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7 Signs That You're in a Toxic Friendship

When friendships become draining, it may be time for you to get out.

We've all heard the studies about the important role friendships play in our emotional and physical well-being. Most of us would agree that having a few good friends to whom we can turn in times of joy and sorrow, or even for simple distraction, is a real plus in life—and, at times, even necessary for our survival.

So how could friendship ever be a bad thing? Here are seven ways, each a good reason to move on from an unhealthy friendship:

1. They take and you give.

If over time you notice that the balance between giving and receiving leans heavily toward you giving, and your friendship rarely focuses on your needs, it's time to have a talk. If after making it clear that you want a more equal relationship it is obvious that you have become a permanent caretaker to your "friend," you can either charge professional fees or gracefully move on.

2. They do not support who you are.

Good-natured teasing is not unexpected in friendships, nor necessarily unwelcome, but when criticism and put-downs become a regular part of your conversations, it has stopped being a friendship that will enhance your emotional health. A friend's digs may be aimed at lowering your status in the relationship in order to elevate their own. This does even greater harm when it takes place in public. Speak up, tell your friend you want to be treated with respect, and if it is a person you would like to keep around, give him or her time to change. If the response to your request is more criticism, move on.

3. They cannot be trusted with your secrets.

A few proven trustworthy friends can be an essential part of a healthy life. This "circle of trust" is typically a small, hand-picked group that may need to be reevaluated from time to time based on your experience. Most of us also have several superficial friendships in which we share only things that are common knowledge and don't require much scrutiny, but those who get to hear our secrets must be true-blue and also be willing to trust you with their inner thoughts as well. Keeping in mind that human beings are imperfect and may slip up, if a friend does this more than once, or in a cruel fashion, you need to be honest about your hurt and disappointment and either end the friendship or shift it back to the superficial category.

4. They bring out the worst in you.

Some friends are just not well enough to be what you need them to be. When you have an emotional "growth spurt," you may find that your oldest friend isn't able to go along with you into a healthier future. They might actually prefer that you keep drinking; advise you to start dating only days after a separation; tell you to leave a relationship when you haven't even tried to work on it; or suggest that plastic surgery would be the solution to your low self-esteem. If it is time to let go, start bringing healthier friends into your life and gradually decreasing time with your old friend. You may end up influencing him or her in a positive way but keep in mind that we're unlikely to change anyone with advice or lectures.

5. They consistently disappoint you.

When a friend makes a plan with you where your expectation is a time for intimate sharing and catching up, and without warning they bring along another friend you don't know, it's a little upsetting but we can get over it. If they cancel plans for a great concert you were going to see together and take a date instead, you might be able to accept it, after some time talking and making amends. If they borrow money from you and then buy themselves a new jacket without paying you back, you may need to stop loaning money and seriously talk about your feelings. If episodes like all of the above are occurring with some regularity, you may get tired of expecting him or her to treat you with respect—and sick of requesting change with no results. This pattern is unlikely to change and it is time to move on and spend time with more reliable, considerate people.

6. They don't like or respect your spouse, child or family.

It is not easy to balance all of our important relationships and maintain healthy interactions with all of them. We rely on friends to help us see the other side of things and to listen to us when we need to complain about someone who is a challenge for us. Sometimes we appreciate someone who will agree with us that our partner is being unreasonable or pig-headed. If that friend goes further, though, with their own feelings of dislike for those we care about, trouble can begin. Friendships that start to separate us from those we love, either in how we spend our time or what we are comfortable talking about, may drain our energy rather than enhance our lives. A friend who is opposed to your choice of intimate partner may undermine that relationship, especially at vulnerable times. If this friend is only one of many who oppose the relationship you may need to be clear about the true source of your discomfort before you give up a friend you will regret losing in the future. But if the friend is speaking from his or her own insecurity, jealousy or just general meanness, you need to honor your primary relationship and focus on friends who support your choice.

7. Your friend wants a romantic relationship and you don't.

Many people try to maintain platonic relationships with previous or potential romantic partners. Rarely is this a workable arrangement. More often, it ends badly and with sometimes serious consequences. But this is a preventable problem when common sense prevails. When we are honest with ourselves, we can recognize the truth that one of the two friends is hoping the relationship will become more and hanging on until it does. Once attraction begins to surface, it becomes impossible to ignore and generally requires the end of a friendship. The best policy may be to keep the lovers of your past in your past. An exception might be after many years have passed without contact and both individuals are clear and secure with new committed partners. An additional condition would be that your current partner does not find it threatening and is included in social situations with this friend.

My personal experiences with friendship have been varied: As a young girl I saw friends in a self-centered way, as a means to social connection, not knowing how to share myself with them or be present for them. Fortunately, I was able to learn and grow in my understanding of the important role that deep, long-term friendships can play in a healthy life. My focus shifted from quantity of friends to quality—both in what I gave and what I hoped to receive.

In addition to the love and connection I am blessed to enjoy with my family, I would now say that my friends provide a secure place for me to return to when I'm struggling, to consult with when I'm dreaming, and to celebrate when I'm flourishing. I truly hope that I do the same for them, and that you do for yours.

About the Author

Ann Smith is the author of the books Grandchildren of Alcoholics and Overcoming Perfectionism.