Signs of a toxic friendship

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We hear and read about heartbreak everywhere – in movies, books, songs – but we rarely hear about the end of a friendship. Yet, losing a close friend can be nearly as upsetting as losing a romantic partner.

There might be elements of shame at play, such as fear of being branded as immature for placing too much importance on the relationship. Or, worse, as incapable of sustaining meaningful friendships.

These fears can be experienced at any stage of life, but particularly when you lack a solid sense of self-identity and are more susceptible to what others might think of you.

Friendships, however, end much more frequently than we think. A sociologist at Utrecht University asked 604 adults about their friendships; when he returned to interview the same people seven years later, he found that only 30% of their close friends were still close and most of the subjects had replaced half of their friends.

Another study found that both men and women have more friends until the age of 25, from which point the numbers start falling quite rapidly and continue to fall decade after decade.

Getting married and having kids seem to be determining factors in pushing friendship down the list of priorities. But even when child-free and single, work can end up taking over your life and cause friendships to be neglected.

Of course, you can’t expect to stay in touch with all the people you’ve socialised with in life – but why do close, long-term friendships come to an end?

Probably for similar reasons as to why long-term romantic relationships also end. People grow apart. One person might grow and develop, while the other remains stuck in old thought and behavioural patterns. What started off as a great connection gradually turns stagnant, if not oppressive, until one or both parties decide it’s time to move on.

A major difference is that, with friends, the breakup is much easier from a practical point of view: unlike in most divorces, no lawyers need to be involved in order to get disentangled.

Another important difference is that you don’t usually have sex with your friends – although, admittedly, many married and cohabiting couples stop having sex long before breaking up.

In any case, most friendships aren’t as passionate as romantic relationships and their closure is rarely as clear-cut. Friendships, in fact, are often ended without even an explanation; which can hinder the healing process.

At times, it can be difficult to pinpoint what makes you decide to cut someone out of your life. It’s often a buildup of factors and the warning signs were there early on, but, consciously or unconsciously, you chose to turn a blind eye to them.

What are the signs that a friendship has become toxic?

  • Your friend shows little or no interest in your life outside and beyond the friendship.
  • They talk ‘at’ you rather than with you; when you talk, they don’t really listen.
  • They’re never there when you need them most: they seem incapable of offering any support in moments of vulnerability.
  • They are more critical towards you than they are nurturing.
  • You stop sharing with them your ideas and plans for the future, because you know they’ll try to discourage you.
  • You worry that anything you say or do could be taken the wrong way and they might get upset with you.
  • They’re very good at blaming you but can never own their mistakes, let alone apologise for them.
  • You feel bullied. Healthy confrontation is necessary for the growth of any relationship; being attacked and intimidated, however, isn’t.

While having close friends is proven to be directly linked to better health and a longer life, toxic friends can make you depressed, anxious and downright ill. Like dysfunctional marriages often last longer than they ought to, unhealthy friendships can drag on unnecessarily. This can happen for a number of reasons: loyalty, fear of loneliness; concern for the other person; or simply fear of letting go. You’ve known each other for a long time and shared many experiences together – letting go can feel like leaving behind a chunk of your life.

If you’re suffering due to the end of a close friendship, one way of dealing with the pain is to talk about it with a neutral person and ultimately accept that nobody is to blame. Nothing in life is permanent. Everything changes, including us; so our relationships need to evolve, too.

At times it is possible to restore a damaged friendship through honest conversation, but at other times you may just need to walk away for good – and the relief will be greater than the pain. You will gain freedom from the negativity, as well as time and energy to cultivate other, healthier friendships.


Nothing, however, delights the mind as much as loving and loyal friendship.

– Seneca