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When It’s Time to Break Up … with Your Friend

I once heard someone say best friends are the siblings God forgot to give us. How disgustingly sweet. Yet, what happens when the friendship turns more into a drain than a source of energy? You don’t get to choose your family, but you do get to choose your friends. And sometimes there are friends that need to go.

To start, let’s get on the same page about what I mean by friendships. I’m not referring to people with whom you comingle on social media, people with whom you share similar views but have never interacted outside the Internet. What I’m about to share could apply to these acquaintances, but one advantage to online interactions is that stopping these interactions is generally one click away.

Genuine friendships are harder to disengage. In some cases I would argue they are even harder to break up than romantic relationships, because while guys and girls may come and go, good friends are supposed to be a healthy constant.

But, consider these scenarios. Have you ever had a friend who:

  • Excessively loves telling you what to do?
  • Only reached out when they wanted to complain about life?
  • Always wanted to prove how much smarter they were?
  • Routinely made a point to show how their troubles were worse than yours?
  • Constantly made you second guess your convictions?
  • Made a pattern of treating you one way alone but completely different in front of others?
  • Habitually shoved their needs ahead of your own?
  • Made an art of playing the victim?
  • Used vulnerability as a weapon to demand more than you’re comfortable sharing?
  • Seized every opportunity to make the conversation about themselves?

I intentionally used absolutes to paint a picture of a toxic friendship. Sadly, the conditions themselves are no exaggeration. In some cases these behaviors are simply outer manifestations of social awkwardness. In other cases, these characteristics could be classic signs of emotional manipulation.

How can you tell the difference?

Sometimes, you can’t.

Everyone copes with challenge in their own way. That’s the operating word though: cope. If a person chooses not to deal with the root of their issues, they could end up taking it out on others as a way to avoid working on a solution. A person who is always defining what is good for you, for example, is probably doing so from a place of insecurity.

So where does this leave you?

Well, you have at least two choices. You can choose to stay and put up with it, or you can choose to end the friendship.

Staying and putting up with it might seem bizarre to anyone who has never lived through an abusive relationship. Society has normalized certain behaviors, making the person on the receiving end question themselves. Abusive relationships deteriorates self-esteem and makes it that much harder to start fresh, and in some cases, the perpetrator has created such a manipulative environment that the victim actually starts feeling responsible for the other person’s behavior.

If you decide you might want to end the friendship, do these things before calling it quits. If you do not, you will have reservations about leaving and may never work up the courage to take that crucial step. Or, just as detrimental, you will leave and beat yourself up for feeling as though you did not do everything in your power to help the friendship survive.

First, have a candid conversation with the friend. Explain what they are doing specifically to upset you. Lay out the very real possibility that if things do not change, you may need to part ways. You can’t get upset at them for something they may not be aware they are doing. If they are aware, have the conversation anyway as a last ditch effort to express what you need. The critical step here is understanding that if the behavior does not change, you really need to follow through on your promise to end the friendship.

For this post, I am writing strictly in the context of friendships. If you are using this post as a means of evaluating whether or not you should leave an abusive relationship, the fact you are reading this likely means there is good cause to walk away. If you are a victim of domestic violence, please consider connecting with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233.

Second, make a suggestion to them that they widen their social circle. No one should rely on any one person to be everything. Everyone has a unique perspective. Different people will make different contributions and could give them a new solution to ponder. The more they spread, the harder it will be for any one individual to feel crushed by the unburdening.

Finally, if you know, or suspect, the issues could run deep, ask them to consider counseling. I know, the advice feels trite, but sometimes it takes a professional to methodically walk a person through the challenge and help them come out stronger on the other side. Psychology Today and WebMD are just two starting points for identifying a therapist in your area.

Libraries have been written on the subject of the proper care and feeding of romantic relationships. I don’t know that I’ve seen as many resources devoted to the maintenance of friendships. Maybe it’s a matter of adjusting my own perspective on the advice. Regardless, unhealthy friendships can inspire feelings of fatigue, stress, and depression if left unchecked.

Nothing says you are a bad person for ending a friendship. Nor does it make the other person an evil culprit. As Harris O’Malley would point out, some relationships simply come to a natural conclusion. Not every BFF was meant to be forever, dismal though that may sound.

It’s not up to you to make a diagnosis of the other person. It is up to you to look out for yourself. If there are people in your life who only succeed at bringing you down and keeping you down, it’s time to ask yourself if keeping them in your life is the healthiest choice for your well-being. The energy you are using up to hold up your end of a fractured friendship is energy you could be pouring into a friendship that builds you up, fills you up, and makes you feel confident they can lean on you just as easily as you can lean on them.

How have you dealt with unhealthy friendships in your life? What steps did you follow before taking the nuclear option?

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3 thoughts on “When It’s Time to Break Up … with Your Friend

  1. One of the most significant friendships was with someone I never met in person. So I think you underestimate the value of online friendships, especially during this period of quarantine time.

    I am also curious if you actually follow the advice you provide in this blog post, or if it is targeted to a specific person in your life that you needed to let go as a friend. This post does not seem to fit with the theme of giving advice to your younger self or a young adult audience. So I was wondering the motive behind this post.

    Finally, have you ever checked out the Friendship Blog by Irene S. Levine, PhD, The Friendship Doctor? You can find it at https://www.thefriendshipblog.com. The posts I have read seem to target a female audience. But I am sure the content is suitable for men as well. I wish you the best of luck in your future friendships.

  2. Online friendships can be amazingly fruitful. There are a handful of people in my circle whom I have also never met in person, and yet I would count them as good friends. I made a distinction though, because strictly online friendships can be easily avoided if things go sideways. It’s harder to deal with toxic friendships when you’re likely to see them at work, around your neighborhood, or at social gatherings with mutual friends.

    Yes, sadly this post was partially based on a friendship I needed to block. They are a wonderful person, but my inability to help them get help to become strong was starting to take a toll on my own sanity. I was going through a lot at the time, and I did not have the capacity to shoulder their burdens on top of my own.

    I included this article here for young adults, because it’s an important skill I feel should be learned from an early age. Now, as an adult, I can pinpoint several examples growing up where dominant personalities bulldozed over more submissive types and made their lives rather miserable. I think there may always be dominant/submissive personality interactions in a number of scenarios, but the point here was to identify unhealthy balances.

    I’d never heard of The Friendship Blog. Great recommendation though. I’ll definitely check it out, even if it is targeting female readers. We can all learn from good advice!

  3. How can you expect to have a healthy friendship with someone when you are judging them and expecting them to change to suit your own needs? A healthy friendship should be about mutual respect and acceptance. A healthy friendship should not be about rescuing someone from what you perceive to be their faults and weaknesses. If your goal is to fix someone then you are not being a friend.

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