How to let go of toxic friends: revive your inner circle with the relationships you deserve
When Sanna met Kate* on a graduate course in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, they hit it off instantly – and she could have little clue what lay ahead. “Kate was hilarious to be around; she didn’t take life too seriously,” Sanna recalls. “We were both single at the time, and we bonded over drunken nights out, and our shared phobia of dating apps. We used to joke about the screenplay we’d write together from all our dead-end dates.”
Things started to change, however, when they were assigned to work on the same team together. “Kate developed this competitive streak; she was lovely to me in private, but used subtle put-downs in a group,” says Sanna. “At first, I wondered whether I imagined it. It seemed so random, and out of character.”
Alone in a toxic dynamic
This behavior is typical of a toxic friendship, according to professor Dr. Marisa G. Franco, speaker and author of the forthcoming book, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make and Keep Friends. “When there is a toxic dynamic, it’s usually one person getting all their needs met at the expense of another person,” Dr. Marisa tells Flash Pack.
“The other thing you might see is that your friend isn’t rooting for you to succeed. If you share some joy or accomplishment, they might try to bring you down a bit. Or they may be outright malicious, and say negative things about you behind your back.
If you share some joy, a toxic friend may bring you down
“Another sign that you’re in a toxic dynamic is that you become toxic yourself,” she continues. “Toxicity tends to pinball off itself, so you may find yourself doing things like ghosting or snapping.”
Things came to a head for Sanna on a team night out, when she ended up confronting Katie on her back-handed comments. “I always thought that it was best to be straight about things like that, but the whole thing was messy and awful,” she says. “I was so embarrassed to be crying, but the thing that really struck me was her reaction – she basically stonewalled me, and insisted that nothing had happened.”
Caught in a trap
“Honesty” and “authenticity” are the two most important qualities of a best friend, as reported by Snapchat’s global friendship study: while life’s best interactions leave us “happy”, “loved” and “supported”. On the flip side, an eye-opening paper from professors at UCLA found that the impact of stressful friendships is so severe, it can trigger serious health issues.
Life’s best connections leave us happy, loved and supported
Yet – given the extremity of this picture – we are surprisingly slow to audit our closest friendships, or call time on the ties that no longer serve us. Dr. Marisa believes this reluctance is driven by a number of reasons. “A poor sense of self-worth can really drive us into these toxic friendships, because they reflect how we see ourselves,” she explains. “That’s comforting in a way, because it validates our view of reality – even if it’s also very undermining. We also have situations where people have been friends for so long, they feel obliged to continue that connection, just because of the shared history.”
Dr. Marisa cites the Investment Model from social psychologist Caryl E. Rusbult, which shows we stay in relationships due to three factors: satisfaction, investment (per the shared history explanation, above), and also lack of good alternatives. “Individuals who see there being no alternatives are a lot more likely to stay in a toxic friendship,” she says. “For lots of people, isolation or loneliness feels even worse than being stuck in an unhealthy dynamic.”
Finding better connections
This mixed picture explains why meeting new people can be a powerful way of breaking toxic relationships. “Whenever you feel like you’re in a rut, you end up stagnating – I think a lot of us had that with the pandemic,” says Dr. Marisa. “Making new friends can shake things up, and they also teach you what a healthy dynamic looks like.
“If you’re stuck in a toxic friendship, you might think that everyone is going to treat you this way. You don’t realize that there are people out there who will be a lot more loving, consider your needs and root for you to succeed,” she goes on. “A new friendship can really help you see that.”
There are lots of people out there who will root for your success
Fresh friendships await in all channels of life, whether that’s taking up a new hobby, coworking or volunteering in your local community. Adventure travel is another rich source of friendships, especially if you join a group of like-minded strangers. When you share a group expedition together, whether that’s taking a vintage sidecar through the hills of Morocco, or ice-hiking in Argentinian Patagonia, you tend to be immersed in the moment. Everyone is there for the same reason, and – away from the distractions of daily life in a new and stimulating environment – people bond quickly.
“I came up with the idea of group travel because all my friends were busy settling down and I had no-one to travel with,” says Flash pack co-founder Radha Vyas. “In the years since, we’ve found a formula not only for bringing people of a similar age and mindset together, but also setting into motion the groundwork for really deep, lasting friendships.”
A fresh type of adventure
Research indicates that it’s normal for us to have a “constant turnover” of friends in life: in fact, on average, we replace half our friendships every seven years. So, cutting and pasting more compassionate relationships into your life doesn’t have to represent a drastic step: it may just be a natural evolution – albeit one that is fuelled by fresh perspective, and a change of scene.
“Friendship doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but some distance can certainly bring clarity on whether or not you have mutuality – meaning a balanced distribution of needs – between you,” says Dr. Marisa. “It may also be that, if you and your toxic friend are in a shared network together, you decide to dial down your level of interaction for a while.”
New friends satisfy our need for novelty and self-expansion
This process is ignited by making better, more deserving connections. “Getting to know a new person is an adventure in itself,” says Dr. Marisa. “We have this need for novelty, newness, and self-expansion; all of that can come with making a new friend. We see something in them that resonates with us, and it helps us to develop new identities.”
This was certainly the case for Sanna, who was finally able to cut the cord with Kate after a week away in Barcelona. “It was for one of my uni friend’s 30th; and the whole vibe was so completely different from my life at that time,” she says. “It finally dawned on me that I have lots of people who love me in life – and I bonded with friends-of-friends on that trip, too. It sounds silly, but it made me realize there was nothing wrong with me. I changed jobs soon after I returned, and ironically, Kate tried to reach out to me a few times since. But I’ve learnt my lesson – never again!”
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*Names have been changed for this story
Images: Flash Pack