Maybe you were once excited to see a certain friend’s name pop up on your phone screen. Now you get a sinking feeling any time they text you. You used to look forward to hanging out with them. Now the thought of getting together fills you with dread. At first, you leaned on them when you needed emotional support. Now you hesitate to open up to them because they seem disinterested or judgmental – or worse, you just can’t trust them anymore.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s time to evaluate whether this friendship is worth working on or if it would be healthier to walk away. We asked experts to reveal some of the signs that a friendship has turned toxic. Below, they explain what to look out for and offer some advice on how to handle the situation.
1. You act like a worse version of yourself around them
The friends we choose to surround ourselves with should enhance our lives and push us to grow as people. If you find your friend brings out the worst in you, then it could be a sign the relationship is toxic.
“If as a result of your friendship, you find yourself engaging in behaviours that you regret later such as being self-destructive, being mean to others or engaging in illegal or immoral activities, then it would be best to terminate this toxic friendship,” Mahzad Hojjat, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and author of The Psychology of Friendship, tells HuffPost.
2. You feel emotionally drained by them
Healthy friendships have a sense of balance and reciprocity. You don’t need to keep score because you both feel you’re getting back what you’re putting in. Sure, there may be seasons in a friendship when one person needs a lot more than they can give because they’re dealing with a loss, health issue or other crisis. But when friendships are heavily lopsided, with one person doing a lot more taking than giving over the long term, that’s another story.
“Toxic friendships cross boundaries and sink into a pattern of taking more energy than they give,” says Sarah Spencer Northey, a marriage and family therapist based in Washington DC.
“Are you feeling like you are helping your friend more than they are helping themselves? Do you feel like their therapist where the emotional support only goes one way? Does this friend support you maintaining your boundaries so that you can take care of yourself and not give from your emotional reserves?” she asks. “These are some questions that may help you determine whether or not this relationship is worth the energy.”
3. The friendship feels transactional
Toxic friends have no qualms about sucking you dry emotionally or financially. They expect you to buy whatever MLM product they’re currently hawking. They have a habit of “forgetting their wallet” when you go out to eat. And when they finally do something nice for you, you realise it’s only because they’ve already found a way you can return the favor.
“Toxic friendships cross boundaries and sink into a pattern of taking more energy than they give.”
“Red flags include repeatedly trying to sell you products, making you feel like an ATM by repeatedly asking for money or keeping close tabs on favours — [like] ‘You have to dog-sit for me because you borrowed my car,’” says Boston University clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.
“These friends routinely cross the line between friendship and business, which can leave you feeling used.”
4. They repeat information you asked them not to share.
You confide in this person, only to discover that the private information you shared with them – and specifically asked them not to divulge – is now known by other friends you never discussed it with. If it happens once, you could chalk it up to a miscommunication or one-off mistake. But if it becomes a pattern, it could be an indication there’s a toxic dynamic at play.
“When a friend spills information that was only meant for her ears, that’s a sign that she either didn’t truly understand the confidential nature of the information shared, she doesn’t respect you, or she’s sharing the ‘insider info’ for her own benefits,” says Suzanne Degges-White, professor and chair of the department of counselling and higher education at Northern Illinois University.
5. They’re not supportive of your romantic relationships
If you’re in a healthy romantic relationship, you’d expect your friends to be supportive – not secretly trying to sabotage it or push you apart. When an issue comes up with your partner, a genuine friend will offer a sympathetic ear for your concerns, but still encourage reconciliation at the end of the day, Northey said. A toxic friend may use it as an opportunity to drive a wedge between you.
“A true friend wants to see you thrive in a happy relationship,” she says. “A toxic friend, on the other hand, may fan the flames when you are venting, encouraging your negative thoughts and feelings to escalate and endure. A toxic friend may even encourage behaviours that harm your relationship.”
Asking yourself the following questions can help you discern whether you’re caught in a toxic friendship pattern, Northey says.
