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When Is Friendship Toxic?

Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

Since potentially "toxic" relationships don't come with warning signs, it is up to you to know when friendship is no longer healthy for you.

Since potentially "toxic" relationships don't come with warning signs, it is up to you to know when friendship is no longer healthy for you.

Like a boat, friendship should help you navigate the sometimes "turbulent waters" of your life. Christian novelist, poet, academic, and literary critic, C.S. Lewis (author of the Tales of Narnia), said this about friendship: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” Even though it is possible to live without friends, as C. S. Lewis' quote emphasizes, having friends makes life feel more "worth living."

As humans, we are naturally social creatures. In the beginning, by God’s design, we were developed to need one another. We need each other’s friendship and companionship throughout life. It is therefore essential to our well-being that we learn how to be a friend, as well as how to make friends. But there is a major stumbling block on the path to friendship peace, love, and happiness, and it is the negative effects of a “toxic” friendship.

What Is a Toxic Friendship?

A toxic friendship is a close, platonic relationship that dims the light of hope and happiness in your life as it stunts your personal development. It is a friendship that feeds on your light, positive energy, and spiritual harmony, while it zaps your inner strength. It is a relationship that leaves you with nothing except a heavy, debris-laden burden of negativity.

In a poll conducted by Self.com/Today.com, 18,000 women and 4,000 men were asked if they had ever had a toxic friend. Seventy-five percent of men, and 84 percent of the women who responded said they'd had a toxic friend at some point in their lives. One in three respondents said they'd had a toxic best friend. The study also found that women tended to have toxic female friends, and toxic friends for men were found to be, usually, other men.

Toxic Friendship Poll

Toxicity Can Hide in Plain Sight

A toxic friendship can be hard to detect. However, the longer you remain in such a relationship, and the longer it continues to be toxic in nature, the harder it will be to move away from it. It can be one of those things that is there, but in hiding. Then, one day, you awaken to the realization of what has been “stolen” or drained from you by the toxic nature of the friendship. Your realization might come only as your light, your energy, and your life’s “spiritual essence” continue to wane, only after the toxic relationship has already caused you to begin to “devalue” yourself.

How do I know? I know because I’ve been in toxic friendships in the past, one for more than a decade. It was hard for me to face the fact that a friendship I treasured was unhealthy, but eventually, I had no choice. One day I looked around to find that because of what this relationship was costing me, in terms of time, energy, and spiritual turmoil, I had actually missed out on things in my life that I once valued; things that were important to me.

I was always trying to please by being available and “there” for my friend through thick and thin, spending hours and hours on the phone listening to one unsolvable problem after another, until I literally started to feel like my friend’s burdens were my own, and that I was helpless to do anything about them. It became so draining over time that I began to feel robbed of every bit of positive energy I once had. I'd been in the friendship for years before I realized that goals that I’d planned on working toward had somehow become tucked away in my mind, and were quickly turning into nothing more than “wishes.” That’s when I knew I had to do something.

Toxic Friendship Problem Recognition

It can be hard to recognize a toxic relationship. Since it comes disguised as friendship, its toxicity can be invisible. In other words, it can hide in plain sight under the guise of concern, caring, and closeness.

So, once you begin to feel a friendship may be toxic, what should you do? Remember, it takes two for one to continue, and you are at least one half of the relationship. With this in mind, the first thing you’ll need to do is to come to terms with the idea that what you have with someone is a toxic relationship. There is a difference between a toxic friendship and a healthy one that’s simply going through a rough time. All healthy friendships go through good and bad times, and there will be bumps on the road occasionally that can come between good friends. But if a friendship is healthy, it will be structured to weather even stormy times, and hardships will likely enable it to grow, and to develop even stronger bonds. A toxic friendship will not do that.

If you have a friendship that makes many requests of you, but is very stingy in terms of giving, then you may be in a toxic relationship. A toxic friendship is one that can:

  • Weigh you down without doing much, at all, to lift you up.
  • Usurp your time and leave you feeling drained and lifeless, instead of relaxed, recharged and reinvigorated—the way healthy friendships do.
  • Cause you to turn away from the healthy relationships in your life, leading you to lose touch with those you love and/or care about.

Since “toxicity” usually comes masked as friendship, a person who is toxic for you might show a great degree of interest in you and might even seem to be a loyal, caring and supportive friend. After all, it is the interest shown in you, and your belief that the person is a loyal friend, that keeps you hanging on. It’s also important to understand that a toxic friend is not always an enemy in disguise. The person who is “toxic” for you might genuinely think of him or herself as your friend. Still, the effects of the friendship, for you, are largely negative.

