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Ever had a friend or colleague who routinely made you feel unhappy about yourself and your life? Just as positive relationships are known to be good for our emotional and physical health, unsupportive friendships can be harmful, research shows. Unreliable or critical friends may keep us in a state of tension and stress, threatening our cardiovascular health, according to the Annals of Behavioral Medicine (2007).
In a recent survey by Student Health 101, three out of four students who responded said they had experienced an unhealthy friendship. One in four acknowledged (with admirable self-awareness) that they had been an unreasonable friend. Unhealthy friendships require that we take action to limit the damage. Here, a graduate student tells their story.
Students: “The problem was them.”
“I tolerated his behavior for way too long. He would treat his girlfriend badly, and when I expressed concern, he would get into arguments with me about minding my own business. I finally ended the friendship and encouraged his girlfriend to see a therapist to really see how her relationship affects her well-being.” —Male graduate student, Sonoma State University, California
“I felt for a long time that she was not being reciprocal in our friendship. I would give (time, energy, attentive listening, advice, support) but she seemed unable to return that. I tried to communicate these concerns to her in different ways and at different times. I think that one mistake I made was holding onto resentment, so that when she finally did understand how much our friendship had been jeopardized, it was already too late to ‘fix’ it.” —Female first-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia
“This was in high school. I wish I could say it was all her, but I had a part. I let myself get sucked in and participate. It took a more mature me to realize it was unhealthy and end it. I found myself in another friendship in college with a similar person. At this point though, I was older and beyond taking part in friendships that were not mutually loving. I ended it quickly. I love and do my best to be supportive of my friends.” —Female graduate student, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
“The biggest mistake I’ve made in a friendship was conveying personal information about myself too soon. Some people just cannot be trusted with certain information and may try to use it against you at a later time, especially if you are no longer friends.” —Female online graduate student, University of Memphis, Tennessee
Students: “The problem was me.”
“I had a friend who had a ton of social anxiety. He was awkward, fumbling, nervous in social situations. In my youthful wisdom, I thought it would be a good idea to give him a tough time, make jokes at his expense, to try and ‘toughen him up.’ I assumed he’d been coddled. We never talked about the impact my behavior had on him, but I can only imagine what it would be like for your friend to also be your bully.” —Male third-year student, Northern Michigan University
“I was very manipulative and guilt-tripped this friend to get almost all of their attention. I sabotaged their relationships with other people so they were dependent on me. This was a few years ago and I have learned my lesson. I managed to not lose this person as a friend, but I now give them lots of space. I just wish I could have been a supportive and healthy friend the entire time, because that is the kind of friend my friend deserves.” —Female first-year student, University of Memphis, Tennessee
“I hate to admit it, but I have taken advantage of a friend that I knew had feelings for me. I saw them as just a pal, whereas they would do anything in the world to please me because they hoped to date me.” —Part-time student, Clemson University, South Carolina
“She was my roommate, so we were together all the time. Eventually I got annoyed with her always wanting to be around me, but instead of expressing this to her I just started ignoring her instead. This caused tension because she didn’t know why I was ignoring her.” —Female first-year graduate student, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania
“I failed to understand the severity of their needs. Looking back, I should have put more time and effort into talking with that person.” —Male third-year graduate student, University of Memphis, Tennessee
“I’ve been extremely negative in the past and have made comments that have really affected my friends. I learned to be aware of what I say before I say it because of how others feel. I’ve also sought counseling and other relaxation methods that help dissipate my negative thoughts.” —Female fourth-year online student, Florida International University
“I depended on them to always be there for me and felt as if it was their duty to always comfort me. In reality, it was my own responsibility to be mature and take care of my own problems.” —Male first-year student, University of the Pacific, California
How to salvage or end a friendship
How to try salvaging a friendship
By Dr. Irene S. Levine, psychologist, producer of TheFriendshipBlog.com
Dr. Jan Yager, sociologist, author of When Friendship Hurts (Touchstone, 2002)
“Bear in mind that no relationship is perfect. Friendships take effort. Try to analyze the problems you’re having and see if you can find ways to remedy them.” —Dr. Irene Levine
