Friendships are relationships that often go overlooked when it comes to discussions about health and wellness. This is—in some ways—understandable. We’ve all had bad friends who we simply drifted apart from or stopped interacting with, and we’ve probably also had good friends to which the same things happened. But, where is the line between someone who is a good friend acting like a bad friend right now, a truly bad friend and a friend that has become such a negative impact on your life that it’s time to cut ties?
To start, what are the warning signs of friendships that are “too far gone?” Nothing is as simple as the listicles online want you to believe, but psychological standards and conventional wisdom seem to agree that there are three general guidelines for something that has surpassed a “rough patch.”
First is any sort of strong imbalance. That can be in power and control—i.e., your friend seems to control everything you do, say and think—or in how much each person is giving and receiving in the friendship. Perhaps you put in loads of time and effort into cheering them up, helping them when they need something and being there for them emotionally, but everytime you need something, they’re busy or do little to help.
Second is esteem and value. Do you feel valued by your friend, or are they always asking you to change or do things differently? Do you find yourself walking on eggshells when it comes to your opinions, scared to say something wrong and upset them? When you have upcoming plans with your friend, do you feel nervous or stressed by the idea of being around them? Sometimes these things are obvious, and sometimes it takes a lot of reflection and active thought to realize it’s been happening. Check in with yourself.
Third, trust. Any relationship is built on trust, and friendships are no different. Has your friend become someone you can no longer trust with your thoughts? Do they spread your ideas around when it’s convenient for them or never seem to respect your privacy? Do you no longer trust that they have your best interests in mind and does it seem that most of their actions have become self-serving at your expense?
If any of these things ring true, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the middle of a doomed friendship. A lot of times we humans are, unfortunately, narrow-minded and self-oriented, and we might not be doing enough personal self-reflection to realize how our actions are starting to impact the lives of those around us. If some of these signs are showing up, or becoming more prevalent, try to organize a time to talk to your friend about what you’ve been noticing. It’s helpful to use “I” language to not sound accusatory or cause them to get defensive. It can also help others understand how their actions come across to you regardless of their intentions.
This talk will hopefully go well and serve as a basis for the both of you to more closely examine the dynamics of your friendship. But let’s say it doesn’t, let’s say it ends in tears, instead. Cool off, try again and seek out the advice of a trusted friend or mentor, or even a walk-in session with University Health and Counseling Services. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion that too many chances have been given and to heal you have to move forward. Or, maybe you’ll give it one more shot when your friend is more willing to hear what you have to say when it is less of a shock to their system.
When there have been too many warning signs, how does one even go about ending a friendship? It is both very simple and very hard: simple to do and very hard to deal with. Most of the time you can just spend less time with them, see them less often and trust them with fewer things. That doesn’t mean it will be easy for either of you, though.
But, sometimes it is much more complicated. Many of us on campus live and have classes or are in clubs with our friends. What happens when you’re in the middle of one of those situations and you run into a former friend whose friendship has run its course? Hopefully, both parties can remain respectful and civil. However, if they aren’t, or if it is too challenging to be around the person, try to set up boundaries while things cool down.
Everything discussed so far deals with bad friendships or friendships that have run their course, but something not often talked about is when friendships turn toxic or abusive. We associate abusive relationships with romantic and domestic relationships, but that’s not always the case. One of the hardest parts about an abusive friendship is that it usually occurs in those that are deep and that started full of trust. Unfortunately, these toxic relationships can become all-encompassing with the threat of a shared past as a bartering chip over your head. This happens easily in a college setting where we bond with people at accelerated rates because of how often we see them.
Roommates are a critical example. We are suddenly thrust into sharing personal spaces and relationships with people we’ve just met, and a lot of times this can complicate things. Accompanied with the freedom of college, you can spend every night with your friends from O-Week—though I don’t recommend it, more for your sleep habits than the risk of bonding too quickly. We latch on to our college friends as they become 90 percent of our social network, with family and childhood friends often too far away.
It’s easy to tell someone that the situation they’re in is bad or harmful, but life is very rarely ever that simple. If your friend is in an abusive relationship or friendship, offer them support, refer them to resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline or campus support networks and convince them, slowly, that they can trust you. If you are in an abusive relationship, know that you’re not alone and that there are people who can help you figure out a way to remove yourself from that situation safely.
If you’re just in the middle of a bad friendship—one that lowers your quality of life and happiness—the same applies. It might not be easy, but it’s time to put yourself first. Know that there are people around you that can help you, and if you feel too wounded to trust one of your other friends, lean on a trusted adult, advisor or the school’s counseling services.