The topic of toxic friendships is something that seems to have been popping up a lot lately. Any recently published self help books (especially those aimed at ‘life makeovers’ and ‘getting your sh*t together’) always seem to band the term around freely, often prompting the reader to over-evaluate all the relationships in their life to see if they fall in to this definition of toxic. In the extreme, anything less than a perfect friendship is seen as a barrier to you becoming the best version of yourself; and this imperfect relationship seems to shoulder the blame for all those things in other areas of your life that aren’t quite working out.
In reality, most people seem to call on different friends for different things; you might feel comfortable asking for sex advice from an ex-housemate from uni, but the idea of getting that advice from your primary school bestie or your work friend might make you feel all kinds of awkward. And it might make them feel all kinds of awkward too; because you’ve set different boundaries with different people, and that’s totally okay.
Occasionally, there will also be people that you realise you’re not actually comfortable talking to about anything, or you find their conversations consistently grating, aggressive or provocative. If you’ve got a friend who always talks about themselves and never asks about you, is snarky about your boyfriend/girlfriend whenever they aren’t around (or even to their face, speaking from very awkward experience…) or even belittles another friend, it may be time to rethink your relationship with them. Depending on your outlook, any of those things could be a deal-breaker in terms of a continued friendship, or if you’re more forgiving, they could be a signal that you need to at least attempt to talk it out. This person could even be a family member, in which case talking to them about it should probably be your first call of action.
It’s probably a good idea to be prepared for the chance that a constructive conversation could quickly turn into a row, no matter how level-headed you feel going into it. From my perspective, arguing with your friends in your twenties is a bizarre thing. That pettiness and almost enthusiasm for confrontation (although we still all love a bit of drama sometimes!) of your teens has been lost, but you also can begin to feel hurt for not being prioritised or being left out of things. All of which can resurface quickly in a confrontation, as you angrily begin to reel off all the times they’ve cancelled plans last minute for the last 4 years of friendship.
And if all this talking (or shouting…) it out doesn’t work? It might be time to step away.
But stepping away and moving on isn’t always as easy as you think. Generalising massively, I think my generation has now reached that stage of adulting where we can outwardly let friendships go without hard feelings, whilst inwardly we seethe and obsess over every detail of that last Facebook chat which we read over and over, holding onto that grudge for far often than we should. Often we then begin forwarding screenshots of that conversation to our S/O or other friends for the entirely biased back-up we crave. It’s a weird kind of maturity purgatory, where we want to be better than we are, but by nature we just can’t seem to let things go quietly.
Sometimes it won’t be you making the decision to step away first; from their perspective, you might actually be the so-called ‘toxic friend’ without realising it. Again, I think toxic is often too strong a word; in this case, you’re simply not compatible as a friend for them anymore. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person (or that they are either), or that you make an awful friend in general; it could be as simple as you don’t have any common ground anymore. People change, their lives move in different directions and they make new connections with other people who they just click differently with. The people who you once saw as your best friends because you lived and/or studied together in uni might not be as easy to talk to when it’s not at 4am, and you’re not sat on the kitchen floor eating a kebab after a messy night out. And they might be the ones to feel that way about you, and that can feel a bit crap. But you can still appreciate the happy memories with them and wish them well on their new path – you’re on your new path now too.
On rare occasions, someone might even decide to just ghost you for no apparent reason. Or sometimes there’s a reason that you both seem to be aware of that just remains unspoken, to the point that you just seem to stop speaking altogether. You might both decide it’s just not worth the effort to hash it out, and rather than risk it all ending on unpleasant terms it’s just better to let it fizzle out. This might be especially key if they’re part of a wider friendship group of people you still want to hang out with. From experience, it’s sometimes really not worth the drama of confrontation; or worse, blaming yourself about it indefinitely. As a worrier myself, who often gets anxious over even the smallest of issues, I know how easy it is to obsess over things that you can’t really change. But I think it’s much more productive to simply let it go and focus your time and energy on the remaining friendships and relationships in your life – and maybe even trying to make some new friends with more common interests. Sure, it might be worth thinking about it for a little bit and processing what happened – some self-evaluation can be constructive – but don’t beat yourself up about it.
If you take nothing else away from the friendship, I think that’s the key thing to try and focus on: there are things you just have to accept, move on from, and not blame yourself for indefinitely. It takes two people to fix any kind of relationship, and if the effort isn’t equal, it’s not worth your time. I hope this post might have helped if you’re unsure what to do about a friendship that isn’t going the way you want it to anymore – I think my overall advice would always be to handle things in a way that makes you happy and doesn’t cause unnecessary hurt to the other person. Always try and surround yourself with people you value and who value you in return – you should always be seen as equals in a friendship.
Is there anything else you think I haven’t covered here when it comes to the end of a friendship? Or maybe you have some tips for strengthening your already great friendships? Let me know below!