- Sometimes it’s helpful to speak to a third person, in confidence, to help you gain perspective. It might be a family member or another close friend. —IL
- If your friend does something upsetting, count to 10 or take some time to cool off. Avoid overreacting or saying something you may regret down the road. Resist playing out your frustrations on social media or publicly naming the difficult friend. —Dr. Jan Yager
- Put yourself in your friend’s place, rather than always seeing things from your own perspective. For example, your friend may be having difficulties because of stress in their life. Can you find out what might be behind their behavior? —JY
- Gently point out that your friend is acting difficult. Emphasize how much they and the friendship means to you without being overly critical. They might not even be aware of how they are acting toward you or others. —JY
How to end a friendship
“You may need to scale back on your contact or take a break. Not all friendships, even close ones, last forever. Friendships are voluntary relationships that should be mutually satisfying.” —Dr. Irene S. Levine, psychologist
“Since every personality and every friendship is unique, there is no one way to politely and gently end a friendship. Try to do it in a way that is less likely to lead to a vendetta or worse feelings than necessary.” — Dr. Jan Yager, sociologist
- Be busy when your friend wants to get together, so they can start to strengthen connections with other people. When they realize you’re ending the friendship, they won’t be completely alone. —JY
- If you think your friend is open to discussing the issues that are causing you to end the friendship, emphasize that you value your friend and your friendship. Say that right now, the way the two of you are interacting isn’t working for you. You’re not rejecting your friend but the friendship. You might want to leave the door open for reconnecting down the road if things change. —JY
- Try to avoid a big confrontation. Don’t lay the blame entirely on the other person. —IL
If you have recurrent friendship struggles
If you are having persistent difficulties making and maintaining friendships, it could be helpful to speak to a counselor at your school or in your community. —IL
“You can’t fix the toxic person, but you can practice caring for yourself. ”
Bian Peng Yi is a first-year law student, writer, and community organizer on the East Coast who loves cat snuggles, and speculative fiction.
The best part of my education happened outside the classroom when I connected with others who were passionate about social justice. Early on, I became close friends with Erin, an older activist. We knew a lot of the same people and were involved in the same conferences, social media groups, and campaigns. Erin was more accomplished than me, and had been where I was before. They gave me advice and emotional support, and once traveled from out of state to visit.
Out of nowhere, Erin began sending me scary messages accusing me of doing something wrong. Erin went on social media, shut me out of a group we both belonged to, and laid out their accusations. I discovered that Erin was attacking my integrity and loyalty to my friends. I was shocked. Oddly, Erin kept trying to talk to me and asked me to work on projects as if nothing happened. But I found out they had been telling the same lies to some of my professional contacts.
I have never figured out why Erin targeted me, and I’m scared to confront them. Erin is widely liked and respected, even though (I’ve since learned) they have also targeted others. I tried to stand up for myself to our mutual friends, but no one listened. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they were afraid of being targeted, or didn’t realize what was happening. But several said that what Erin did wasn’t that bad, or said they liked Erin anyway. I didn’t know who to trust.
I seemed outwardly successful, but I began to struggle in school. I took course incompletes and my grades dropped. One professor suggested withdrawing or transferring. I thought about dropping out. I withdrew my application for a prestigious fellowship because it was in the city where Erin lives. I went to two of the same events as Erin. At one, I memorized the map and schedule so I could hide. While driving to the other, I was so anxious I almost puked out of the car window.
I have been able to deal with this through the support of my amazing partner and closest friends. I have learned to be open with my professors about needing extra support. I have also learned that I am happier if I surround myself with people who trust me. In law school, I’m focusing on different types of activism and issues than before, so there will be more space between Erin and me. I’m also looking for a professional therapist who can help me in my healing process.
Sadly, I’m far from alone. In any close-knit community there is likely someone who is both charismatic and emotionally abusive. The best thing you can do is to believe yourself. If it feels wrong, it’s wrong. While ending the friendship might feel confusing and painful, you will be in a better place. You can’t fix the toxic person, but you can practice caring for yourself. The people who truly love and care about you will be there for you.
“Their” is the student’s preferred pronoun.
When Friendship Hurts: Dr. Jan Yager