Friends are the family that we choose. We invite them into our hearts and homes. We take emotional risks when we trust someone to meet the expectations of being a good friend. There is a leap of faith taken that this friend will reciprocate and honor what is given and shared in the relationship. It is because of these risks, expectations and faith that dealing with the loss of a close friendship can be so devastating and difficult.
For those who have lost a close friend due to a “break up,” it can be shocking to experience the depth of associated hurt and pain. This is because people generally are not prepared to deal with the loss of a close friendship. The expectation is that good friendships should last a lifetime, after all.
In some situations, though, a friendship may be destructive, and a break-up painful but necessary. For instance, someone in rehab from drug addiction learns pretty quickly that cutting ties with their drug-using friends is critical to staying sober. (Learn more about the types of drug addiction that can be effectively treated at FHE Health.)
In reality, some friendships come and go. Life happens, and people move away or move on—to different circumstances, life stages or interests. It is natural to experience temporary sadness or loss with these friendships. But it is not these types of friendships that cause emotional damage when they are gone. It is the toxic ones that can leave lasting scars if left ignored and untreated.
Signs of a Toxic Friendship That May Need to End
Toxic friendships can be hard to identify, because they involve mixed emotions that may color objective evaluation. Whereas strong, healthy friendships are characterized by honesty, open communication, similarity of values, celebration of differences, and a whole lot of forgiveness of each other’s faults and flaws, toxic friendships may include manipulation, deception, abuse and poor communication.
Some red flags that may indicate a friendship is toxic:
- Enabling addictions: Minimizing the consequences of a friend’s alcohol or drug addiction by excusing, covering up, and tolerating destructive behaviors.
- Giving more than receiving: There are times in friendships where one person may be more able to give support than the other, especially in times of crisis. If, however, one friend is constantly giving and giving and the other is simply taking and taking, then the taker is taking advantage of the giver.
- Excessive critical comments: A healthy friendship includes cheerleading the other’s successes rather than focusing on negative criticism of failures, mistakes or flaws. Constructive and loving feedback is appropriate, but excessive critical comments are not.
- Backstabbing or gossiping: Trust is an important element of a positive friendship. If one friend is talking and/or lying behind the other friend’s back, trust is broken. Toxic friendships are rife with gossiping about each other rather than respecting each other’s right to privacy.
If one or more red flags are present, it is time to consider having some direct conversations about improving the issues, setting boundaries, or verbalizing healthy expectations. If this does not work, it may be time to walk away from the friendship, however painful that may be.
If a toxic friendship must come to an end, take heart. You don’t have to wallow in the grief, pain and sadness forever. Below are some ways to help you cope with the loss of a close friendship and recover and move on:
Make a pros and cons list:
Strong emotions and long-standing negative behavioral patterns in toxic friendships make it harder to see reality for what it is. Set aside some time to write down the pros and cons of the relationship, using as many facts as possible. It is hard to let go of a close friendship wearing rose-colored glasses, which may be why a toxic friendship lasted as long as it did. If identifying facts of poor behavior is hard to do, enlist other friends, families or mental health professionals to help with the cons list.
Toxic friendships are a two-way street. Take a moral inventory of oneself and be brutally honest with any of one’s own unhealthy or negative behaviors in the friendship. If there were misbehaviors, take responsibility for them and do what is needed to make amends.
If no obvious misbehavior emerges in this inventory process, most people can still take responsibility for not communicating their concerns and issues better. Commit to working on self-improvement through self-help books, support groups or psychotherapy.
Losing a toxic friendship can feel like experiencing the death of a loved one. Grief and loss symptoms such as shock, anger, denial, guilt and depression also apply to friendship break-ups.
Rather than avoid these feelings of grief, do not be afraid to experience them. Creating rituals or activities that provide closure—much like people do when dealing with grief— can be helpful to cope with the loss of a close friend. Write a goodbye letter to the friend. Get rid of items related to the friendship in a “letting go” ritual. Put away pictures that are reminders of the friendship, so they are out of sight, out of mind.
Getting hurt by a close friend can be a traumatic experience. When trauma happens, there is a tendency to make a psychologically disturbing incident into a universal statement about how life and the world works. This can apply to friendship losses, for example, where being lied to by a friend means that “everyone is a liar” or being betrayed by a close friend means that “no one can be trusted.” A healthier, more balanced way to think is to learn from the experience about how to identify red flags in a friendship before getting too close.
Find New Friends:
Do not give your power over to this toxic friend by closing your heart to new or existing friendships. With a loss there can also be gains. Get back into previous social activities. Develop new hobbies and interests to meet new people.
But, before finding a new best friend forever, focus on becoming your own best friend. Build a solid foundation with yourself through spiritual practices, self-esteem building and enjoying time alone. When that self-love is deeper and stronger, attracting quality, like-minded friends will happen more easily and naturally.
By using the above strategies to cope with the loss of a friendship, one can actually grow from the pain and become a healthier, happier person with more satisfying positive friendships.
The article was provided by Dr. Sachi Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP, who directs a trauma-based treatment program for first responders, at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.