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  • Sam DiFranco

Two Ways to Diagnose, and Treat, a Toxic Friendship

Many people come to therapy searching for insight into their problematic friendships. They may ask questions like:

  1. “They have known me forever, why can’t I be myself around them?”

  2. “Why do they always ruin every good thing I share with them?”

  3. “I don’t trust them to be honest with me. Is this normal?

  4. “Why do I always get tense and quiet when I’m around them?”

Because we invest so much time and trust in our friendships it can be hard to acknowledge when a platonic friendship has gone toxic. And calling out this problematic behavior can be even more difficult and confusing.

If these questions are running through your mind, here are two signs that your friendship has soured and that something needs to change.

They’re a low-key bully

Here’s a scenario. You and your best friend take shots at each other every now and then. But it’s all good, a little leg-pulling is healthy for a friendship.

However, you’ve started to feel uncomfortable lately. They throw you under the bus and humiliate you to make other people laugh. They pick on you in public settings and randomly reveal secrets they swore they would keep.

Research published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that bullying and aggression are actually more common within friend circles than outside of them. When a person resorts to victimizing someone for popularity or other goals they usually start with a friend.

Why? Because it’s easy and convenient. You know each other’s pressure points. The line between what flies and what doesn’t is often blurred in platonic relationships. You might end up feeling like you’re not sporting enough or that you’re too easily offended.

What’s important to remember in these moments is what hurts you, hurts you. Questioning the way you feel minimizes what you are going through. Some people even try to suppress these feelings to impress or prove themselves to their ‘frenemy.’

The truth is that there are only two ways to deal with such a situation.

  1. Have an honest conversation. It might be time to put your fear of confrontation aside and get real with your friend. Set boundaries about things that can and can’t be joked about. If they really care about you, they will listen and work on their behavior.

  2. Cut the cord. If your friend continues to bully you even after an explicit conversation, you might want to reconsider this person’s presence in your life. At the end of the day, friendships are supposed to be safe spaces. If you feel unsafe in a relationship, you’re probably better off without it.

They are a low-key parasite

Is there a friend in your life who only calls you when they need a ride? Have you started to avoid a certain friend’s calls because they only remember you when they need to vent? Is there a friend who always expects you to be there for them but never shows up for you?

These are all classic examples of parasitic friendships. A parasitic friend focuses too much on the ‘take’ aspect of the give-and-take dynamic of a friendship. While there is a utilitarian element to almost all friendships (e.g., carpooling, wardrobe exchanges, pet-sitting duties, etc.), things can get complicated when the help only flows in one direction.

A healthy friendship has mutual affection and respect at its core. If you suspect that a person might be more of a parasite than a friend to you, here are two questions you can ask yourself to gain clarity.

  1. Do you feel objectified? When this person asks for your help, do they offer their help in return? Do they express gratitude?  Do they consider how this act of help might be costing you? If your answer to these questions is a ‘no,’ you might be dealing with a parasitic individual — someone who makes you feel more like an object and less like a person.

  2. Do you feel drained by them? Parasitic friendships can be material or emotional (or both). A healthy friendship usually replenishes your emotional reservoir whereas a parasitic friendship can deplete it.

Research published in The British Journal of Social Psychology has shown that relationships rooted in utility rarely last (unless they are meant to be utilitarian, such as work relationships), as no one can be useful to another person forever. It is in your hands to end a friendship that is preying on you before they decide that they don’t really need you anymore.

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