How to Spot a Toxic Friendship: Things to Consider

Around this time last year, I realized that I was surrounded by several problematic, toxic people. I seemed to learn the same lesson over and over again—toxic, abusive relationships aren’t just limited to the people we’re romantically involved with and both can be equally as consequential and personally damaging.

I’ve written a lot about unhealthy relationships on this blog in the past, but today I think we should talk about something that’s often overlooked: toxic friendships.

I was friends with this guy all through high school and a little bit into college—and at times the friendship was really beneficial, and at times it was really, really bad. Stupid jokes were fine when we were fourteen, but through the years the friendship became more and more problematic. Whenever we would make plans, we would always end up doing what he wanted to do. Other times, he would leave little space for me in the conversation. I would text him that I was having a bad day and a message exchange later the conversation would have flipped to be about him. He would say mean things to me and then claim to be joking.

It wasn’t until the friendship ended that I looked back and wondered why it lasted so long.

There’s something about friendships—especially friendships between men and women that we excuse, somehow we think poor treatment is okay because you’re just friends and not romantically involved.

That’s not true.

That also doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean that unhealthy or even abusive behaviors can’t work their way into a relationship.

Here’s some things to think about if you think your friendship is toxic:

1) Are they always looking for you to be who you were at the beginning of the friendship?

If you’ve been friends with someone for a while or over a period years, it’s normal that you’ll grow as a person, learn new things, and mature (hopefully). These are positive things.

Think back to who you were in middle school. It’s tough, I know. I have a point, I promise.

You might have dyed your hair, you might have downloaded embarrassing songs onto your iPod, you might have been mean to kids in your class.

But you grew up, found new interests, and shed old habits. This is part of being a person.

People—especially women—are taught that being a good person means being a good friend, and being a good friend means being who their friends expect them to be. I encountered this a lot in high school and sometimes in college where I would act a certain way in front of some friends and then hide aspects of myself in front of others.

This comes from a need to accommodate others, but this isn’t healthy and it will make your relationships surface-level rather than fulfilling.

We are rarely taught to think about the ways we should—and deserve to—benefit from our friendships.

2) Can you be yourself unapologetically with them and express your thoughts and opinions?

It’s likely that you will come across people who you have differing opinions with. This can be a positive thing—they can open you to new ideas and ways of critical thinking. But this only positive if your friend doesn’t stifle your thoughts, opinions, and values that you bring to the table.

The same friend I was referring to before used to always challenge the way I felt and invalidate my thoughts—especially when it came to social justice issues I care about. Given that things like body image, healthy relationships, activism, etc. are things that I take the time to blog about and have conversations in my everyday life about, it clearly matters to me.

Your friends don’t have to share the same passions you have, but they do have to respect them.

3) Does the occasional bad outweigh the good?

Because we oftentimes receive false cultural messages about what respect looks like, it can be easy to minimize feelings of being disrespected as “overreacting.”

But here’s the deal: from time to time, friends might say or do things that hurt you—but this shouldn’t happen on regular basis.

A good exercise to do when thinking about how healthy the friendship is to think about how often you feel happy with this person. Do you genuinely enjoy your time together or do you always find yourself waiting for them to cancel plans or make an insulting comment?

If it’s the second, this friendship may be damaging to your well-being and anxiety and resentment can build up.

4) Do they feel entitled to your friendship?

This is a big one that I’ve encountered with a lot of past friends—especially male friends (speaking from my own experience). People who think they can behave however they want and say whatever they want and then feel as if you don’t have the right to take offense or expect an apology when they hurt you—even if it was unintentional—are not worth your energy.

Especially for women, it can be different to walk away from people who hurt us. Because oftentimes those exact people do an excellent job minimizing and invalidating our feelings.

I remember when I would call my friend out for things, he would later send me text messages explaining how he didn’t actually do anything wrong, that I had unrealistic expectations for him as a friend. In reality, I was expecting him to be a relatively decent person towards me. But he felt as if he could act in ways that upset me, and it was my job to get over it.

When our friendship came to its inevitable end and I told him to stop contacting me, I received text messages and Facebook messages telling me he didn’t do anything wrong, asking me why I wasn’t answering, and demanding that we start hanging out again.

I received these messages for an entire year after our friendship ended.

It wasn’t until I wrote about this friend awhile later for a writing exercise in class that I finally used words like “manipulation” and “harassment.”

It doesn’t matter if you appreciate their company and laugh and have a good time 40% of time if the other 60% involves that person making you feel inadequate. What you experience might not be abuse with a capital A—but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t toxic and that it doesn’t hurt.

Emotional pain is still pain no matter who’s inflicting it.

Either way—you deserve better.

You can love someone and care about someone, as a friend—and they can still treat you badly.