As a therapist, I often work with clients to make their relationships happier and more positive. When we do this, unhealthy or toxic friendships are almost always uncovered. I'm always confused when clients rationalize these relationships, even when they are being hurt.

Sometimes we just feel sorry for these friends, perhaps our lifestyles have changed or maybe feel uncomfortable ending the friendship. No matter the reasons why we've stayed in these negative relationships, there is no way to be happy if you have this toxicity in your life.

Why we need friends in the first place

In my experience, we develop relationships to make connections outside of ourselves, our colleagues, our spouse and other family members. Having friends lets us:

  • have someone to talk, laugh or cry with

  • ask for help and provide help when needed

  • be ourselves, with nothing to hide

  • share secrets that nobody else will ever know

  • encourage and support us in times of need

According to the American Psychological Association, research suggests that a sparse social circle is a significant health risk. Other research indicates positive social connections might accelerate disease recovery: In a study of 200 breast cancer survivors, researchers at the Ohio State University found that lonelier women experienced more pain, depression and fatigue than those who had stronger connections to friends and family. So along with your emotional health, your friends also have an impact on your physical health.

What factors make an unhealthy friendship?

Friendships are about getting our social needs met - some of those needs are described above. When we take a closer look at the dynamics of a toxic friendship, it turns out very one-sided. In other words, if your friend is taking much more than they are giving, you've got an unhealthy friendship on your hands.

Some toxic friendships influence your sense of identity and confidence. When you're not confident in yourself, you look for self-worth from other sources and other people. In many cases, these external sources are friendships where you're treated poorly and taken advantage of.

What should you keep an eye out for as warning signs?

To keep these negative friendships out of your life you have to know the signs. First, you need to realize that toxic relationships do exist; many people are in denial or don't even consider that they may be in an unhealthy relationship.

Here's the process I walk my clients through: First, we work on being aware of positive and negative relationships. Clients must accept that fact that unhealthy friendships are possible and they could potentially be in one themselves. Then we review each friendship, keeping a close eye on factors that make healthy and unhealthy friendships. Once we understand the factors that lead us to unhealthy behaviors we look for warning signs. These warning signs could be obvious (like arguing without a desire to compromise) or more subtle (their morals and values don't match your own).

Other warning signs may also include friends who:

  • gossip about you behind your back

  • lie to you or purposefully exclude you

  • criticize you alone or with other friends

  • make you feel bad about yourself

  • aren't happy for your success

How do you get out of an unhealthy friendship?

Suddenly realizing you are in an unhealthy friendship can be a tough pill to swallow. It can be so tough in some cases that your immediate response is to deny that it's unhealthy or rationalize staying in the friendship. In this case, the best way to handle the denial or rationalization is to work with a mental health care professional to help you work on self-identity and self-worth. You deserve positive relationships in your life.

The next steps are establishing boundaries and communicating with this friend. It's a difficult conversation to have, but could sound something like this:

"Last week you made me feel insecure about myself because you openly criticized my decision to quit my job. I cannot allow that type of insecurity in my life so if you continue to openly criticize my life choices then we can no longer maintain our friendship."

Here, you've clearly communicated your point and set healthy boundaries for this friendship. In a healthy friendship, your friend would try to respect your healthy boundary. If your toxic friend doesn't respect your point or boundaries, you will need to let them know (and any mutual friends know) that you are choosing to discontinue the friendship. Be sure to list your reasons as to why you are choosing to cut this negativity from your life.

It's difficult to have these conversations, but the effort is worth it. Focus on getting support from your spouse and family members, and those in your life who bring positivity to your life.

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