How to Cope with Toxic Friendships

Research shows that the happiest and healthiest people are those who are well-connected to friends and family, but all friendships are not beneficial. A healthy friendship has mutual caring, mutual respect, mutual responsibility and good communication.

Breaking up with an important friend can be every bit as painful as breaking up a love relationship. But, there are sometimes good reasons to break up, and other times when breaking up is not really necessary. Here are some of the prime reasons for trouble in friendships, and what you an do about them:

Pressure: If you feel a lot of guilt about the friendship, and you wind up doing things you don’t really want to do, or paying for things you didn’t want to pay for, you may have a manipulative friend, one who uses emotional blackmail to get what he/she wants. Keep in mind this friend probably doesn’t really understand what he/she wants; these things are deeply ingrained behaviors that usually come from a dysfunctional childhood. They indicate emotional immaturity.                       

Here are the signs of emotional blackmail and what to do about them:
1. A demand. Your so-called friend (SCF) won’t take no for an answer, and requests are really demands. If there’s a price to pay (your friend bad-mouths you to others, throws temper tantrums, has crying fits, or pouts) when you don’t say yes, understand that the more you give in the bigger the penalties get. Nip this in the bud as soon as possible, by saying, “I’m sorry you’re upset, but the answer is still no.” If your friend’s case of entitlement is big, you might have to stop saying yes to anything and leave the friendship.

2. Resistance. The SCF turns every discussion into an argument. It’s important to this friend to be right all the time, even when he/she is clearly wrong. Just stop talking when this happens. You’ll never change the mind of someone like this, and you don’t want to endorse the error, so just clam up. Completely. This is very effective.

3. Pressure. Your SCF pressures you to go along. This is related to not taking no for an answer. Your friend cajoles, pleads, or makes an argument for why you should do something “I know you’ve been sober for years, but just have one beer with me. It’s my birthday.”  “Oh, c’mon, it’ll be fun. Let’s get in the car with these guys we don’t know.” “Don’t be a tightwad, you can afford this.” This is a very important time to be prepared to say no. If you have trouble, practice in advance by mentally playing out scenarios where this friend pressures you, and you say no in various ways, including just leaving if you have to.

4. Threats. Your SCF uses threatening or coercing tactics: threatening to end the relationship, tears, rage, badgering. “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll...” is a threat. Emotionally, it’s the equivalent of pulling a knife. Threats have no place in a friendship. If a threat happens, leave. Right away. No explanation. Just leave, and sort it out later. You want to send a clear message that threats are not OK.

5.  Gossip. Your SCF says unpleasant things about you to other friends. This is a tactic designed to make you feel “less than” your friend, to give the other person power over you. There’s no point in even telling your friend that it’s a problem. You can talk about it the first time, but if it keeps happening, you have to recognize that this is no friend, and act accordingly.

Your Friend May Be Teachable
What a pain in the butt!! She’s late for lunch, she’s always complaining or whining, she doesn’t pay you back. But, she’s your friend, so what do you do? Work with her! She’s easy to teach, if you do it right. Let her know what you like about what she does, then she’ll hear you when you say you don’t like something. Use silence: if you don’t like what she’s doing or saying, don’t respond—she’ll get the message, without a word. Set limits: If she’s habitually late, make sure she knows when the timing is important (you hate to miss the first 5 minutes of the movie) and when time is not an issue (you can read a book or talk to a friend until she arrives) When timing is important, tell her if she’s not ready by xxx time, you’ll leave without her. It’s amazing how well that works. Don’t be too strict about it—if she has a good reason, or it’s only occasional, cut her a little slack. But, don’t be a pushover, either. Set some limits. Don’t react to obnoxious things, but just politely ignore what they’re doing or saying, and maintain a pleasant demeanor. Be a grownup, whether they are or not. If you have to treat them as misbehaving children, so be it—just don’t let them drag you into bad behavior of your own. 

Handling difficult personalities takes skill and knowhow. Here’s a technique anyone can learn to use that works every time.

Adult time out
If someone behaves badly in your presence, giving that adult a “time out” is a powerful and subtle way of fixing the problem. Modern parents use a timeout to discipline small children. The child is sent to a corner, or a room, to think about his or her behavior. An adult variation of the time out works as well on any adult friend who is acting childish or misbehaving. All you need to do is become very distant and polite around whomever is not treating you well. No personal talk and interaction, no joking, no emotion. Be very polite, so he or she cannot accuse you of being unpleasant, mean or rude. There is no need to explain what you are doing: the problem person will get the message from your behavior; which is much more effective. If you’ve never tried this, you’ll be amazed at how effective becoming polite and pleasant but distant can be. Most of the time, your friend’s behavior will immediately become more subdued around you, and often, much more caring. Eventually, she may ask you what’s wrong, or why you’ve changed, and at that point (and only at that point) you have an opportunity to tell her what the problem behavior is, and why you don’t like it. Learning to put obnoxious friends in time outs right at the beginning of unpleasant behavior can make it unnecessary to use tougher tactics at all. And if the person’s behavior doesn’t change, you can leave him or her in “time out” and you’ll be protected from it.

Jealousy
There are people in everyone’s life who get jealous of a friend’s success or happiness.  Sometimes friends who feel unsuccessful will drift away or cut you off when you have the success they’re longing for. Most jealousy arises when someone feels insecure or threatened—that someone will get the attention she wants. The most important thing you can do is to remember that when you handle jealousy properly, it does not have to be a disaster. Here are some guidelines you can use:

How to:
1) Sensitively and Diplomatically Handle Jealous Friends:
People who react this way are usually in a lot of emotional pain about their own lives.  Be as understanding as you can, be willing to listen to your friend’s feelings to a reasonable degree, but don’t let their struggle ruin your good feelings about yourself. If you can, offer the friend time alone with you, to help her feel special and important. Often, publicly thanking her for nice things she’s done will help keep her pacified.

2) Understand Underlying Causes of Bad Behavior:
People who have always felt competitive toward you are likely to misbehave, to get attention in that way. If someone’s behavior becomes a problem, set some limits. Tell the friend directly what behavior is unacceptable (like making nasty remarks when you’re around other friends) and let her know you can’t be her friend if her behavior doesn’t improve.

3) Nip the Problem in the Bud:
Don’t be afraid to talk to friends about what friendship means to you—is it OK to cancel a date with a girlfriend (or her with you) because you get a better offer from a man? Or cancel your date with your girlfriend because your buddies want to go out? Because of family illness or problems? How much loyalty do you expect in the friendship, and what does that mean?

4) Honesty minimizes jealousy:
Lying to your friend about whether you have broken an agreement does more damage than breaking the agreement. If you do something with another friend, tell the truth—don’t protect the jealous friend. It gives him/her a false impression, and encourages emotional blackmail.

Different Paths
Often, when one friend falls in love and gets married, he or she will essentially disappear for a while, but if friends are patient and understanding, the friendship can grow beyond these changes. When friends’ lives progress together, (they marry and have children at similar times, their careers go through similar changes, the connection is strengthened. But, when lives take different paths (one remains childless and has a career, the other gets married and has children) it can often challenge the friendship. Those friendships that survive these challenges and continue to deepen are often the most rewarding. Friends will help you through times of no partners better than partners will help you through times of no friends. 

If you decide you have to end some friendships because of these differences or  bad habits, the article “Make New Friends, Keep Good Friends” will show you how to make some new friends.

©  2014 Tina B. Tessina adapted from: It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (Kindle and Paperback)


Author Bio: Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 35 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage, and her newest, The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty and  Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter.

Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC News.

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