It’s a beautiful sunny day and you’re out for coffee with your best friend, Jill. She is telling you about her current relationship with Jack. He is fun to be around, the life of the party. Jack makes Jill laugh and she really enjoys spending time with him. Unfortunately, Jill hardly gets to see Jack. He is always so busy and frequently ignores Jill’s texts and calls. Last week, Jack finally answered one of Jill’s phone calls. Jill excitedly asks if Jack is free to hang out over the weekend. Jack says he is planning on hanging out with the boys again, but if that falls through then he is free to spend the weekend with Jill.
“I love Jack and am willing to accommodate his schedule,” Jill tells you. “Besides, when we do hang out it’s so much fun. And I get that he’s busy. But sometimes it hurts that he always seems to be choosing others instead of me.”
Lately, Jill has noticed that despite being “too busy to hang out”, Jack is constantly posting updates on his social media from events he has attended—events that Jill was never invited to.
Jill takes a sip of coffee and looks up at you. “I love Jack and enjoy spending time with him, but I’m struggling with our relationship. What should I do?”
From where you’re sitting, the answer if very clear. Jack is being a terrible partner to Jill. He doesn’t value her time, she isn’t even close to being his top priority and this has a negative effect on Jill’s self-esteem and wellbeing. These are all things which should not be present in a healthy relationship. Jill is in a toxic relationship, and so it seems that letting Jack go is a no-brainer.
Most people wouldn’t tolerate this behaviour in their romantic relationships. So why do we sometimes endure such poor behaviour from our friends?
As children we learn to make friends easily. From the children you became instant friends with on the local park’s play equipment to the child sitting next to you on the first day of kindergarten, most children find it easy to make friends. But a lot of friendships that last longer are circumstantial. They are people we went to high school with, played sports with or attended church with. We became friends because of our shared experiences. Sometimes, as we move onto the next stage of life, these friendships fizzle out.
Similarly, all friendships are prone to having rough patches. Everybody has bad days and stressful times. Friendships may take a backseat while your friend decides to focus on their wellness. This doesn’t make them a bad friend. A good friendship can have periods of intense companionship and moments of distance. That’s not what we mean by toxic friendships.
Toxic friendships are the friendship equivalent of red flags in a romantic relationship. According to clinical psychologist Dr Andrea in Women’s Health, it’s time to reconsider your friendships when you are placing different values on the friendship and “there’s a big imbalance between what you’re giving and what you’re getting”.
But there’s a difference between a toxic friendship and going through a regular tough patch. ReachOut Australia has put together a list of 10 questions to assess warning signs of a toxic friendship – and whether you are in one, or just undergoing the ups and downs of life:
1. Do they like you for you?
2. Do you have fun when you hang out?
3. Do you look forward to hanging out with them?
4. Do they make you feel good about yourself?
5. Are they there for you when you need them? 6. Do you feel recharged after spending time with them?
7. Do you feel like they really listen to you?
8. Would you trust them with a secret?
9. Do you feel like you know them well? (Not just what they like but who they are as a person)?
10. Do they often ditch you when something/ someone else comes along?
If you answered negatively to a handful of those questions, chances are it may be time to reassess your friendship. Psychiatrist Abigail Brenner says, “A good friend shows up no matter what. A true friend supports and encourages us, tolerates our shortcomings, accepts us unconditionally, and cares for us no matter what.” But that doesn’t give them permission to walk all over you—nor you all over them. If there is a friend in your life who is showing signs of this toxicity, perhaps it’s time to raise some of those concerns with them. After all, this toxic behaviour could put your friendship at risk.
If you (unfortunately) find that you have a toxic friend, there are a few options for you to take: confront them about their actions in the hope of changing their toxic behaviour, take a break from being intertwined in their life or break contact altogether.
An example of confronting them about their actions could be in a case where you don’t believe your friend realises their actions are hurting you. If you have a close friend who is seemingly ignoring your messages, it may just be that they are busy or have forgotten. A conversation may reveal this and it will also reinforce to your friend that replying to your messages is important.
Perhaps you feel your friend is constantly draining you of energy. They spend a lot of time taking rather than giving, and the idea of hanging out exhausts you or negatively affects your mental health. In this instance, setting some boundaries around the friendship and taking a break may be exactly what you need. This could be anything from explaining that you can no longer reply to texts during work hours or that you need your Sundays back to do preparation for the week ahead. Then, when you feel up to it, you could start to initiate contact with this friend again at a point when they are not so reliant on you to sort through their personal life.
Breaking contact is the final but sometimes necessary step. If your friend doesn’t value you or treat you the way you deserve and it’s unlikely that will change, your life will often be better off without them in it. This could be anything from realising you’re not their priority to recognising they are using you for what you can give to them rather than for who you are.
It’s not about demanding perfection from your friend group but having mutual respect. They are going to disappoint you from time to time, just like you will disappoint them. That’s just a fact of life and part of being human. But that’s when it’s important to look at the patterns. Are they constantly letting you down? Or is it just the occasional forgetfulness or interference from the busyness of life?
Ultimately, healthy friendships should enrich, not detract from your life. Your friends are the family you choose, the people you turn to for a laugh and a good time, but also the people you know you can rely on to lift you up and surround you in tough times. And you know that you would be there for them in a heartbeat too.
Ashley Stanton lives in Sydney, where she works for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in the communication and marketing team.