Toxic Friends Who Take More Than They Give
How do you decide when it's time to rethink a relationship?
Posted March 31, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Most of us probably have a good friend or two for whom we would spare our last dollar or give the proverbial shirts off our backs. Although we might not consciously recognize it, the favors we do for friends are investments in the friendship that we assume will pay off if, or when, we need a favor from a friend.
Here in the U.S., we especially tend to value a friendship exchange system in which reciprocity over time is enjoyed—this concept is termed the equality matching framework. This concept is built on the assumption that each friend holds a shared understanding of the value of the resources that are invested into the relationship and that each friend will honor this unspoken bargain.
Friendship Resources Include the Tangible and the Intangible
Friendship resources include a vast variety of things, both tangible and intangible. For instance, you might pick up the check for your friend’s meal when she’s short on cash and then her next payday will mean a payback for you. Your friend’s child is going to be a sunflower, a raindrop, or a face in the crowd in the elementary school play and your friend really wants you to accompany her on opening night. You agree to attend and a couple of months later, when you need someone to go with you to the opening reception for the modern art exhibit you had been eagerly anticipating, your modern art loathing friend will go with you because she knows she owes you—and she likes you, too.
Although long-term friendships don’t require a “ping pong payback” right away, newly developing and newly established friendships typically do. That’s how trust is built. You take a risk—such as self-disclosure or favor providing—and your new friend responds with a similar leap of faith and investment of personal, social, or material resources.
Once a pair of friends has built up a history of trust and equitable sharing, favors don’t have to be returned quite so quickly. However, when the length of time between favor done and favor returned stretches too long for comfort, it may leave one wondering if the old saying is true — that no good deed goes unpunished.
What Is Your Economic Philosophy?
If you are the kind of person who believes strongly that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” then you might have a harder time doing more for a friend than he does for you in the early stages of a relationship. If you cannot imagine ever “buying a round for the gang” or picking up the tab for the person in the line behind you in the Starbucks drive-through, it may also be difficult for you to invest tangible resources in a budding friendship. Knowing your limits from the outset will make it easier for you to balance your friendships in a way that makes sense for you.
No one should be the one who is always giving, but there will be times when a friend’s needs might outweigh her investment. That leaves it up to you to decide whether it is worth your time, energy, investment in keeping the social exchange going. If you are always saving for a rainy day, you may miss the opportunity to enjoy a last-minute vacation with a friend or splurge on a girls’ day out at the spa. If you are flat out broke, in debt, or living from paycheck to paycheck, and you love your friend, withhold judgment of her financial decisions and find ways to enjoy her companionship that don’t put your opposing economic circumstances or philosophies in the spotlight. Your friend treats you to a massage? Then be willing to train with her as she prepares for the upcoming half-marathon if she asks!
However, when a toxic friend keeps taking, taking, and taking some more, it is up to you to draw the line and say, "No more."
Some of us might use the term karma to describe the benefits of keeping the friendship balance in check—others might connect this to the earth religion-based Law of Threefold, that whatever you send out into the universe comes back to you multiplied by three. Others might rely on the wisdom of the Golden Rule, which is pretty much endorsed by every faith group around the globe. Even if our friends don’t keep a scorecard, literally or metaphorically, it is important that you show your appreciation for their goods deeds done for you by doing them a good turn every chance you get.
For more, check out my book: Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends who Break Them.