Is it time to MAKE UP or BREAK UP?

We expect our friendships to last forever. But can hanging on to a friend do more harm than good?

by Hope Brotherton |

Do you feel anxious about being in touch with a friend, or dread the next catch-up? If so, there might be a toxic undercurrent to your friendship.

Understanding why you feel that way, and potentially culling them from your life, could help protect your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll explains why…

Why might you cull a friend?

Dr Arroll says: ‘Research shows you can count the number of very close friends you have on one hand. We have a finite amount of time and energy in a single day, so we can’t maintain 50 close friendships.

‘If we’re spending limited resources on a friend who’s depleting us, we don’t have space for others who bring fulfilment and support.’

Spotting the warning signs

If a friend’s undermining you, making you feel drained, judged or humiliated, crosses your personal boundaries or belittles you, these are signs that a friendship might be spoiling.

Dr Arroll says: ‘Though your friendship may not have started like this, over time it may have become toxic.

‘Even if there is no toxic element at play, it might be that your priorities have changed — starting a family, getting married — or you might not have that much in common any more. Drifting naturally is a normal part of life.’

When to take action

Dr Arroll says: ‘It’s only when a relationship becomes toxic that you might take direct action. This is why the break-up of a friendship can feel more painful and more difficult than that of a romantic one. They’re usually longer and harder to let go of. You might still work with them or share mutual friends, and it can feel awkward.

‘Simply backing away from the friend in question can serve as a behavioural experiment.

If you back off and they stay away, then that’s your answer.’

However, the loss of the friendship can lead to a period of grieving and adjustment, so be prepared to feel the loss.

Talking it over

‘Having a dialogue with the friend would give them a chance to respond,’ Dr Arroll explains. ‘They may not be aware that their behaviour’s impacting you negatively.

‘You might discover they’re going through something painful they couldn’t share

with you. That information can give much-needed context to their behaviour.’

A calm conversation could get your friendship back on track, but when having such a conversation, use ‘I terms’ rather than ‘you terms’.

Dr Arroll says: ‘Instead of saying: “You make me feel unsupported”, try: “I’m feeling that our friendship is drifting”. Your friend is less likely to feel defensive.

‘You might discover you’ve done something unintentionally that’s contributed to the state

of the relationship. We all have blind spots. Life is complex, and lots of life events happen over the course of a long friendship.

‘Still, it’s OK to trust your gut. Sometimes we just know that a dialogue won’t make any difference.’

Get an objective view

‘If a friendship is affecting your mental health, talk to another friend, relative or even a professional,’ says Dr Arroll.

‘We spend a lot of time beating ourselves up if a friendship’s diminishing. We wonder: What have I done? Why is this happening? But when you talk to someone else, you can let go of that inner critic and hear an objective view.

‘Friendship is one of the most consistently found predictors of positive mental health, so if you’re not getting that support from a friend, talking to others helps shore up your mental health defences and strength.’

Breaking taboos

‘We tend to believe that friends are for life,’ says Dr Arroll, ‘so there’s a lot of societal shame around the break-up of a friendship. But in the same way you wouldn’t stay in a toxic or abusive romance, you shouldn’t stay in a similar friendship.’

Edited by Punteha van Terheyden

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