Friday, June 15, 2012

Toxic Friendships

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: or see what's for dinner on her recipe blog:


  1. I'm glad to say I can't recall any toxic friendships right now. Draining at times? yes. but that's often the case for introverts anyway.

    Great advice.
    and...sorry about the soft serve. For me it was the yogurt parfait (and on vacation, in a car, as well...)

    Happy Weekend!

  2. Deb, what a blessing to be able to say that--and sorry about the yogurt. Shudder.

    Have a great weekend!

  3. I've definitely had them. Especially when I was in church ministry and felt more obligated to put up with people. Lately, I've gotten pretty good about putting my foot down with toxic friendships, but usually when I do the other person breaks it off. I'm okay with that.

  4. Dina--

    Yeah, I think the ministry does seem to bring out those feelings of obligation to put up. And those feelings of loyalty to help someone.

    It wasn't until I started to realize that what's toxic on one end is likely toxic on the other that I was more able to let go.

  5. I agree, Barb. At some point when I was a cell group leader all the ladies wanted to be friends with me and not each other. Once I put down more boundaries and started being myself more, they did manage to bond with each other. I was just making the friendship too easy on them.

  6. Excellent post, Barb. Yes, I've had food poisoning and suffered through it until it ended. Of course, it didn't feel like it was ever going to end, but it did. I was prepared to see Jesus. I guess He wasn't ready for me yet.

    I also suffered through toxic friends. I do a lot of praying in these cases too, but somewhere along the way when I feel things won't change for the better, I hand the situation over to God. He is wise and He loves me. Every time so far, He has taken the discomfort away. I know the 'friend' is still there, but there's no altercation. When my feelings re-surface, I pray harder.

    I realize some say it's hiding your head in the sand. Or that I'm ignoring the problem. They can call it what they will. I believe that once I hand something over to God, it's taken care of, otherwise where is my faith?

  7. Anita, if that works for you, that's great.

    I guess it also depends on the nature of the friendship. I've had relationships I've been able to do that with. And others I've had to end.

    The opening analogy of food poisoning? You know that relief when it is finally over? I've felt the same at the end of a toxic friendship. Relief.

  8. Ice cream is most assuredly nutricious, Barb, except when it poisons you. So sorry that hapened. Yes to food poisoning. I'm not sure in the toxic friendship part. Maybe just a bit with one person who wanted me to babysit the day I got home from the hospital after abdominal surgery. I couldn't take care of my own baby, could barely get off the couch to answer the door. She ignored me when I gave her the reason why, and left - without her child. Luckily she wasn't a close friend and I didn't hurt too much over it.

    Toxic coworkers, toxic people on email loops - now there's a whole 'nother story.

  9. Unbelievable story, Suzie.

    I've had people who seemed to think I was their personal slave, usually in the ministry, but I can't say...


  10. can't say i've ever had a toxic friendship and definitely never had food poisoning (thank God). two things i hope to never experience.

    maybe it's because i've never been good at establishing close relationships with others. my mom taught us kids a lot about setting healthy boundaries while growing up - so perhaps i've set good boundaries. hmmm... probably more the former than the latter.

    i certainly hope i've never been toxic to someone else - that would be terrible. do toxic people realize they are toxic, i wonder?

    great post.


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