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What's the Best Way to End a Toxic Friendship?

Ending friendships is never easy, but doing these three things ease the pain.

1. Make it about yourself and your needs, not their wrongs.

Too often, people will rush in and place blame on a friend who had wronged them when they are making the decision to terminate a friendship. Next, the person being blamed will immediately jump in to defend themselves from the verbal assault. Conflicts may erupt that can transition rapidly from serious discussions to flat-out fights when blaming begins.

Regardless of who might actually deserve the label of victim or perpetrator, avoid beginning any sentences with “fighting words” such as “You made me…” or “You should never have…” or “You are such a…” and so on. While letting someone know what you think may seem like the cleansing and cathartic choice, you are more likely to be setting yourself up for an unexpectedly ugly scene.

Owning your feelings and taking responsibility for how the relationship has unfolded or unraveled can be a much more freeing experience. By stating, “I really felt _________ when ____________ happened,” you are affirming your own personal reactions and needs.

By acknowledging your own feelings, you are recognizing what you do and do not want to experience within a friendship. By describing the action that created the negative feeling, you are acknowledging the behaviors that you will need to see as red flags in future relationships. Shaming and blaming may provide a very temporary feeling of victory, but being open and honest about what you will and will not tolerate in relationships will yield a much longer sense of satisfaction.

Unfortunately, no matter how well you work to keep the discussion on an even keel, your friend may choose to escalate the intensity and volume of the interaction. If you feel that things are getting out of hand and your efforts to keep the discussion productive have failed, you may need to diplomatically end the conversation and remove yourself from the scene.

Let the person know that you appreciate their feelings, but that it is not in anyone’s best interest to engage in an unproductive and hurtful exchange. The other person may not hear the message you are sending, but you will know that you have done the best that you can do given the current set of circumstances.

2. Acknowledge the benefits that the relationship has offered over time and express appreciation for the role this person has played in your life in the past.

After you have owned your feelings and acknowledged to your friend that you feel that the relationship is not working out for you, if there is something positive to share about the individual or the friendship, offer this information to them. Let them know that you had enjoyed having a gym buddy, or a lunch buddy, or a Saturday-night-no-date buddy, or neighborhood walking buddy, and so on. If you had shared taxi rides or carpooled together, mention these. If this person listened to you complain in the past or helped plan your wedding or held your hand as you dealt with the loss of someone you loved, let them know how much this meant. Most of us want to be let down easy and you can model this kindness and thoughtfulness for a soon-to-be-former friend and this person may actually learn something about the value of exhibiting the traits of a good friend.

By being willing to share what was positive in the relationship with your former friend, you are also sending a message to them about some behaviors that they might value in their other relationships. You are also affirming to yourself the behaviors that are of value to you, as well. Friendships are social exchange microsystems, so at some point, you received some form of benefit from your original investment in the relationship. If this person was just someone to speak to at work, then acknowledge that they had been able to help you feel more comfortable on the job. If they were willing to watch your pets one weekend or water your flowers or accompany you to a wine tasting or book club meeting, acknowledge this past kindness. While this may not be easy to do, it will leave you feeling so much better about how you chose to manage the break-up.

3. Shut down any “revenge fantasies” before they take hold.

While some people enjoy getting caught up in the conflict at hand and wallow in their anger and negativity, this is not the best choice for their mental health or emotional well-being. If you have been the victim of intentional hurt, offense, or disrespect, it is normal to feel anger and, for some, to have the desire to see the perpetrator face consequences for their behavior. Obsessing about this desire, however, is extremely detrimental to your own well-being.

Researchers have revealed some interesting things about the anticipated joy that is expected to occur through inflicting punishment/revenge on others. It turns out that the pleasure in plotting revenge actually diminishes your psychological well-being and engaging in punishment is further detrimental to your state-of-mind. Imagining retribution against your former friend causes you to hold onto negative feelings and engage in rumination much longer than if you just let the transgression go and move on in your life.

While forgiveness may be suggested by some as the key to a peaceful heart, not everyone is capable of forgiving those who have hurt them. However, consciously reminding yourself to “let it go” when you find yourself replaying the conflict in your head and actually “letting it go” is an achievable goal. The saying that living well is the best revenge may actually be true. It is important to keep yourself from allowing your former friend to have further control of your thoughts and feelings once the “friendship expiry date,” as it can be described, has passed.

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