It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve all had our fair share of toxic friendships. Even if you only experience one bad friend in a lifetime, it will feel like enough for a lifetime. With these relationships, there comes a moment when we realize the continuous fighting, negativity, flaking, or disrespect are not just avoidable squabbles but sadly predictable behavior patterns. It takes a lot of strength to walk away from someone whose friendship you used to cherish–even when you know in your heart that it’s the right choice.
But the phenomenon of toxic friendships is a complex one, and it sometimes feels that the phrase “toxic friendship” is overused. Having friends you trust and respect enough to argue with is a true sign of maturity. When a dear friend calls us out on our bullsh*t, it might not be time to end the friendship completely. I recently had two encounters with two separate friends that brought this topic to mind. It was an important awakening for me, as I think us young women tend to overuse the term “toxic” when it comes to fighting with friends. We hastily dismiss valuable individuals from our lives while simultaneously allowing the disingenuous friendships to flourish.
I got mad at my best friend (let’s call her “Sophia”) after she fell back into an unhealthy behavior I had hoped was behind her. I expressed my frustrations to her, admittedly with an accusatory tone, and she immediately became defensive. Who was I to criticize her choices, she asked, when I have made plenty of mistakes of my own? Didn’t I realize how hard it was for her to offer advice when I would just end up ignoring it anyway? Essentially, we were saying the same thing to each other but getting frustrated while we did so. About 3 minutes into the fight, we each realized how loud we were yelling and how much our words were hurting the other. I started apologizing profusely, and so did Sophia. Soon the conversation turned into “I’m sorry,” “No, I’m sorry!” as we backpedaled to where the fight began.
Sophia and I have been best friends since we were 12, and she knows me better than I know myself. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, her hurtful words were riddled with valid points and good intentions. And the same went for what I had said to her. In the end, we were able to get our points across without losing the friendship. By the time I hung up the phone I felt drained but also motivated and grateful. I was proud that my best friend could be so blunt with me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had fought with a friend like that. Most of the time, I find myself tiptoeing around certain touchy subjects and sugarcoating my frustrations when I get close to arguing with a friend. We were able to move past the anger and still be honest with one another–an important step toward building a mature relationship.
This experience contrasted dramatically from another recent encounter. I was meeting a girlfriend—let’s call her “Emily”—at an event downtown. I arrived to find the line wrapped around the corner, so I texted her it might be a while before I got inside. She said sure. About 45 minutes later, I was only 3 people back from the front of the line when Emily called me to say she was leaving this place and heading to a bar on the other side of town. I understood that she had been there for an hour, but she failed to understand that I had waited in line for 45 minutes to see her. She also failed to mention to me that she had three friends with her, and she was leaving to abide by their schedule. I had been under the impression that we were meeting one-on-one to catch up since it had been months since we’d seen each other.
As she criticized my timing and refused to apologize, it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Emily was always trying to find the next best party and was constantly inviting as many people as possible, even when that meant ditching friends along the way. I was so tired of the drama that I ducked out of line just 1 person shy of getting in and went straight home. Hanging out with her had been my only plan for that night, my only day off that week, and she had put other people above seeing me. I was so irritated that my weekend had taken this turn, and I realized that she had done nearly the exact same thing multiple times before: given vague details about the plans and then accused others of misunderstanding. I thought hard about when had been the last time she had gone out of her way to come see me in my neighborhood, and it depressed me to realize that it had been a long time. This is the sign of a toxic friendship, I thought. Someone who makes me feel worse every time I see them (or in my case, even when I don’t see them).
The difference between Sophia and Emily was obvious. Sophia wanted to help me when she got angry with me, but Emily jumped to blaming me for something that wasn’t my fault. It was a bummer to fight with either of them, but in the case of Sophia, I feel like it made the friendship stronger. I used to think a toxic friendship was one that feels bad from time to time. But it’s not. A toxic friendship is one that feels bad most of the time. If you have a friend who is not afraid to be honest with you—even when that means fighting—it could be a blessing in disguise. By arguing honestly, we can challenge each other to rethink our behaviors, question our comfort zones, and push us in the right directions. But by fighting angrily and making false accusations, we only succeed in pushing people away.
Also by Francesca: How “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” Saved My Life
Why “Happiness By Choice” Doesn’t Always Work
Related: A Breakup Letter to My Toxic Friendships
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Photo: Jordan Donalson via Unsplash