a clear outline of what behaviours you will not longer tolerate, with a strong emphasis on anything that's particularly abusive, manipulating, dehumanizing or blatantly cruel. Then let them know the possible repercussions if they continue to act that way.
Keep in mind that distancing yourself or outright cutting off all ties can both be totally viable consequences for someone who habitually treats you in an unacceptable manner. It's certainly OK to come up with less drastic consequences for the violation of certain boundaries. But it's important to remember that you're always within your right to sever connections with a friend who routinely treats you horrible.
Call them out in the future when their behaviour is unacceptable.
Now that you've laid out your terms for how your relationship needs to change in order to move forward, you should point out any time those conditions are violated in the future. Remind them of the repercussions for their continued mistreatment of you. Be clear and forceful about your willingness to step back from the friendship should they refrain from these disrespectful habits.
Hear Them Out
Even if you think you're "The Victim," everyone deserves to tell their side of the story. So make sure you give them a chance to voice how they feel about the relationship. And make sure you actually listen to them.
Some Additional Tips for Talking to Your Friend About Their Abuse
- Whenever possible, talk to them in person: Any important conversation is worth having in person. So much can be lost in translation when serious matters are discussed over the phone, through text or through any other medium. It's tough to understate the importance of physical presence and face-to-face interaction. It holds both parties more accountable and allows for greater connection and empathy. Of course, if you're separated by great distances, then other methods might have to be used. But always try to have critical discussions in person if you can.
- Listen to what they have to say: Just as it's important to give them a chance to tell their side of the story, it's vital that when they do, you actually listen. Don't go into these talks assuming you're right about everything, and they're just some jerk. It's entirely possible that you are being disrespectful or mean to them in various ways as well, and you'll never know about it (or be capable of change) if you don't hear what they have to say.
- Don't get roped into arguing: Even if you both get emotional during this process—which isn't necessarily a "bad" thing—be sure to avoid getting roped into a pointless argument where you both say hurtful things and aren't really communicating. These kinds of quarrels tend to focus more of people trying to "win" some imaginary battle rather than actually communicate and connect and heal. If you notice an argument forming, do your best to calm yourself down and bring the conversation back to point where you're actually hearing each other out.
- Consider creating distance before separation: Though you might reach a point where you're tempted to divorce yourself from your friend entirely, think about establishing a certain level of distance first. Maybe you don't talk to them for a month or two. Maybe you only talk to them on the phone every now and then, with the stipulation that you'll hang up if they start acting abusive. There are lots of different forms of how your relationship works that you can experiment with before resorting to complete separation. If none of those work, however, then you might be looking at something more drastic or permanent.
How to End the Vicious Cycle: My Story
I ended a bad friendship recently. She used me, my other friends and my family for personal gain. She emotionally abused me with guilt, and it took a toll on my other relationships. She always told me that she was an honest and open person. She would cry on cue.
When I would tell her how her behaviour bothered me, she would always type an email personally attacking and blaming me. It was always my fault she didn’t have the life she felt she deserved, and I had everything. She was always doing the best she could, or so she would say. She would bring up the littlest things! At the beginning and end of each email, she would often apologize if it was hurting my feelings, and she never wanted me to be mad at her. Of course, she didn’t want me to be mad at her! It might mean I, her bank/babysitter/gopher/cab-driver/problem-solver etc., might not be around anymore.
One day, it all changed when I received an email from her. I was in-between job interviews and running around like a mad woman. I had checked emails after a particularly stressful interview, and her tirade was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Again, she criticized me, my family, my friends and my children. In criticizing my children, she slapped me in the face for the final time. They had been nothing but respectful and helpful to her, and that was what spurned me into action.
I took steps to eliminate her right then and there. She lashed out at me almost immediately, and I ignored it. There were threats and slander. I still ignored it. In fact, that’s all you can do. Once you let a toxic friend back into your life, you’ll begin that vicious circle all over again. If she sees a chance to worm back into your life, she will. It’s all for her personal gain. I’m glad she’s out of my life.
Most toxic friends have patterns, and mine was no different. Their friendships never seem to last longer than a year. That’s because the toxic friend uses and abuses from the start. It’s always someone else’s fault why the friendship ended. My friend had been told numerous times by people ending the friendship that she was negative!
I thought I was a good friend, almost like a sister. Well, if one of my sisters had behaved that way, I would have no qualms putting her in her place. She has no problem going out to dinner with you and then telling you partway through that she has no money. Or, she just waltzes out of the restaurant, knowing you’ll pay her way. She guilts you into inviting her to functions with your other friends, then insults them all (and drinks all the wine). The toxic friend may even attempt to flirt with your spouse or significant other. They want what you have, no matter how little. Such people are very needy. Mostly for attention.
Walk away and stay away. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love or care about the person anymore. It means that you have more self-respect for yourself. And in the end, that’s the most important friendship of all!
Here are some additional resources to help you determine whether or not you're in a toxic friendship:
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.