If you are involved in a friendship that feels all-consuming and stressful, it is probably toxic, and being toxic is what makes it hazardous to your health. As a health hazard, such a relationship can render you susceptible to illness and depression.

If you believe you are in a toxic friendship, once you have examined things carefully—that is, after a great deal of thought—if you come to the conclusion that a friendship is not only not good for you, but is actually bad for you, then you have no choice but to break free from it. And before you even think it, I’ll just go ahead and say it. Yes: Breaking up is hard to do, whether it is with a platonic friend, or with someone you’ve had a romantic relationship with. When you’ve been a genuine friend to someone else, the relationship is going to have “heartstrings” attached. But, in the case of a toxic friendship, even the heartstrings are toxic. In order for any friendship to be healthy, both parties must find “balance” in it; there must be give and take on the part of each person.

In my case, my toxic friendship was having a negative effect on my entire life. While draining me emotionally and mentally, it was affecting my career, my relationship with family members, and even my health. I began to feel taken advantage of, and, ultimately, felt there was nothing I could do to help resolve my friend’s seemingly endless supply of unusual problems.

You Must Do Something to End the Toxicity

What should you do about a toxic friendship? Remember, wanting to be a friend to someone does not mean you must be someone’s friend. It could be that it’s time to “just say ‘no’” to a friendship, especially when it costs too much to be in the relationship. You have to realize that your health and happiness, your need to take care of yourself, has to be more important.

Breaking free from the toxicity of a friendship doesn’t always have to mean breaking up with your friend. If you think it might be worthwhile to do so, then you might consider working on “detoxing" the friendship. This path will require time, patience, determination, and lots and lots of work to change the friendship from unhealthy to healthy. In order to detox the relationship, you must be able to talk to your friend and explain exactly how you feel. You must be able to describe the nature of the relationship and explain how it is not healthy for you, in its current state. If you don’t feel you can do talk to your friend in this way, then it might be that this is a friendship you won’t be able to save.

In my case, the first thing I did was to look to Holy Scripture for guidance. Being a Christian, the Bible is where I go to find wisdom and guidance to help me in all aspects of my life. During my search, I found words in Proverbs 14:6-7 that spoke to me:

A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding. Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.”

After I found help from Scripture, I talked to family members I was close to. It helped a lot for me to talk to those who I felt could look at the situation objectively, and who could tell me if they thought the friendship could or should be saved, or if I should simply end the relationship. I explained that I was not happy and did not feel good about the friendship, and that I felt too much need on the part of my friend, and no reciprocity, and about how there was no balance, no give and take. After talking things over with my family, I decided to part ways with my friend. Even though parting ways wasn’t easy, it was necessary, and therefore it was something I had to do. After trying, I realized there was no way to detoxify the friendship, and all I could do was to let it go. I did this gradually by slowly becoming less and less "available." Eventually, I let go of the friendship completely.

What Makes a Friendship Healthy?

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails . . . .” 1 Corinthians 13:4–8a (NIV)

  • A Healthy Friendship Creates Bonds But Observes Boundaries

A healthy friendship is loving and nurturing. It is something that makes you feel free, and it does not incarcerate you. If having a friendship with someone makes you feel like you’re in bondage, rather than making you feel free to be yourself through the bonds of friendship, then something is not right. In fact, something is wrong. A healthy friendship is one that frees you by providing a loving form of nurture for your spirit, while observing your need for boundaries. It recognizes that the friendship is a part of your life, but not your whole life. It does not come between you and your other friendships or between you and your romantic relationship (if you have one), nor does it hinder you from working toward your goals.

  • A Healthy Friendship Creates Trust and Provides Wise Counsel

"One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray." Proverbs 12:26

A true friend will not delight in your sorrow, nor will he/she want you to be placed in harm’s way. A healthy friendship is one based on trust. When you trust someone, you are likely to listen to them when they offer advice or guidance. If you begin to realize that most of your friend’s advice and guidance is something that, if you followed it, would likely lead to negative consequences for you, then it is time to take a closer look at the friendship. In Proverbs 13:20, it is written, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Wise counsel will always lead you toward a positive result, not a negative one.That does not mean things will always turn out in your favor; nothing can guarantee that. But if advice or suggestions from a friend are of a positive nature, they will lead you toward doing positive things for you, rather than toward something negative that will make matters worse for you.

  • A Healthy Friendship Demonstrates Love

Job 2:11, in the Bible, says, “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him.”

