Wendy Grace offers advice for when it’s time to walk away from an unhealthy friendship
The firststep to dealing with a ‘toxic friend’ is recognising that you have one. Often we don’t realise that these types of friendships exist in our lives. The term ‘toxic friendship’ refers to a variety of relationship types that are consistently negative and draining. Sometimes we can try to rationalise the behaviour of ‘toxic friends’ because we care about them and, unfortunately, sometimes we believe the negativity they project onto us.
It seems that St Francis de Sales in his book The Devout Life was way ahead of me here on this topic! His thoughts are certainly helpful in identifying a ‘toxic friend’. St Francis stresses the importance of friendships which bring out the good and, in turn, create a stronger more precious friendship.
He warns of the difference between true and false friendship, of friends who may confuse our judgments, in how we treat others and, also, how we feel about ourselves. For example, we might have a friend who loves to gossip and the more time you spend with them the more we engage in hurtful gossip about others. Ask yourself, does this friendship make you do things that you would not be proud of?
Sometimes it can be a friend who always is willing to take from you in many ways; be it emotionally, financially or spiritually, but they seem never willing to give, whereas you always seem to be the ‘shoulder to cry on’ but they are never there for you. It is a friend who is not good for you, a friend who puts you down at every opportunity or never seems to be fully happy when you have good news or someone who might talk behind your back or break a confidence.
When thinking of these descriptions it is important to note that a ‘toxic friend’ is not defined by a once off occasional lapse or row but by patterns that are constantly repeated.
Once you recognise you have a ‘toxic friend’ in your life you have to make the decision whether you want to try and salvage the friendship or walk away. This is where real reflection is needed. Was your friendship always this way or did something change?
Often when people are being unkind there is something else going on that is unknown, to you.
The first step, therefore, is sitting down to talk, to see if there is some other reason for this behaviour. Generally, people don’t behave in a ‘toxic’ way if they are truly happy. So you have to ask yourself the question; what is making them unhappy in the first place? Can you help? Try to discover the underlying cause of their unhappiness and see if you can be a true friend in helping your friend work through it.
Start the conversation by validating the importance of their friendship to you, make it clear that it is not about blame, but because you value their friendship and you want to work through the current issues.
It is very important to articulate your point of view from a place of concern, both about the friendship and trying to discover the underlying reason for your friend’s behaviour towards you.
Resist the temptation to blow up in their face. As you prepare yourself to tell them how they have been hurting you, hold off on giving them a piece of your mind. This, in itself, is negative. If you start off negatively, it automatically puts the other person on the defensive, when what you need is for them to communicate and try to, hopefully, work on salvaging your friendship. This does not mean that you don’t make it very clear that you are upset. Articulate how you are feeling and how the way they have treated you has been extremely hurtful. Do this from an extremely calm standpoint and you will come across with more poise and clarity.
You also must be prepared to listen to what your friend has to say. Perhaps it has been something in your behaviour, that you are unaware of, that has led to this change in your friendship. You have to be ready to acknowledge, and accept, your own mistakes.
If your friend has an inability to hear you and ‘own’ her unsupportive comments, then, I would venture a guess and suggest that she is stuck in her own restrictive point of view, unable to see beyond her own struggles and challenges.
Make it clear you are not on the attack or giving up on your friendship but are trying to offer understanding, consideration and compassion. If, after this approach, your friend does not acknowledge their bad behaviour and apologise or, at least, make an effort to change, then, ultimately, you may have to take some time apart from this friend.
Do not let resentment build up if you cannot resolve the situation immediately. Merely accept that, at this time, your friend is unable to see your point of view or see beyond their own struggles and challenges.
If you feel, after these steps, that you cannot continue the friendship the next question is – how do you break away?
A good starting point to ascertain whether you should break ties is asking yourself, does this person bring me further away from God? If a friendship is one that is bringing you further away from God, then, it is wise to consider the goodness of this friendship, not only for you but for them. True friends bring out the best in each other, rather than the worst.
Begin by setting new boundaries on the time that you spend together or the demands your ‘toxic friend’ places on you. For example, “Sorry, I can’t meet every Wednesday because I am going to spend more time with my family at that time.” Make it clear that you need to focus on other things.
Set future encounters with them on your own terms. You do not have to answer every call or accept every invitation to meet up. You do not need to justify your actions or explain yourself. Letting the friendship ‘fizzle out’ may well be the best route. None of us know the path that God is bringing the other down and you never know when this friend may re-enter your life.
This might mean that you have to give this person space, right now, but you must be open to the fact that people can change and that you can leave the door open to a future friendship. With this in mind, you do not need to feel guilty, you are not ditching a friend, you are simply saying no to the current state of the friendship.
The situation must always be handled with a truly gentle heart, as you it is absolutely imperative to avoid any sort of bitterness or resentment building. A good measure of how you are handling the changing nature of your friendship is that you should feel fully comfortable should you ‘bump into them’ at any time.
Remember, if you have made the decision to cut ties, this does not mean that the friendship can never be salvaged; perhaps now is the time for you both to have space. If now is not the time that you can repair the toxicity, then forgive them and move on, all the while leaving the door to your friendship’s being renewed at another point.
How to recognise an unhealthy friendship
Does spending time with your friend make you feel defensive or upset?
Do you spend time justifying your own behaviour around your friend?
Do you feel belittled, attacked or used?
Does the friendship feel unbalanced or like hard work?
Do you feel at fault for things that happen to your friend?
Has your friend betrayed your confidences?
Does it feel like competition rather than a balanced and caring friendship?