Thank you to one of my good friends—Sharon Livingston, Ph.D., author of Get Lost, Girlfriend!: How I Found Myself When My Best Friend Dumped Me—who co-wrote this article with me.
A best friend can bring great joy, comfort, solace and fun to your life. People are pack animals. They love to roam together. They need friends to thrive, friends that share the good times and offer support in the bad.
Great friendships extend life. A 10-year-long Australian study showed that participants with solid friend groups were 22% more likely to live longer.
Unfortunately, a bad friend can have the opposite effect, yielding increased vulnerability to all the stress-related body signs—higher blood pressure, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), lowered immunity, higher blood sugar, depression, anxiety; the list goes on. But how do you know if you’re in a friendship that’s affecting your health and killing your spirit? (In the following examples, "her" applies equally to "him" if your best friend is a guy.)
What? Her other best friend gives her more? Does fun things you can’t? Has things in common with her that you would never want? And why do you know this about her other friend, anyway?
You call her and she tells you about how lousy her day has been, or how great her day was. Then you start telling her about what’s happening with you and...she apologizes but has to get off the phone because—well, she has many reasons why, but the reality is that she leaves without having listened to you or your concerns or joys.
Honesty is important in any relationship. But what happened to kindness? What’s this idea about brutal truth being something to aspire to? It’s still brutal—and damaging. She tells you, “You know, you are just too needy. It’s like you’re a stalker always coming after me.” What? No wonder you feel awful. Be sure you realize that her mean words probably are projections—that is, more accurate as descriptions of how she is than as descriptions of you.
Are you calling her, or texting her far more often than she reaches out to you? Do you feel like you’re more interested in talking and getting together than she is? Relationships get toxic when the other person isn’t as invested in you as you are in them. The opposite—feeling stalked by a friend's incessant demands on your time—can be disturbing as well.
But what about her? She sees no need to even recognize her own shortcomings, never mind to change them. It’s about what’s wrong with you. If only you changed, it would be fine. She’s not interested in seeing what she brings to the party—just in pointing fingers of criticism and blame on you.
At first, it was so fun to be with her. You laughed, you commiserated, it was such an enjoyable connection. Then something changed. She flipped. It’s so easy to get into trouble with her now. Better be careful. But then you start being overly careful, watching every word to avoid saying the wrong thing.
It started out as an amazing connection, and you felt so bonded, but now you can no longer predict what to expect. You always worry that she’s going to react negatively, or get upset with you. When it’s good, it’s great. But then, for some unknown reason you land on her enemies list and...what’s going to happen next?
You feel uncomfortable, worried, scared, off-balance. You think about her from a one-down position. And then something wonderful happens—suddenly she's full of appreciation for you again and you’re flying high. What were you worried about? Everything is fine. Then the next day, you can’t get in touch with her. The inconsistency and lack of predictability leaves you doubting everything. It’s crushing. Your self-esteem soars and then plummets.
You’re somaticizing, actually feeling ill as the stress impacts your body. You get back aches, neck pain—maybe she's really a pain in the neck? Instead of feeling bolstered by your connection, you start feeling weakened. Your body continues reacting. You feel anxious, get headaches and stomach upset, you have a hard time getting out of bed...
When you’re in a great friendship, it boosts your immune system. But toxic friendships are sickening. While relationships often have ups and downs, if you're on a wild ride, you may want to think about hopping off before you turn green. Friends are supposed to add to your life, not take away from it.
Sharon Livingston, PhD—psychologist, coach, business marketing consultant, and president of the ICCA (the International Coach Certification Alliance) is author of Get Lost, Girlfriend!: How I Found Myself When My Best Friend Dumped Me.
Susan Heitler, PhD is author of the self-help book and therapist manual, Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety, and More.
Heitler's interactive website PowerOfTwoMarriage.com teaches the skills that enable relationships of all types to stay emotionally healthy.