Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Why Toxic Friendships Are Bad Investments

Are you a savvy investor or are your friendships bleeding you dry?

When others do you wrong, where do you draw the line? Just about everyone likes to be liked. Whether we are afraid of ticking off the server at a restaurant or of irritating the people behind us in line when we can’t find our credit card in our wallet, most of us feel bad when our actions or words create distress for others. We all are taught to “play fair” from our earliest social situations. Which is why it can be hard for some of us to handle “friends” who play by their own rules and ignore the social niceties that we hope would prevail.

How many of us have blocked off time on our calendar – while living over-scheduled lives already – to meet a friend for coffee, shopping, a double date, or a w(h)ine-and-dine session, and then, at the last minute, received a text, call, or email from the friend apologizing that they have to cancel? This is as irritating, for many, as a flat-out betrayal.

Friendship development is often likened to an economic exchange: We give to others on faith that they will give back to us, if needed. We choose whom to befriend and how much to invest in the relationship with an eye towards “ROI,” or return on investment. This happens at an unconscious level for most people. We don’t necessarily size up someone and think, “She would be a shrewd investment of my attention and support.” But we may be thinking, “I enjoy spending time with her and although she can be a little (your pet peeve here), it’s worth it in the end, because I really think she is (your favorite trait here).”

And so we tolerate a friend’s habit of canceling at the last minute because we really dig hanging out with her when we are able to connect.

Sticking with this economics-based perspective, it may be that we seek the “break-even point” in each relationship, and this be different among different friends. If you value humor over thoughtfulness, you may tolerate a friend’s habit of forgetting your birthday or your partner's name if she can consistently conjure fits of sidesplitting laughter that help you forget the hassles of your day. Or you may tolerate a friend’s miserly way of calculating every restaurant tip to the last penny, and never going over 15 percent, if she's also always there when you need someone to listen to you kvetch about your job, family, or life in general.

The thing is, each of us has a line in the sand which no one we consider a true friend should cross. And we each value a different set of character traits and unique personalities, so one person’s “bad investment” may attract us. Learning how to draw our own line means learning about who you are and what you value.

Your personal values inform all the relationships decisions you make, for better and worse. You have to use your own intuition and gut feeling to know when to pull out of a relationship before you lose more emotional capital than you can afford to spend. If you've reached the point that you're maintaining a balance sheet in your head about a specific friend, chances are the relationship has already sapped more energy than you can afford.

We should value and save keep our intangible worth as well as we do our tangible resources. Only through valuing our own assets and strengths will be able to encourage like esteem from others or be able to let go of friendships in which we get robbed. Protect your inner wealth from shady friends just like you protect your external wealth from shady deals.

 

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Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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