“Does your friend listen with a balanced perspective when you are venting, or do they match or even exceed your intensity?” she says. “Do they follow your lead when you have let go of a conflict with your significant other, or do they hold on to the memory and drama of a conflict with that person longer than you do?”
6. You don’t feel like you can speak your mind, so you walk on eggshells around them.
A toxic friend may use manipulation tactics in order to get their way – including guilt-tripping you, playing the victim, minimising your feelings or lashing out when you disagree with them.
Always afraid of setting them off, you start to walk on eggshells around this friend. After a while, it becomes hard to tell if they’re the problem or if you are.
“If you’re doing all the work in the relationship, you’re an employee, not a friend. Time to go on strike.”
“It’s really hard to pinpoint what’s happening when you’re the target of manipulation, but there are clues,” Hendriksen says. “Your friendship may feel unnecessarily complicated. You second-guess yourself a lot and wonder if you’re crazy or overreacting. You have to thread a needle around your friend’s emotions or arguments.”
7. You don’t trust them anymore
Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Without it, a friendship can’t survive. Perhaps this person has burned you before by lying to you, turning their back on you when you were going through a hard time or talking poorly about you to mutual friends. You’ve tried to move forward, but they keep giving you reasons to be wary.
“If you have seen clear evidence that your friend has betrayed you in some way and therefore you realise that they do not have your best interest in mind, whether by gossiping behind your back to make you look bad, lying to you or others to advance their own interests, stealing from you, or harming you in any way, it should be clear to you that you cannot trust this person,” Hojjat said.
8. You put in almost all of the effort.
Maintaining friendships takes work – and with this friend, you’re the one doing the lion’s share of it. If you stopped checking in with them or asking them to hang out, the friendship would dissolve.
“Take note if you initiate all the plans and are responsible for changing them to suit your friend’s moods and impulses,” Hendriksen says. “Do they leave you hanging at the last minute? Dump complaints on you without offering alternatives or solutions?”
“If you’re doing all the work in the relationship, you’re an employee, not a friend,” she added. “Time to go on strike.”
What To Do If Your Friendship Has Become Toxic
Should you tell this person how you’re feeling and see if things improve? Or do you end the friendship now and walk away? That’s up to you.
“Everyone has a different tolerance for a friend’s ‘bad behavior,’” Degges-White says. “And some folks put up with an awful lot of pain if their circle of support isn’t wide enough to catch them if they let go of one friend.”
If you want to salvage the friendship, set up a time to talk to your friend about what’s been bothering you. Use “I” statements that focus on your feelings (e.g. “I feel hurt and confused when I don’t hear from you for a while”) rather than accusatory “you” statements (“You never reach out to me first. You clearly don’t care about me”) that will put them on the defensive. Once you’ve said your piece, be open to listening to what they have to say.
“There has to be a willingness to invest in the friendship by both people or else the conversation just won’t be productive,” Degges-White says.
“Making sure the friend understands that you’re coming from a place of hope and the desire to salvage the friendship is important,” she adds.
If the other person has no interest in trying to repair the friendship, that’s your cue to walk away.
“Friendships are totally voluntary relationships ― if one friend just isn’t into addressing problems when they’re identified by the other friend, nothing is likely going to change,” Degges-White says.
In other cases, you may determine that letting the friendship go is the healthiest choice. Depending on how close the two of you are, a “slow fade” approach could work in these situations.
“I don’t know if it’s always necessary to let the friend know that you want to break up with them,” psychotherapist Deborah Duley, founder of the counselling practice Empowered Connections, previously told HuffPost. “A slow decline in seeking them out is oftentimes enough for them to ‘get the message.’”
If you are close friends, however, then a conversation about why you’re walking away from the friendship may be necessary. Choose your words carefully. Make the breakup spiel about you and your needs, not the soon-to-be-ex friend and their wrongs, Degges-White says. Be prepared for the fact that they might get upset.
“If it is likely that you will still run into an ex-friend in the neighbourhood, at work, on campus, or at the gym, make sure that you end the relationship on as positive a note as possible,” she said.