The Friendship Doctor

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When someone has an emotional problem: Does that change the rules of friendship?

Letting go of the friendship doesn't necessarily make you a bad person

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

How do you deal with a friendship that has become toxic, either due to depression, borderline disorder, or both?

I have been close with my friend for seven years and our relationship has slowly eroded over time. Her emotional issues---lack of accountability, twisting situations, and never being able to act, say, or behave as one would expect---have taken a toll. 

If I remain friends, the pattern only repeats itself. If I try to step back or walk away for a bit, I am the bad one for abandoning the friendship. 

If a friendship is toxic because of mental illness, should I handle it differently?

Signed,

Bel

 

ANSWER

Dear Bel,

That's a tough question---I think you really need to consider your decision very carefully and then go with your gut. If I were in your shoes, I would tend to make some special allowances---within reason---for someone who is having mental or emotional issues. 

Would you abandon a friend who is being treated for cancer or heart disease? You probably would be more likely to rush in to provide help and support. Unfortunately, mental and emotional disorders can be very alienating and take their toll on interpersonal relationships. Sometimes, people are so frightened by disorders of the brain that they instinctively back off. I give you credit for thinking this through so carefully. 

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Some issues that might make you decide to maintain the relationship or let go:

1) Have you expressed your discomfort to your friend? Does she acknowledge that something is wrong? Is there any hope on the horizon that things will change in her life?

2) Is your friend taking responsibility for the problem by seeking help from a mental health professional? Many problems are too big for even the best of friends to handle.

3) Is the person totally draining you or so dependent on your that it is taking a toll on your own emotional health, well-being, and other relationships?

4) Are there ways that you still find the relationship reciprocal and gratifying---or has it become totally one-sided? Do you think you could depend on your friend if you really needed her?

If your friend agrees, you might want to see if her therapist can help her (or help you and her) work through some of the problems that are arising in your friendship. 

If you do decide that you need to change this relationship or end it, try to do so in a way that minimizes the hurt and pain for someone who may be very needy and have few other friends. One thing you might want to do is to downgrade the relationship so that you spend less time together rather than ending it completely. 

Letting go of the friendship doesn't necessarily make you a bad person---as long as you carefully think about your decision, consider all the consequences, and find ways to gently minimize the blow it might be to someone who is already burdened by significant problems.

I hope this is helpful.

Best,
Irene

 

Other posts that touch on friendship and mental/emotional problems

Tell your friends: Mental illnesses are no-fault disorders

Psych 101: When a close friend is depressed

Disappearing Acts: When friends disappear after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder

Relating to a friend in crisis

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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