by Barbara Early
Have you ever had food poisoning? I have.
I’ll spare you the details, which were horrific, magnified only by the fact that the worst of it was spent in a rental car stalled in traffic on a California freeway while on vacation. The culprit? I’ve never nailed it down for sure, but the leading suspect was soft serve ice cream. And it took a long time before I was able to indulge in a twisty cone again.
The insidious thing about food poisoning, is that the nasty effects come from something that would otherwise be wholesome, enjoyable, and nourishing. (OK, ice cream may be pushing the nourishing part. Still, is a good source of calcium. And it was a hot day and I was on vacation.) But something takes root in the food--some toxic microbe--that grows and multiplies and negates anything positive that you can derive from eating it.
A similar, possibly even more tragic, thing can happen in relationship.
While all relationships have their ups and downs, and people go through hard times (and no friend is perfect), how can you tell when a friendship has exceeded the normal bounds and actually turned toxic?
In an interview with WebMD, Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends, explains that a toxic friendship is unsupportive, draining, unrewarding, stifling, unsatisfying, and often unequal. "Toxic friends stress you out, use you, are unreliable, are overly demanding, and don't give anything back."
In short, they’re the friends that you spend time with, but don’t feel refreshed, encouraged, edified, or enlightened. Instead, you often walk away feeling agitated or simply drained. After a while, you’ll find yourself wanting to distance yourself, but maybe don’t because of habit or a sense of loyalty. You cringe when you see her name on your caller ID, and find other ways to hide and excuses not to talk or meet. But this continued relationship takes a toll on you emotionally. As an online article by Holly Eagleson suggests “After a long talk with her, you eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s to take your mind off her neuroses.” Or “You sometimes walk away from a conversation with her feeling like a stripped car.”
Now, I’m not saying the problem is all with the “other person”--that one person is toxic and the other simply a victim. Rather something happened in the middle of the friendship, something that soured the nature of it--the ways of interacting, the balance of things--so that the resulting relationship is toxic to one (and more likely to both) of the friends. This reciprocity of toxicity might also be reflected in the stats. A recent survey conducted by Today and Self, concluded that “84 percent of women — and 75 percent of men — said they'd had a toxic friend at some point.”
Many of us tolerate a mildly toxic friend--after all, they need to put up with us. But when it gets to the point you can no longer endure a relationship as it is, there are really only two options left: fix it or end it. (One side note: I’m not talking about a marriage here. While marriages can turn equally, if not more, toxic, the fact that you’ve stood before God and made a commitment to each other puts that relationship on a higher plane. There’s a Third Person in that relationship, and seeking His help to preserve and restore a positive relationship with a spouse should be a priority.) Likewise, it’s almost always worth trying to salvage a friendship.
Perhaps the most oft-repeated advice I’ve seen for salvaging a friendship is to set boundaries. Is the toxic friend abusive? Make it clear what you find abusive and what you will no longer tolerate. Is the problem broken confidences? No longer confide things that would hurt you should they be revealed. Are they making the relationship revolve around themselves, their ideas, and opinions? Pull the subject around to you, for a change. Is the friend pulling you down with negativism? Try to steer the conversation in a more positive direction. Dumping the woes of her entire life (and the whole world) on your shoulders? Retreat from the position of unpaid counselor. Depending on what the issues are, direct them to the Great Physician or maybe even suggest professional help. Is the friend demanding and controlling? Practice saying no. Pushing or drawing you into activities, habits, or attitudes that go against your morals or convictions? Make your position clear and unyielding.
A true friend might be a little miffed, but should eventually respect the new boundaries, just as they respect your friendship. Maybe there’s an awkward moment, an “I didn’t realize” apology, and a time of adjustment. But perhaps you can fall into new, more healthy ways of relating. A user concerned only with themselves, on the other hand, will fume, sulk, vilify you, and push the boundaries at every possibility. At that point, what to do next becomes pretty clear.
Another tactic might be to step back. Maybe the friend can be “downgraded” to an acquaintance, someone you can be friendly with without the stress of a toxic friendship. Do things together. Go places. This might be the only recourse if your friend is someone you have regular contact with--like a neighbor, a church member, or a coworker. Maybe a little distance will work wonders. But sometimes it’s hard to do this and not be drawn or pushed right back into the toxic pattern.
And sometimes you just need to walk away. Just like investment counselors will tell you not to throw good money after bad, it doesn’t make sense to continue to invest emotional energy in a relationship that’s become only negative and painful. It likely won’t be pleasant, but the pain will go away, the unpleasant memories fade, unlike remaining in a toxic friendship with its slow perpetual agony.
Question: Have you found yourself in a toxic friendship? Were you able to fix it?Barbara Early grew up buried in the snowy suburbs of Buffalo, NY, where she developed a love for all things sedentary: reading, writing, classic movies, and Scrabble. She holds a degree in Electrical Engineering, but her penchant for the creative caused her to run away screaming from the pocket-protector set. Barbara cooks up cozy mysteries with a healthy dose of comedy and sometimes a splash of romance. Her holiday novella, Gold, Frankincense, and Murder was released in e-book format from White Rose Publishing in December 2011. You can learn more about her writing on her personal blog: http://barbearly.blogspot.com/ or see what's for dinner on her recipe blog: http://bflogal.blogspot.com/.