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Toxic Friendships

Why we love and keep them

Many people are in the unenviable position of being mistreated by (someone they consider to be) a friend. You know the type of toxic character I’m talking about. The one who doesn’t seem to mind overwhelming you with all her problems but just as you’re about to do a little well-earned whining says she has to go because little Jimmy wants a glass of Bosco. How about your so-called best friend who “feels bad” but can’t find the time to give your car a jump because he can’t miss another day at the gym? And my personal favorite: the friend who’s so afraid to challenge his controlling spouse that he ends up sacrificing you in the process: “I couldn’t invite you to the party because Sally wouldn’t let me.”

We’ve all had to endure this sort of maltreatment in spurts—after all, we’re not the center of everyone’s universe. But why do some people accept this type of treatment on a consistent basis? Why is it so hard to rid oneself of someone who so clearly takes advantage? And should we? Should we sacrifice a relationship that may be years old? Should we abort only if a so-called friend does something drastically horrible to us? And what’s the definition of drastic? I’ve seen people struggle over dumping someone even after that someone stole money, or even worse…pilfered a partner.

I’ve arrived at the following list of tenets—along with some suggestions for combating them—with the help of many years of treating people in this situation, and from living life. Hopefully they’ll help to clear up some of the mystery surrounding the inability to “let go” and stop friendship abuse:

1. If you tolerate friendship abuse, there’s a good chance your threshold for other types of abuse is high. Ask yourself if you are currently being abused in other contexts such as in your primary relationship or at work. Question whether you have a tendency towards self-deprecation or even masochism. If you suffered from any form of abuse in your youth, you’re more at risk for seeking it out and staying in it as an adult.

2. If you have a fear of being alone or of being on your own, you’re more likely to have trouble letting go of even the most negative person in your life. Examine whether abandonment has been a lifelong issue for you. Many people who’ve experienced loss or abandonment as a child hang on—in real time—in an effort to cope with or repair a childhood loss. Remember, the more independent you are the better equipped you’ll be to go your own way if you must.

3. Everything is a tradeoff. If you feel that your selfish friend brings enough to the relationship to merit maintaining it, so be it. Just remember to do an honest assessment of the “give and take” so that you don’t fool yourself into staying in a bad situation for too long a time.

4. Is it a matter of assertiveness? Don’t be afraid to find out just how good a friend you’ve got. Oftentimes people are unaware of their behavior and some are open-minded enough to take constructive criticism. Gently tell your friend how one-sided you feel the relationship is. If he or she values the relationship as much as you do, perhaps you can start a new and better dynamic. If you’re at the point of dumping your friend, then you have little to lose by the confrontation.

5. In my opinion we tend to choose friends who are somewhat like us on a deeper level—as we do in our primary relationships. Hence, there’s a really good chance that your toxic freind might fear loss as much as you do. If your buddy can be vulnerable enough to own this, perhaps you’ll both work to keep the union intact. A word of warning: While your friend might fear loss, the fear might not necessarily manifest the same way yours does. So, don’t be surprised if you’ve gone to deep and touched a raw nerve. There’s risk involved, but the reward might be to rid yourself of anger, hurt, and ambivalence…whether the relationship lives or not.