As kids and teens, friendship is an important part of learning who we are. Our social circle enables us to become independent from our parents, learn more about ourselves, and challenge the thoughts and beliefs we were brought up with.
As adults, friendship is still crucial, but for different reasons. While we go on to develop careers and form families, we may not have as much time to spend with friends as we’d like, but we still need them for emotional support, a shoulder to cry on, making us laugh, and relieving stress.
Friends also help us see that giving friendship is as beneficial to our health and happiness as getting it.
But in our busy lives, maintaining friendships isn’t always easy. Some people only want to take from a relationship but not give anything back. Some want to surround themselves with friends simply as a means of validating their own self-worth and staving off their own insecurities. Others use and abuse a friendship to take advantage of others and get things they need.
These are all examples of toxic friendship. When they pop, it’s not always easy to spot right away. Some people are very good at masking their toxic, selfish motives by manipulating the emotions of others.
Here are some signs to look out for.
You show up for them, but they don’t do the same
As adults, we have more responsibilities than we can sometimes safely juggle. Being a good friend as an adult comes with the understanding that we should be respectful and forgiving when things come up and plans need to be cancelled.
So yes, give your friend some leeway if they have to bail on a night out with the group or a one-on-one coffee chat. But if you find yourself always doing your best to be there for them, and they often don't make the same kind of effort for you, then you’re being pulled into a one-sided friendship—and you'll eventually start to resent it.
They talk behind everyone's back—including yours
It’s safe to say that nobody is perfect and everyone has been guilty of gossip from time to time.
But if you’re close friends with someone who makes talking about people behind their backs a major pastime, then it’s highly likely that they do the same thing to you when you’re not in the room.
Building a friendship on entertaining yourselves with the faults of others might work for a while, but eventually, gossip will spread. Something you confide to your friend will hit the ears of someone else, and so on and so forth. Gossip has a way of getting around and breaking the trust that's needed for a healthy friendship. If gossip is all your friend seems to want to do, prepare for the toxic drama to follow.
They make you feel guilty for having a different opinion
Once I had a friend who told me I needed to go after my ex-husband for child support. She laid out a lot of solid reasons, all of which I agreed with. But the thing is, at that point during my messy divorce, I felt like pushing my abusive ex for money would do more harm than good.
As much as I explained that “going after him” literally made me fear for my safety, she wouldn’t give me a pass. To her, I was doing something irresponsible and wrong. It’s not simply that we disagreed, it’s that she wanted me to feel guilty for thinking the way I did. Her judgmental attitude reminded me of a parent scolding a child for doing something wrong, and I never felt comfortable talking about it with her after that.
When you and your friend disagree, the healthy thing to do is to acknowledge the fact that you’re two different humans who will naturally have different thoughts and feelings from time to time. If your friend puts you on a guilt trip for being true to yourself, it can be a sure sign that things will soon get toxic.
They claim you hurt them in order to manipulate you
I once had a friend who lashed out at me for wanting to hang out with someone she had dated. She used the phrase “hurt.” I was “hurting” her by keeping a friendship with her ex.
The issue for me was, we were all friends prior to the breakup, and even prior to them hooking up. I didn’t want to ghost my good friend just because things had gone sour for them as a romantic couple. I cared about them both, and neither one had committed some grievous wrong to the other—so why was I being forced to choose sides? It wasn't a competition over who was more hurt—I simply loved them both and wanted them both in my life.
Breakups in social circles certainly take a toll, but if your friend is trying to force you to pick sides and claiming you are the one being hurtful or mean, that’s crossing a line into controlling behavior.
They become an “invisible friend”
I have a few invisible friends. They are the people I was once close with. People I once loved and relied on. These were friends I made time for, even if we could only see each other once every other month due to our very busy schedules.
But just because you become good friends with someone, that doesn’t mean they’ll always want to work to maintain that level of closeness. Maybe later in the friendship, you notice you're the one always reaching out to initiate plans. Maybe you’re the only one checking in through text. Maybe, eventually, the friend stops responding to your attempts at interactive friendship altogether.
Sometimes being the new friend is like being the new shiny toy. You amuse someone for a bit, but then they find something else that captures their attention even more.
I've seen that meme floating around the internet. The one that says something like, “Even if we don’t ever talk or see each other, I still love my friends.”
That may be true. Maybe you still love me, but if you don’t ever see me or communicate with me in any way, you’re what I consider an invisible friend. I won’t lash out at you or hate on you...but I guess we won’t ever, like, interact with each other either. It's a friendship in name only, but not one I can truly rely on.
They smother you
Sometimes a toxic friendship goes the opposite direction. Instead of your friend ghosting you all the time, they might demand too much from you and get upset when you can’t meet all their demands. Maybe they want to hang out multiple times a week or they text you so often that you can barely keep up. Maybe this demanding friend constantly punishes you in little ways or accuses you of being neglectful.
If you find yourself being berated for not texting back within a small window of time or not giving your friend enough attention, it might be time to ask for some breathing room. If they can’t be respectful of that, then the friendship is likely not going to work out.
They don’t support your successes
It may be something subtle, like a backhanded compliment. Or maybe, when you tell a friend some good news, like getting a new promotion, they immediately pull focus to the negative: “Wow, that’s great, but isn’t that added responsibility just going to make you more anxious about work than you already were?”
If a friend constantly acts low-key jealous when good things are happening for you, that’s a sign that their insecurities are going to get in the way of a friendship with you. In their mind, they fear that if you better yourself, you’ll rise above their level and leave them behind.
Making you feel bad or worried about your accomplishments is a manipulative tactic that will make your friend feel better about themselves by pulling you down.
Friendship becomes more complicated in adulthood, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for friends who are mistreating you. And, if you find you do want out, that doesn’t mean you don’t love your friend.
There’s a level of grief that comes with leaving friends who are being toxic to you, just like the grief that comes with ending a romantic breakup. But remember, that plenty-of-fish rule applies to friendship as well. If you’ve put in your best effort to fix a toxic friendship but it’s still not a healthy relationship, you’ll be much better off putting yourself out there and making new friends who are a better fit.