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Toxic Friendships

How to stop the pain of a toxic friendship.

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A friendship that started with delight, good will, confidences and closeness changes – maybe slowly and quietly, maybe tumultuously – and is beginning to feel toxic. And you find yourself wondering whether there’s anything to be done but walk away.

Most of us have faced such a crossroads in a friendship.

“It happened to me many years ago,” my friend Linda confided recently. “I was in my first job as a magazine editor and my best friend at the time was a young actress. We were quite different in many ways, but we cared deeply about each other. We confided everything, talking far into the night. We laughed a lot and had so much fun together. We offered each other support and solace in crises and celebrated each other’s successes. When she won a starring role in a hit television series, I was ecstatic for her.”

The change in their relationship dynamics came gradually. As her bank account grew and she bought a lovely home, her friend began to make caustic comments about Linda's tiny studio apartment and modest finances. Linda was hurt but said nothing.

“It didn’t occur to me to be jealous,” Linda said. “I loved my job and where I was living. And I was so happy for my friend. But, more and more, she treated me as a lesser than. She started calling me at work, asking me to run errands for her during my lunch hour – even when she was on hiatus from filming. The fatal blow to our friendship came when she offered me the opportunity to quit the job I loved to become her live-in personal assistant. She was stunned when I declined. She called me an ungrateful idiot. And I walked away. We became strangers to each other, moving on with our very separate and different lives. I miss the closeness we once shared, but not the toxicity of that last year.”

How do you know when you’re in a toxic friendship?

The signs, at least initially, can be subtle. But if you’re beginning to feel diminished, depleted, used, criticized and worse when you’re with this person, it’s time to take a new look at the friendship.

Has the balance in your relationship tipped? Has your friend stopped valuing your feelings, your time and your choices as much as her own?

Are you feeling battered with blame, criticism, or barbed humor?

Is your friend lacking any interest or empathy for your problems and concerns? Has it become all about him or her – every day, all day? Do you feel trapped in her own personal psychodrama with no emotional breathing room?

Is he or she trying to distance you from other friends or from family members?

Has there been a shift in relationship dynamics – with your friend going from being supportive to putting you down or picking at you about your faults and short-comings?

Has she spread your secrets far and wide?

Has he or she tried to sabotage you at work or in your self-improvement efforts with belittling comments?

Do you feel torn between your loyalty to a friend and your need to decrease the stress that this relationship has brought to your life?

The answer isn’t always to simply walk away.

Look closely at what’s going on individually and between you. Is it possible that your friend’s self-absorption and seeming lack of reciprocal interest in your life is due to a life-changing crisis? Is he or she experiencing a painful loss? There’s a big difference between this friend and one who is perpetually self-absorbed. Good friends may need to talk or cry or otherwise spend much of their energy dealing with the crisis at hand, but most still usually have ongoing interest in and empathy for those close to them. If there has been a power shift between you – and your friend seems to be seeing you as lesser than, it’s time to take a look at ways you may be enabling this behavior and start to set limits.

Change your own behavior and see what happens. What might happen if you tell your friend how you feel about the changes in your relationship? How would it be if you said “No” to unreasonable requests? Or if you expressed a desire for more equality in the relationship? Or called him or her to task when the blame, criticism or belittling started once again? His or her reaction to your feelings and desire for major changes in your relationship may be a clue to what you need to do next.

If you don’t want to end the friendship, limit it. So maybe your friend is impervious to change or doesn't think there's a problem. How much stress are you willing to tolerate? What might make this friendship worth keeping? What makes it manageable for you? Maybe a long-time friend is fine long-distance or online, but increasingly hard to take in person. Maybe the friendship is viable with less time spent together. “I have a friend from college, someone I know well and care about, who puts me down when we talk on the phone,” Betty, a former client, once told me. “But she’s fine in emails. We live 1,000 miles apart so it’s easy to limit our exposure to each other. We have a long and rich history together. I’d rather not end the relationship totally, but that’s possible only by limiting my interactions with her.”

If change isn’t possible, let go. There are times when you need to end a toxic relationship for your own health, well-being and peace of mind. Ending a once cherished friendship can be painful. But it doesn’t have to be acrimonious. Not all friendships are meant to last a lifetime. You can wish a friend well. You can express gratitude for what you have shared. You can celebrate what you have learned and how you have grown during your time with this friend. You can choose to see this parting not as a failure but as a positive step in a new direction. Walking away from the pain and stress of a toxic friendship may be one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

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