When Is Friendship Toxic?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD