Elizabeth Roberts had a friend she'd known for 23 years. Roberts had grown up with this friend in a small town in Maine, and while longevity in a relationship often speaks to its strength, in her case, it was quite the opposite -- the older they got, the more the relationship turned toxic.
"She was always putting me down," says Roberts. "Whether it was out in the open and obvious, or a subtle jab, it was exhausting."
For Roberts, the friendship seemed OK, and she took the insults in stride.
"I would mention to my mother or another friend something she said to me, and their responses were always, 'What? She said that? Who says that?'" says Roberts. "And I would defend her. I would say, 'Oh, she doesn't mean it that way.' But she did, and I just overlooked it."
Whether it was the friend making a snide remark about Roberts short stature, or her weight, her clothes, or the guys she dated, their relationship was trademark toxic. Experts tell WebMD what a toxic friendship is made of, and how it can be saved -- if at all.
What Is Toxic?
"A friendship is between two peers," says Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends. "There has to be balance in a friendship for it to be healthy -- not one person whose needs get met and another whose needs are overlooked."
Friendships permeate our lives, having an impact on our careers, marriages, families, children, health, and even our retirement.
"Friendships are important everywhere, and they have positive things to contribute to all areas of your life," says Isaacs. "But that means they can also be toxic in any of these areas as well."
Isaacs explains that a toxic friendship is unsupportive, draining, unrewarding, stifling, unsatisfying, and often unequal.
"Toxic friends stress you out, use you, are unreliable, are overly demanding, and don't give anything back," Isaacs tells WebMD.
While a toxic friend doesn't have to lay claim to all of these charming characteristics, they do seem to bring on their nasty behavior on a consistent basis, as opposed to those of us who just have a bad day once in a while and take it out on some of the people we care about the most -- our friends.
"The phrase 'toxic friend' is pop psychology," says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I would say it's someone who, after spending time with them, makes you feel bad about yourself instead of good; someone who tends to be critical of you -- sometimes in a subtle way and sometimes not so subtle; a friend who drains you emotionally, financially, or mentally, and they're not very good for you."
You cross the line from helping a friend in need to helping a friend who is always needy when that friend is abusive, explains Berman.
"If your friend is asking for support, that's very different from someone who constantly asks for support and is constantly mean and abusive," says Berman.
These signs tell you someone is less friend, more foe. And not surprisingly, it's women who are more likely to be toxic than men, according to Berman. So when your gal pal turns sour and stays that way, you need to start taking control of the relationship if there's any hope of saving it.
How to Handle Toxicity
You know you have a problem with someone when your nontoxic friends start telling you, "Every time you hang out with Sue, you're in a bad mood." Or the phone rings, you see it's your toxic friend, and you conveniently go to the bathroom. But despite these warning signs, you don't do anything about it. Why? Because you're trapped.
"One of the characteristics of a toxic friendship is that the good friend feels she can't extricate herself from the relationship," says Charles Figley, PhD, professor and director of the Psychological Stress Research Program at Florida State University. "Whether it's on the phone, in person, or from the friendship entirely, you feel like you are trapped, you're being taken advantage of and you can't resolve the problem one way or another."
Whether the feeling of entrapment has to do with history -- you've been friends with the person since a young age, like Roberts -- or you feel they have no one else to turn to and you need to stand by them through thick or thin, you need to take action to help your friend, and yourself.
Recognize the toxicity. "The first step is to recognize that the person is toxic," Figley tells WebMD, "or at least that the relationship is toxic. They might not be a toxic friend to others but they are to you."
Take responsibility. By continuing a toxic friendship, you're allowing your friend to hurt you, but you're also hurting yourself. "You have to take some degree of responsibility for the situation," says Figley, a spokesman for the American Psychological Association. "It's a pleaser personality -- you want people to like you, you want to get along, and it's hard to say no. But you can pay the price in one way by having toxic friends." So even though we want to help our friends and have them rely on us in troubling times, take responsibility for toxic friendships and how they make you feel.
Set boundaries. "Make good boundaries for yourself," says Berman. "Start taking better care of yourself and make your own self-care more important than pleasing the toxic friend. Say no when she asks you for something that you don't want to give, and call her out when she is mean or critical to you."
Talk to your nontoxic friends. "Talk to other people who may not have a vested interest in your toxic friendship," says Figley. "People who can give you an objective opinion regarding whether the friendship is salvageable and whether you can manage the toxic friend to neutralize the toxicity, or if you need to end the relationship."
Suggest professional help. A toxic friend might need professional help at some point to help them get their career, emotions, or family back on track. How do you approach such a touchy subject? "If you point out to your friend how she is treating you and ask her to stop, and she continues to do it, you need to take it to the next level," Berman tells WebMD. "Say to her, 'I know you are a good person, but maybe you want to seek help.' But keep in mind that if it has gone to that level, and a friendship is that toxic, it's going to be destroyed at some point anyway. Better you make an effort to help your friend address her issues."
End the friendship. "It's difficult to end a friendship," says Figley. "Breaking up with anyone, whether it's a spouse, love relationship, or a friend, is not fun. It's even more important in this kind of context. In contrast to a love relationship in which you recognize you aren't compatible, this type of relationships is hurting you."
It's bad enough when a person has to deal with a toxic friend firsthand but when the toxicity is impacting not you personally, but someone you love, like a spouse or a friend, it can be even harder. How do you handle it? As much as you want to jump in and help, sometimes patience is key.
"The person who is affected by the toxic friend has to approach you," says Figley. "Then, you have every right to provide your observations. But you need to be honest, be objective, avoid criticism, and listen more than you talk. And the worst thing you can do is put down the toxic friend."
Negativity, explains Figley, will have your loved one defending their toxic friend. The focus should be on how you perceive the situation is impacting your loved one, and how you can help.
Reciprocity, Not Toxicity
Roberts' relationship grew increasingly toxic as time went on, and eventually, grew so negative and unbearable that Roberts had to call it quits.
"That's the hard thing about toxic friends," says Roberts. "Sometimes you can't be friends with them anymore. You can't go from being really good friends with someone, to being not really good friends. Sometimes, you have to totally cut them out, which is what I did. It got to the point where I couldn't forgive her."
In every relationship, you need balance, as Roberts demonstrates. Each person needs to be happy and feel good about the other. Ultimately, you want to feel good about your friends, not dread their ridicule.
"You want the right amount of reciprocity of affection and assistance in a friendship," says Isaacs. "So if you've got a friend who is always in need, always in trouble, always wants to talk about her problems, then there isn't any reciprocity if there isn't any room for you in the friendship. It doesn't have to be 50-50 every minute, but overall there should be some kind of balance in which you feel you are getting your needs met, and so is she."