It is not always possible for one friend to help another friend who is in need, but there is always a way for a friend to show love for a friend. It’s important to share a special kind of partnership with the people you allow to come inside your “inner circle.” For me, that means you and your friends should always be pulling in the same direction, and that when you’re going through tough times in your life, having a friend makes you feel stronger and more able to cope with what is going on. Having a friend should not weaken you further by having to deal with the demanding nature of a friendship that offers no support in your time of need. When you are going through hard times, a true friend will show sympathy and understanding, no matter what they might be going through.

it is wise, not selfish, to use caution in order to maintain healthy friendships.

it is wise, not selfish, to use caution in order to maintain healthy friendships.

What can you do to determine whether or not a friendship relationship is toxic? Even though we all need friends, and even though God wants us to need and to have friends, it is helpful, still, to use God’s guidance and your good common sense in selecting friends. For me, that means I must seek friends who can help me stay on the path to a God-centered, spiritually grounded and focused life. It means I must look for friends who not only believe in God (remember, even Satan believes in God!), but who seek to obey God and Holy Scripture. I believe it is part of my allegiance to God, as well as in my best interest, to seek friends who share such an allegiance.

A good and true friend will not make you feel as though you must be a horrible person because God is allowing horrible things to happen to you. Proverbs 27:17 says,As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” When you are going through trials and tribulations in your life, these things can be a test of true friendship. True friends will be with you through the good and bad times of your life, and you will always feel strengthened, in some way, by true friendship.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


Lauren on August 13, 2018:

Okay now I know I had a toxic friend his me was Dominic it was always one sided I made time time for him but he would never reciprocate he spent a lot of time with his girlfriend in fact more then what's considered healthy I think I offered him advice and I needed him when my anxiety was bad because my dad died five years ago and I still miss my dad I miss Dominic too just in a different way I miss who he was not who he is now he always claims to be busy when he probably has more time then he's letting on I wasn't happy for about a year and a half I felt drained by the friendship so I ended the friendship so I didn't have to feel the emotional pain

Shawna on April 06, 2016:

Thank you for such a wonderful article. I'm having a hard time with my best friend of 3 years. We met at church and after being acquaintances we wound up becoming very good friends. Things these past 8 months have been off though. We would talk about functions at church and I would say it might be nice to help out, next thing I knew she signed us both up for Sunday school once a month and to help in the kitchen for a week of VBS. I was approached by a woman I had never met and she said it's awesome you're helping in the kitchen. I told her she must have me mistaken for someone else and then she said well aren't you Shawna...ok. Yes I am. Then I find out my friend signed me up without telling me. I've also been going through some health issues and because I didn't tell her everything she was so upset with me. I didn't even tell my own sisters until my tests cleared me in the end from cancer. Then I was able to talk about it but she was so angry and I should have told her... I'm beyond frustrated. She has also counselled me in not talking with my family because like all families we have our moments to which sadly I had vented to her about. Now she throws that in my face and encourages me to cut ties with them. Sometimes it's nice just to have a sounding board not someone encouraging strife and discord. I was given an ultimatum the other day that she's practically out of this friendship unless I vow to be all in.... Again very frustrated. I feel like I'm suffocating. I can't handle the countless texts a day and phone calls. I was never one to screen my calls but my heart races when the phone rings wondering if it's her. I know this is not normal or healthy. The thing with being a Christian, I have a hard time hurting anyone and I think I should put up and shut up. But I am really at my wits end to the point I could say something nasty to which wouldn't help the situation either and would hurt only to end the friendship. I've vocally set my boundaries but they aren't acknowledged. Hard thing too is our kids are very close :(

Nut magnet Anon on October 06, 2015:

