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How to Let Go of Toxic Friends

April 27 2015 | CeCe Olisa

Thank you for all of the positive comments and emails on my last post, “How Kale Smoothies Helped me Quit My Job” I got a few questions about clearing out toxic friendships. Let’s dig deeper into that today and as always feel free to leave your thoughts/advice in the comments!

When I was 12, I wore my half of a “Best Friends Forever” necklace for months after my “best friend” and I stopped speaking. I thought being a good friend meant sticking it out. I thought it meant forgiving and forgetting — no matter what.

I was wrong.

Keeping friends around is not always the best option, and yet I still struggle with knowing when to make up and when to break up.

Why do I feel comfortable ditching a date at the first sign of disrespect — but not a friend who doesn’t deserve my friendship? In an effort to better understand myself and my friendship behaviors, I decided to talk with therapist Bea Arthur of In Your Corner, a website specializing in instant, expert support. As Arthur is also a strong women’s advocate, I figured she’d have some sound advice for me and my friendship woes.

Like me, Arthur understands the necessity of these non-romantic relationships — and our need to prioritize them. She says, “Friendships are very important relationships, because [friends] are people we choose to be in our lives.”

Although I mostly boast amazing, healthy friendships, many of them going back to my childhood, they’re not all so great. And yet, I’ve been holding on to many of them because I’ve been too scared of the alternative. This is where I needed Arthur’s help. I asked her to help me assess my flawed friendships, and to guide me through breaking up or making up.

How to Let Go of Toxic Friends

When To Walk Away
Arthur says “If a friend can’t be behind you, pushing you forward, they can at least stand beside you. If they’re standing beside you being negative, then they need to be far away.”

Walking away from a friendship doesn’t have to be super dramatic, according to Arthur. This is something I admit I was afraid of. The thing is, it’s actually common for two people to have a quiet, mutual understanding when a friendship has run its course. For me and one particular person in my life, it was as simple as “I don’t think I’m going to G-chat her again tomorrow.” In this case, “tomorrow” very quickly turned into “for two years,” and I feel fine about the faded friendship.

If you’re no longer feeling the love, don’t fake it. Instead of the slow death of several back-and-forth “Are you mad at me?” texts, simply say, “After the last [incident that displays a behavior you’re sick of], things feel different, and I don’t know if we have as much trust/respect/things in common as we used to. I’ll miss you, but I don’t want to fight anymore.” When you’re done, you’re done.

Don’t be passive-aggressive and drag it out — because there’s no harm in just quietly ending things. It doesn’t have to end in a big, blow-out fight.

Sometimes, we keep toxic friendships going because of time (we’ve been friends forever!), obligation (she really needs me right now), or even fear (I can’t afford to lose a friend). In my experience, toxic friendships are toxic because they are consistently imbalanced, emotionally draining, and super stressful. When the bad starts to outweigh the good on a regular basis, it might mean it’s time to walk away. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that some friendships can go through a toxic phase and still bounce back. This is something you turn to your gut for.

When To Work It Out
After letting go of a few toxic friends, I felt liberated. The knot in my stomach was gone, and I liked focusing on the relationships that fulfilled me. I had more time and energy for my healthy friendships, simply because I’d let a few of the worse ones go.

But, I wanted to be careful about being too quick to cut out a friend over a disagreement or hurt feelings. Before I got all “friendship scissor-happy” with people I loved and wanted in my life for the long-term, Arthur helped me realize I needed to explore what qualities make a friendship worth saving. For me, loyalty and laughter are huge. If I can laugh with a friend over cocktails, even while our friendship has a toxic cloud over it, then I think that could is just temporary.

How To Get Back On Track
“Time apart in relationships is more common than we realize,” Arthur explains. “Many couples break up, and then go on to get married.” If you’ve taken time away from a friendship, but are considering letting someone back into your life, there are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t lead with emotions. If you come into a reconciliation with “OMG, I miss you so much!” and you’re met with a decidedly different tone and emotion, the make-up you were hoping for can sour quickly. Clean up old wounds with respectful conversation. Be careful about approaching the reconciliation, especially if it’s coming out of left field.

2. Acknowledge the hurt instead of pretending that nothing happened. Explaining why you walked away in the first place is important in ensuring there’s no built-up resentment.

