Under the kilt: letting go of friendships: how toxic is too toxic

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Friends have lamented to me, “I’m so toxic!” during specific situations or in reference to certain people, so it’s easy to oversee these claims as simple dramatics or exaggeration. But whether it is a buildup of small stings or a particularly nasty fight, it is important to reflect on certain friendships and ask whether the “toxicity” has surpassed the point of hyperbole and whether it is time to cut a friendship out of your life.

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, writers of “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close,” wrote about the elasticity of friendship in their book and how in challenging times a friendship will “stretch” to accommodate for the needs of both friends. “Stretching” might be a relationship change that leaves one person feeling neglected or a long-distance friendship that leaves both people feeling distant and necessitates communication and compromise. Most of my friendships, from short-term ones with passing friends or long term ones with people I’ve loved for almost a decade have “stretched” in distinct ways over the years.

However, there are occasions where a stretch will strain so much that it snaps — this point is the crossroads where you reflect. Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, has commented that toxic friendships lack balance and reciprocity. Maybe you’re starting to feel strained after offering rides and food without your friend ever offering to take the bill or pay you back. Perhaps you leave every interaction feeling drained after listening to their relationship drama, but the moment you speak about yourself, your friend seems fidgety and distracted.

I was confronted with someone who Markman describes as “the drama maker.” Slight changes in tone would result in lengthy paragraphs demeaning my choice of words and an abrupt cold shoulder. Once I cleared up the misunderstanding, the friend would apologize and immediately go back to normal, even if I was not; the immediate blood pressure spike would be upsetting and confusing. I felt forced to drop whatever I was doing to ensure that our friendship stayed intact even as I felt breaks coming on. Whatever it may be, the moment you start questioning your well- being and come away from it feeling more negative than positive is the time to reflect whether this person is worth keeping in your life.

Clinical psychologists have said that toxic friendships, like toxic relationships, can affect your sense of self and identity, damage your self-esteem and even lead to feelings of depression or anxiety. This doesn’t mean that you should break off a friendship during a heated fight, or if you’re feeling sad after a hurtful comment made by a friend. Talk to them! Friends that care about you will care about your feelings, your boundaries and the health of your friendship. I’ve addressed issues with best friends in tears, and 9 times out of 10, those friends have apologized, explained their side and made steps to improve. Our bond has grown stronger because of this communication and empathy.

But if you address an issue head on but you still feel like your boundaries are being violated, it is a glaring sign that the issue is more serious than a bump in the road. This friend had made it clear to me in anecdotes about former friends and lovers that they were temperamental, but being on the receiving end of that changed my perspective about opinions I’d voiced earlier. “They’re just heartless,” I’d comfort, but once I started to receive hurtful messages and their username disappeared from my followers list after I set boundaries and made my distress clear, it was obvious that this friendship was not worth the upkeep.

I received an apology less than a month after I bared the brunt of malicious actions and hurtful words on an almost daily basis that left me feeling ostracized and on edge. I walked on eggshells for weeks, fearing that one misstep would turn their wrath onto me. So when the apology finally came, I found that I wanted this friend to stay blocked, digitally and otherwise.

You do not need to tolerate unpleasantness or conflict in your life because you pity someone or long for the days when you’d share a laugh over coffee. Dr. Dan Brennan stated in a discussion about toxic friends that, “Toxic people thrive in dramatic situations … People are often toxic because they’re not interested in being stable and healthy relationships.” Save yourself the heartache of dealing with drama and learn to recognize patterns early in the friendship — or else you’ll be forced to deal with the stress and heartbreak later.
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