I’ve never been the type to have a small circle of friends. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to having a lot of friends, acquaintances and random people you see at the pub when you come back to your parents’ house for Christmas each year. Having different people suited to different situations, having many small-talk acquaintances, and knowing people for years on end but only speaking to them every six months is my jam. Having a wide and diverse circle of friends has helped to bring me out of my shell, and over the years I’ve met people from all sorts of backgrounds who have become dear friends and taught me so much through sharing their experiences, anecdotes and opinions on things I hadn’t even considered before.
This works well for me right now, but it originally didn’t stem from a very good place. For a long time, I wanted to be liked by everyone, and I’ll be the first to admit that I wanted to be popular in school. I let people walk all over me, and feared confrontation and people resenting me if I were to stand up for myself in case they, god forbid, turned against me. And naturally, this caused issues when I did learn to stand up for myself, and I lost a couple of friends in the process as they had come to know me as someone who didn’t challenge them. And beyond that dynamic, sometimes I was the one who screwed up. I made some bad mistakes in some of my friendships, and I can understand why some people grew distant from me as a result.
So whilst I’ve generally held onto a lot of the friendships I’ve made in my life, a couple of friends have grown distant, and a couple have ended entirely because the friendships turned toxic. Sometimes it was because we changed as people, sometimes because I learned to stop taking shit, sometimes because something happened that we couldn’t reconcile between us; whatever the reason, it’s happened a couple of times in my life. It’s never fun, and I genuinely think that some friend break-ups and the awful things that preceded them can be worse than romantic ones.
Now that I’ve had a couple of instances where I’ve had to cut my losses and move on, I’ve definitely come to a point where I have little tolerance for the classic characteristics of a toxic friendship. As soon as I smell bullshit, I’m out. I thought I’d have a chat about them today; the key signs I used to ignore and also how to cut and run before things get sour.
When it comes to maintaining a strong relationship with anyone, I think it’s absolutely key to have mutual respect for one another. That may sound obvious, but I swear I’ve seen a hundred and one friendships where one person was always the butt of the joke or made fun of behind their back. It’s evident that there’s an imbalance, but some continue to return, perhaps out of low self-esteem or just to maintain the status-quo. I think that the respect also has to extend to those close to the friend; if you want to keep a friendship, it’s probably best to be nice to their mum and not take the piss out of their friends either. And as friendships break down, the catty asides tossed into the conversation or purposeful unkind comments are a blatant example of dwindling respect for the other person. In my experience, friendships thrive in environments where people feel heard, secure and encouraged, and deteriorate fast when one person feels like they are being treated disrespectfully or being taken advantage of. It’s scary and feels shit to acknowledge, but when you realise a friend doesn’t respect you it’s time to find friends who do.
I’m a firm believer that change is a good thing and that it’s important for personal growth, however sometimes two friends change a lot in a short space of time and it becomes incredibly hard for them to have a healthy friendship. It can feel controlled and awkward, or like it might explode into an argument at any minute. This can also be the case if two very different or very similar people are in the same friendship group, especially if there’s pride or ego involved. Perhaps one friend starts going to Church and develops beliefs you don’t agree with, or maybe they get involved with a social or political group that you think is morally questionable. Or perhaps you are the one who has discovered something new and it has influenced you a lot. Either way, every time you see them you find it more and more difficult to keep the friendship you once had, and eventually it explodes into a big debate that makes everyone uncomfortable, or you start making excuses so you don’t have to invite them to your birthday dinner. It happens, and it sucks, but when a friend changes or you change and it leads you in very different directions, it can be best to walk away instead of sticking it out.
This can also extend to a single decision a friend made that leaves you uneasy. Unfortunately, I’ve been on the other end of this, having made a decision that led one friend to distance herself from me because she couldn’t understand why I acted in that way. It’s often a difference of opinion, but on a major issue that makes you question their morals. If you notice a friend make some questionable decisions that you can’t stop thinking about, it’s a big old red flag. It’s always worth trying to talk things out, but if you simply don’t feel comfortable following that then it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t be friends with that person. In hindsight, I can definitely understand why my friend made the choice to distance herself from me, and whilst I am still sad about her decision to do so, I know she was just doing what was best for her at that moment. Ultimately a painful but probably right decision.
So those are the big red flags, but once you’ve noticed them, how do you leave a toxic friendship? I’ll be the first to say that it’s not always as easy as avoiding their messages, as you can often have to see them every day at work or in college, and you might even live together. With long-distance friendships, or friends you only see occasionally, I found it easiest to distance myself digitally – muting them on social media, deleting our messages and leaving any shared chat groups we were in. This gave me the space to get over the things they did or said that hurt me, and open myself up to opportunities to develop other friendships. When those people were more intimately connected to my everyday life, however, it was a lot more difficult.
I really do believe that to leave a toxic friendship as healthily as possible, communication is everything. I regret some of the decisions I made when in the throws of a bad friendship, as my reluctance to explain myself or clarify why I needed to go left them hurt and angry in the process. A lot of those feelings could have been avoided if I’d been more transparent. One half-hour of difficult conversation, or even just a long text, can offer more mental peace to both of you than you might realise. And to be honest, if you are harbouring anger and hurt about a friend’s actions then they are probably feeling the same towards you, and if you believe something is irreconcilable then they would probably agree. And if someone does take offence, walk away knowing you made the right decision.
When it comes to being in close and regular proximity to a toxic person, the best thing I can recommend is to surround yourself with other people. This is especially hard in living situations, but spending time at other friends’ houses or staying at your S/O’s can help to create distance from a situation that could be damaging your mental health. Look into possibilities for moving out – are you able to leave your contract, could you sublet – there are usually a couple of options. For work, school and college, again building new friendships, starting in new societies/social groups and even switching where you sit can make a huge difference. It is never easy, but losing a friend can be made a lot easier by creating purposeful space for both of you.
On a lighter note, I think it’s important to not let the breakdown of any relationship or friendship lead you to conclude that the whole relationship was bad. I can still look back at my old friendships and be thankful for what those people gave me before things went sour. Many of these friendships contributed positively to my life before they went wrong, and I’m at peace with the knowledge that there was once a reason I was friends with them, in the same way that there is now a reason I am not.
I hope you’re not struggling with a toxic relationship in your life right now, but if you are, hopefully this gave you some food for thought. I feel very lucky because throughout all of my friendships, I have learned so much, whether they ended prematurely or are still very strong today. It sounds cheesey, but I am definitely of the belief that every experience is an opportunity to learn, and to add tools to your emotional arsenal so you can handle another situation better in the future. Growing distant from friends is a natural part of life, and it happens to everyone at some point. But if things get sour, hopefully you are able to take a step back and look after yourself through the process!