"A Healthy Friendship Respects Boundaries." Amen! I have been in a toxic on again and off again friendship for decades mainly out of compassion for this individual's tragic childhood, and also because I initially fell for this person's lies, yes, I was very impressed along with a many other people. Yet, I felt compassion and tried to focus on their many good qualities, and remain friends. These charmers prefer nice, accommodating and weak types. If you are vulnerable they have your number and will hone in on your vulnerabilities. They love people they can control, especially those younger. They will soon be moving in and taking control of you life, because they are so smart and know what is best for everyone. Well, I asked for it, allowing myself to be controlled, belittled, betrayed, denigrated and embarrassed before friends and family. Yes, being with such a bright, charming person is fun... at first. But nothing good comes out of, in fact you will spend a lot of time worrying about what they'll do next. You will try to reason with them, and they will simply do spiteful things, and actually enjoy that. Age does not change them. And God help you if they use alcohol or drugs, all these qualities are amplified and they are frightening and even more irrational. Of course they will not admit they have a problem. Trying to reason with this type is a losing battle. Don't bother, sadly sociopaths are rarely cured, this is how they are hardwired. Listen to your gut, if this person makes you feel uncomfortable, you simply make yourself unavailable, or just tell them up front you do not feel comfortable. Yes, they will try to manipulate you emotionally, you are cruel etc. for calling them out on their behavior. But it is all a show. They will find someone else to manipulate. They do not have friends but minions. They will try to make you feel bad about yourself. They cycle between savior and victim complexes, do not believe their stories, or you may figure in the next one. They are pathological liars, aggrandizing themselves, because sadly underneath it all is a wounded child. These people truly need professional help, you cannot help them with these deep issues. You will only get hurt. So keep them at a distance. Listen to your gut. 1. Do not let such people "help" you. 2. Keep them at a distance. 3. Do not put trust in them or fall for their charm. 4. This situation is not going to get better. 5. For God's sake, do not let them get close to your children. Too many years, done trying.

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on August 25, 2015:

Thank you so much, Elsie Hagley, MarleneB, and Hui, for visiting my Hub, and for the congrats on HOTD. It is such an honor to have Hub Pages friends visit, at any time, and to know you like something I've written is just icing on the cake.

MarleneB, your experience with your "toxic" friend sounds like a good start for a "scary" movie. Wow. I don't know why it is that some people don't seem to know how much is too much. I have so much to do, every day, I couldn't imagine having time to spend planning sneak attack visits or even excessive phone calls to anyone, for any reason. And, as Hui said in the comment above, it causes friendship to collapse. As you said, "everyone needs their own space to breathe, in any relationship."

Hui (蕙) on August 24, 2015:

A philosophical issue in life! Different people may have different oppinions from different angles. According to the definition, the toxicness has collapsed the friendship, then people are supposed to feel it and end it. Be smart without heavy words!

Marlene Bertrand from USA on August 24, 2015:

I had a toxic friend once who did not observe boundaries. I tried to be gentle and stress the boundaries of which she did not observe. At the time, I lived in a gated community and my "friend" managed to find her way inside. Upon approach to my house, I spotted my friend standing on my porch with a so-called gift. This is not such a bad thing except the woman would sneak up on me from every angle. Everywhere I went, she was there. She's not a bad person, but it started getting weird when she would pack extra clothes in her car just so that after seeing what I was wearing, say, to church, she would change into a similar outfit. Creepy. Right? Anyway, it finally got so creepy that I had to move, block her number, and not let anyone know to where I had moved, otherwise they might tell her. Again, she's not a bad person, but everyone needs their own space to breath in any relationship. You are a real expert on this subject, covering every aspect of toxic relationships and helping us know what to do if we are ever in one.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on August 24, 2015:

Congratulations on the HOTD.

A very enlightening article, thanks for sharing with us.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on August 24, 2015:

My pleasure Sallie. It's the least I can do. I can so relate in so many levels.

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on August 24, 2015:

Thanks Kristen Howe, for the "congrats" and for the comments on my Hub. I have been in a few toxic friendships that I've had to "extricate" myself from, so I feel like an expert on this topic. It's a sad thing to have to do, but sometimes necessary.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on August 24, 2015:

Sallie, congrats on HOTD on this wonderful article on toxic friendships. It's well pointed out on how to get out of one.

Sallie B Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on September 28, 2012:

You are so welcome, delighted. I kept feeling like I was writing this for some person who needed it, all while I was writing it. In fact, the feeling got so strong, I even started asking myself if I knew someone who might be needing it; someone I'm close too. I decided I did not know anyone in particular, and no one came to my mind. The feeling would not go away, so I just started praying that it would reach the right person (or people) if someone needed it. I am thanking God that it has blessed you in some way. I'm saying a special prayer for you, and I'm going to post a prayer about this too. And you're right, God is always Good, all the time.

delighted from Tucson, AZ on September 27, 2012:

Spot on! An excellent explanation and so amazingly timely. I am exhausted from years of trying to work things out, from the constant hostile silence, and blame. I have wanted so much for God to have the victory in this relationship (marriage). Today, I drove home defeated. I have moved out of God's way. I have no more energy to try. Perhaps that is where He wants me, either out of His way, or simply out. It is a confusing time. But I know I can no longer engage in relationship with an emotional bully. It is too exhausting and disheartening, and life numbing. Thank you for your hub, for your clear explanation and for your pointing to scripture. I am simply amazed at the timing of your writing this and my reading it, and for finding this exact topic with a biblical world view. God is always so Good!

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