When you’re living your best Sex and the City-inspired life and meeting your “core four” (or however many form your ideal personal coven) regularly for brunch and gossip, friendship likely feels positive and additive to your life. It’s fun! It’s telling one she’s better than the crush she’s waiting to hear from. It’s covering the tab until the other finds a new job. It’s making sure another gets home safe.
But life is not always a box of Manolos. Sometimes, friendship is listening to her ruminate endlessly over her last relationship, her mother’s struggles with cancer, her own fertility issues, her bleak finances. And sometimes, it’s just feeling like a receptacle where she deposits all of her anxious and/or depressive thoughts. It can be draining, and confusing—especially since it’s so tough to identify when issues discussed in friendship cross over from “crisis for her” to “crisis for you.” And when self-care is the order of the day, does distancing yourself from the darkness make you a wellness warrior or a bad friend? Below, experts discuss how to deal with friendship rough patches and knowing when to call it quits.
Keep reading for expert tips on navigating imbalanced friendships.
1. Assess the overall health of your relationship
Every relationship has ups and downs, so it’s important to evaluate the situation holistically before taking any action. According to friendship expert Shasta Nelson, three markers designate a healthy friendship—the first being positivity. To measure this, take note of whether you feel good or bad after hanging out with this person. The second is consistency, which has to with how often you see or connect with the friend. And the third concerns vulnerability. When a friendship satisfies these guidelines, “we feel like we can share ourselves, be acknowledged for who we are, and feel known,” Nelson says.
An unhealthy relationship, on the other hand is lacking in at least one of the components, and the absent aspect is often positivity. “Research is showing we need to have five positive feelings for every negative feeling in any relationship to keep it healthy,” she says. So, if your friend talks endlessly at dinner about her issues without asking you about yours, it’s certainly not great. But if she then calls you the next day, invites you to something fun, pays the check to thank you for listening, and so on and so forth, your net experience may ultimately be a positive one.
Friendships have a honeymoon phase, too
But when the negative interactions pile up to a point where you don’t feel good after hanging with a certain friend, your instinct may be to distance yourself. Nelson challenges this reaction, noting that the intent for self-preservation can unintentionally lead to loneliness. “If we pull away every time it doesn’t feel amazing, we’re never going to develop the friendships that we want.”
She suggests regarding friendships like romantic relationships, since we’re primed to expect challenges in those. We know that working through tough times makes the partnership stronger, but the same protocol does not really exist with platonic friendships—and it should. Every relationship, after all, goes through a honeymoon stage followed by a phase of disillusionment. “We think anytime we get to that conflict stage we need to end the relationship or try to move back to where it felt good,” she says. “And we forget that it’s going through that together and having been there for each other that lets us learn more about each other, feel safer with each other, and trust each other more.”
There’s difference between “toxic” and “needy”
Furthermore, before labeling a friendship as toxic, think about whether or not the person is maliciously trying to hurt you, or is just not always a positive addition to your life. Because, Nelson says, those are two separate things. “We’re all in relationships because we have needs, so it’s not a problem to be needy—it just might be a problem how we go about getting those needs met sometimes.”
What would it look like if you started from the assumption that your friends were coming from a good place rather than assuming they were trying to annoy or disappoint you? “I don’t think any of us wake up thinking, ‘I hope I stress my friend out today,'” she says.
2. Check the bank
Now that you’ve evaluated whether or not your relationship has been healthy up to this point, consider how invested you even are in it and what the positive-to-negative ratio has been over time. “Think of it like a bank account balance,” Nelson says. If someone is going through a really tough time and is not being gracious or kind, take a step back before reacting. “[Maybe that person] has, made a bunch of positive deposits over time and now she’s making withdrawals, so to speak,” Nelson says. When it feels like your friend is going into the red, or into debt by making more withdrawals than deposits, then things start to feel gross.
3. Consider your role in the situation
It’s tempting to focus on the missteps of others when a relationship begins to feel negative, but therapist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer says it’s important to examine your own role in the dynamic, too. “The friend’s behavior is a reaction to yours in some way,” she says.
“If your friend is venting all the time, is it possible they feel like you’re doing that to them and they’re trying to create some space for themselves to be a part of the conversation?” —Miriam Kirmayer, therapist
“If your friend is dumping on you or venting all the time…is it possible the friend feels like you’re doing that to them, and they’re trying to create some space for themselves to be a part of the conversation?” Basically, just take the time to introspect.
4. Add positivity wherever possible
Even if it’s all her fault, Nelson says there are strategies to avoid ending the relationship altogether. “We can’t always eliminate the negativity, but we can add more positivity,” she says.
For starters, self-care is key. “We need to be more cognizant of adding the things to our lives that leave us feeling restored, healthy, and whole,” she says, whether that’s a jog outside, a chocolate bar, some reading time in the tub, or something else entirely. It’s also important to make sure you have other friendships you can rely on for the things your tough-time-having friend can’t give you at present (e.g. space to talk about your own issues).
Next, add whatever positivity you can to the negative-leaning friendship. “Even if we have a friend going through something tough, we can always say, ‘I would love nothing more than to just go out and have a fun time tonight’,” Nelson says. “We can always invite the other person to step into something that’s enjoyable, that produces laughter, or that invokes gratitude.” A little gassing up never hurts, either.
5. Use your words
You could also try something many find particularly difficult to do in friendships—telling the other person what’s up. “We have a tendency to put up with things, and then all of a sudden, it’s the last straw and we’re like, ‘I’m done,'” Nelson says. This endgame is especially unfortunate if you didn’t even try a different approach. “You could, for example, say to your friend something along the lines of, “I want to be there for you, but I’m feeling myself start to wear out a little bit,'” she says. Then, you can negotiate what you can and can’t do moving forward.
For example, a new-ish friend of mine recently shared that my anxiety-ridden text messages stress her out, and that she would rather I call. It never occurred to me that my actions were having a negative impact. This, Nelson says, is exactly the type of conversational exchange she encourages before leaving a friendship behind. “It could actually save the friendship and give you both what you need.”
6. Make a tough call
If you’ve tried all of the tactics outlined above, and you don’t see the trying situation as temporary, you may want to consider leaving the friendship in order to protect your own state of mind. “It really is a careful balance,” says Kirmayer. “We don’t want to stay in a friendship that’s not working for the sake of someone else because that can really affect our own physical health, emotional well-being, and other relationships we have.”
But make sure to practice mindfulness before making a tough call about breaking up with a friend. “Our friends aren’t necessarily there to make us happy all the time,” says Kirmayer. It’s true—even the SATC gals had their fair share of fights, and just imagine if Carrie and Samantha had called it quits over the FedEx incident of 2002…
Still not sure what to do? Well+Good council member Kelsey Patel has answers; here, the questions she thinks every woman should ask about friendship. Plus, some advice on what to do when your friend asks to borrow money (yikes!).
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