3. Be sufficiently sorry, instead of vague. If you were the one who put the relationship on hold, don’t say “I’m sorry you feel that way” — say “I’m sorry for hurting you.” It’s generally a good idea to acknowledge the pain that your unexplained absence might have caused.

4. Give it time. It’s a strange feeling to miss someone who has hurt you in the past, so finding out that time apart is natural for many long-term relationships makes reconciliation seem a lot less risky. What makes close friendships strong is that we feel we can let our guards down and be ourselves. However, once a line has been crossed, it can be hard to feel that same ease again. You’ll most likely still feel distance at first, but if you can get past that initial, awkward phase, you may experience a new closeness of having been through hell and back again.

How To Maintain It
Once you’ve reconciled friendships, you need to know how to maintain them — through thick and thin. Arthur worked with me on this, and we came up with some essential points.

1. Argue productively. The goal of any arguement is to get onto the same page. Disagreements aren’t always bad.

2. Look for consistent behavior. The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior; if you know a friend always lets you down in one area, you can then decide to love him or her in spite of it, instead of letting it frustrate you.

3. Acknowledge life changes. Sometimes, people work demanding jobs, fall in love, or have kids — these things will often change friendship dynamics. Try to make an effort to include your old friends, even as life gets complicated and busy.

4. Don’t harp on past pains. If you take the time to communicate about what happened, you can hopefully move on and past it. Bringing it up constantly isn’t going to help the friendship heal.

I hope you, like me, now have a better grasp of how and when to keep, ditch, or restart friendships. Some situations are murkier than others, but mostly, we should follow our instincts.

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38 responses on “How to Let Go of Toxic Friends

  1. Hope Varnedoe

    i had a relationship where the person was constantly being negative and usually condescending about how they related to me whenever anything was going on in my life. i tried talking to them about it but they only got defensive and acted like it was ‘me’ who was the problem. i finally had to end the relationship as i couldn’t put up with their negativity and toxic words anymore.

  2. hopevarnedoe@gmail.com

    i had a relationship where the person was constantly being negative and usually condescending about how they related to me whenever anything was going on in my life. i tried talking to them about it but they only got defensive and acted like it was ‘me’ who was the problem. i finally had to end the relationship as i couldn’t put up with their negativity and toxic words anymore.

  3. JaVonna

    I think its important to remember that its OK to grieve the loss of a friendship; even if it was toxic. I think allowing yourself that time to acknowledge the loss is good. You can love a person and miss having them in your life while noting that they are gone for a reason. Also, as you endeavor into new friendships, pay attention to the signs and make sure they are not exhibiting behaviors that weren’t OK in previous relationships.

  4. JustJaVonna@gmail.com

    I think its important to remember that its OK to grieve the loss of a friendship; even if it was toxic. I think allowing yourself that time to acknowledge the loss is good. You can love a person and miss having them in your life while noting that they are gone for a reason. Also, as you endeavor into new friendships, pay attention to the signs and make sure they are not exhibiting behaviors that weren’t OK in previous relationships.

  5. Trina

    I recently lost (2) friends one was because she lied on my husband and the other just followed the liar. I was praying and asking God was this friendship healthy and I guess it wasn’t because of what happen. I was upset, because I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it hurt to lose them both but ultimately it was for my better. One of the friends was very controlling and negative that is why I was praying about our friendship and felt sorry for her because she had no other friends (now I see why). But she called my husband on his birthday after the blow-out can you imagine to say Happy Birthday to Him. So in the end she indeed was toxic and bitter. I have sense meet some great friends and enjoy there friendship. I haven’t spoken to those (2) woman since November 2014.

  6. trina.oconnor@ymail.com

    I recently lost (2) friends one was because she lied on my husband and the other just followed the liar. I was praying and asking God was this friendship healthy and I guess it wasn’t because of what happen. I was upset, because I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it hurt to lose them both but ultimately it was for my better. One of the friends was very controlling and negative that is why I was praying about our friendship and felt sorry for her because she had no other friends (now I see why). But she called my husband on his birthday after the blow-out can you imagine to say Happy Birthday to Him. So in the end she indeed was toxic and bitter. I have sense meet some great friends and enjoy there friendship. I haven’t spoken to those (2) woman since November 2014.

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