Friends can be hard work. While it doesn’t mean they are ‘toxic’, the whole point of friendships is to care for and be cared for by another, right? Ups and downs, thicks and thins, and all that. Natalie Brown wades through the murky waters of sinking friendships, and sees what steps we can take to make it back to dry land.
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Friendships aren’t new, but we’re in a golden age and our attention to them has deepened. #SquadGoals taught us that women find strength in numbers, and intense platonic bonds are all over the cultural landscape, in books like Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, TV shows like Broad City and Girls or films such as Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, in which the lead character abandons her prom date to spend the evening dancing goofily with her best friend.
But with all this celebration of friendship comes a certain amount of pressure, especially when things with your best friend might start to go… south. It’s so easy to unsubscribe, to unfollow people on Instagram; to break that connection with a click of a button. But in real life, with real friends, it’s much harder. It’s messy.
In high school, I had the textbook version of a best friend: let’s call her Meg. Long afternoons together after school, combined names, first swigs of alcohol — you name it, there wasn’t a right of passage we didn’t navigate together. Later, when we became housemates — and even when it seemed like we were too grown up for using the term ‘best friends’ — there was no other way to describe our bond. This wasn’t just someone who I shared a kitchen with; this was a person whose face I could draw by memory, whose order I would’ve known at any fast food restaurant. Meg was my secret keeper, my weekend plans, my safety net. Our Friday nights consisted of watching rom-coms, and while those films always seemed to end with some version of Richard Gere climbing out of a limo sun-roof to be with his true love, we knew we had it better: each other.
There’s more to friendship than timing and circumstance. A truly great friendship can feel almost magic. But you can’t deny context.
It’s hard to maintain an active connection to someone when your focus or the dynamic starts to shift. Things can turn toxic if one or both parties start feeling angry or resentful, or simply disinterested.
Senior Manager at ReachOut Jackie Hallan says there are signs to keep an eye out for, if things start feeling toxic. “Some common things you might notice are that the person has an angry attitude towards life, they gossip and that they criticise you,” she advises. Ultimately, though, “when you break it down, if someone’s behaviour is no longer making you feel good about yourself then now is a good time to step back and consider if the person’s behaviour is toxic and if it’s a friendship you really want to be in.”
Think about how you’re feeling in the lead-up or aftermath of an interaction. Do you dread seeing this friend? Do you have a sinking feeling when their message pings on your screen? Do you feel depleted after seeing them? Or a bit pissed off, hurt or exhausted?
You are the best gauge of how the friendship is working for you.
During our second year of university, I started to feel suffocated by and anxious about our friendship — though it took ages for me to acknowledge that some cracks had started to appear. Over time it got really hard. Meg was easily aggravated and I lived in fear of disagreeing with her or making decisions independently. When we spent time together, it was doing the things that she wanted to do, eating at the places where she wanted to eat. I felt like a silent partner in our friendship and was too afraid to confront her about it; to call her out on the behaviour that bothered me. So over time, we drifted and a tension crept in.
None of us like the idea of losing a friend, and so dealing with toxic friendships can be really difficult. “Confronting a situation can make you feel really uncomfortable in the moment,” explains Jackie, “but it’s important to be honest and clear about how you’re feeling so that things can improve, or at least not escalate.”
Consider what you want to say before talking to your friend. “When you’re ready, say ‘no’ when your friend asks for something that makes you feel uncomfortable, point out to them when they’re acting mean or being critical of you, and tell them about how their behaviour makes you feel. It’s good to use ‘I’ statements in this type of convo — for example, ‘When you say that, I feel bad about myself’.”
“It’s important to remember that your friend may not be aware that their behaviour bothers you,” says Jackie. “Talking to them and letting them know how you’re feeling might help you establish some healthy boundaries.” While this might be all that’s necessary, it’s also okay to acknowledge that some people don’t deserve a second chance.
“If these things aren’t working, it’s okay to tell your mate that if they aren’t willing to treat you better, then it might be best if you parted ways.”
The slow drift.
What nobody tells you is that sometimes friendships don’t end in an explosive, fiery mess. I’m not especially confrontational and hadn’t really fallen out with friends in the past. In this case, there were no dramatic fights, accusations or insults, and equally there were no calm, maturing conversations about the ways in which it wasn’t working. Rather, it was a slow drift. And now, I no longer need her in the way I once did. When we see each other at social events I just feel a dull ache. But I’m also relieved to not feel suffocated and anxious. I feel more free to carve out a space for myself and make decisions without consultation: I finally remember how it feels to turn right without a tug to the left.
“Research has shown that the better the quality of your relationships, the more likely you are to be happy,” says Jackie. “So, being a great friend to someone and having friends support you back is good for your wellbeing.”
A reason, a season, a lifetime.
When I was younger, friendship was easy. I wrote letters with coloured gel pens to friends sitting right next to me; talked on the phone for hours, sitting on my kitchen floor with the cord twisted around my hand. Now, as an adult, I have a job and bills and responsibilities outside of the universe of best friends. As my world has expanded, I’ve learnt that not all friendships are made to last forever — some are short but deep, or weird but perfect, or long and low-humming. Proximity helps; similar schedules and circles make it easier.
But here are the things that remain consistent. “A good friend walks the talk and shows that they care by their actions — big and small,” says Jackie. “Signs of a healthy friendship include mutual respect, loyalty, supporting each other through the tough times and people who accept who you are.” Good friends are forgiving of our work and study-induced black-hole absences, or when we bail. Good friends are there — chocolate in hand, shoulder to cry on at-the-ready – when it feels like the walls are caving in. Good friends let us take pressure off our knees and share the weight of the world.
Good friends do not think, and never tell us, that we suck.
If you’re wondering whether your friendship is toxic, here are some signs. Your friend might:
~ seem angry about life
~ gossip about others or about you
~ criticise you, either subtly or not
~ remind you of your past failures
~ try to manipulate you into feeling a certain way or doing something you don’t want to do
~ stress you out
~ demand too much, without giving anything back.
List thanks to Reachout