Mind & Body

How to know if you’re in a toxic friendship (and when it’s worth saving)

Do you feel stuck in a friendship that shows signs of being toxic? Is your friend totally disrespecting you and trying to control you?  This is how you can break-off the friendship and feel good about it.

Having one or two best friends is essential for our happiness and emotional wellbeing. These unique relationships usually form spontaneously when we meet someone who we believe to be similar to ourselves and have personalities that elicit joy, companionship, and growth – at least during the initial stages of friendship.

As with any relationship, friendships too require nurturing so the bond doesn’t fade over time and we get to enjoy the benefits of deep fulfilment and meaning that long-term friendships offer.

Dr Hanna Korrel, clinical neuropsychologist and author of How To Breakup With Friends explains how strong and healthy friendships are built on a foundation of four key elements: trust, support, affection and respect.

When these pillars that support a lifelong connection are not cultivated and the interaction starts leaving you feeling like you’re always underneath a stormy cloud of misery and confusion then you’ve entered toxic friendship territory.

Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.

“The best sign you’re in a toxic friendship is the way it makes you feel when you walk away from the interaction,” says Dr Korrel.

“Passive-aggressive behaviour can actually be very subtle – think one moment they’re really nice and supportive and the next they’re undermining and speaking down to you – this confuses us and we can’t recognise a toxic friendship very easily,” she says.

“Therefore, instead of looking out for a specific behaviour look for the feeling inside yourself, if you feel worse than when you entered the interaction because they’re chipping away at your self-worth, you’re friendship is toxic.”

When is a friendship worth saving?

When Emma met Ava five years ago, they quickly became inseparable.

“Initially the dynamic was fun and we really bounced off each other, but she had very strong opinions on what was right and wrong and I always felt like I had to go along with what she wanted,” says Emma.

The friendship took a turn when Emma started dating a guy in their shared circle of friends.

“Ava started sending me endless paragraphs of text telling me that she didn’t agree with my decisions,” says Sarah.

“I think she felt terrified of how my relationship choice changed our group dynamic and this was her way of trying to keep things the way they were.”

While not all threats to friendships evoke controlling a best friend’s emotions, new US research found that when friendships were threatened by another person – such as a potential romantic partner – the predominant feeling was jealousy which also led people to commit to being a better friend.

“Getting jealous can sometimes be a signal that a friendship is threatened, and this signal can help us jump into action to invest in a friendship that we might have been neglecting,” says Professor Athena Aktipis, study author.

Dr Korrel notes that if the four fundamental elements for a healthy friendship are there, then their behaviour may be the temporary result of them simply going through a hard time at the moment – and we can cut them some slack.

“If the poor behaviour is due to benign jealousy – it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s probably just a sign that they admire you and want to be your best friend which is a great thing, so you should take the time to repair the rupture,” she says.

“Conversely, if the envy is malicious where the friendship is enveloped in negativity, manipulation, or even being a classic ‘one-upper,’ – it may be time to cut ties.”

How to sever ties

Dr Korrell says if you want to give them a second chance, it’s a conscious process of asserting your boundaries and clearly and calmly communicating the unacceptable behaviour.

“If after this grace period nothing has changed it’s time to cut ties and move on.”

For Emma, following months of trying to talk things through, both in person and over text, she decided to cut communication off completely and stop replying to messages.

“I felt like we were never going to see eye to eye so walking away was the best thing I could do for my mental health,” she says.

“The process was awful but liberating. I was also drinking very heavily through our friendship and I realise in hindsight that was probably a coping mechanism.”

Dr Korrel suggests breaking up a friendship over text is the better way because you can carefully consider what you want to write which also includes the privacy of sending and receiving messages.

“It’s more controlled and less likely to result in a conflict if you or your friend don’t have the temperament to be able to handle a mature conversation either face-to-face or over the phone. This will also safeguard you from turning out to be the toxic friend if you start yelling and screaming in the heat of the moment.”

Most importantly, remember that when you go through a friend breakup, you’re both doing the best you can at the time.

“Do it gracefully as a few years down the road you might cross paths again and be in a better place to rekindle the friendship,” says Dr Korrel.

Maintain integrity within yourself and don’t do anything that’s toxic towards yourself.”