As a Friendship Researcher, I hear a lot about the different ways our friends affect us and just how much they can influence the course of our lives. More often than not, it’s hugely positive. Feeling socially connected has a very real and important impact on our overall health and happiness, and our friends have the potential to bring out the best in us.
But the same closeness that makes our friendships so special and meaningful also makes us vulnerable. Sometimes, our friends can affect us in ways that aren’t in our best interest. And when there’s conflict, instability, or a mismatch of needs, our friendships can be taxing or even toxic.
While a lot has been written on some of the more obvious signs of an unhealthy friendship, here are eight subtler signs that your friendship might be taking a toll on your well-being:
1. It’s inconsistent
Everyone has their good days and off days, but consistency matters when it comes to the quality of our friendships. We expect our friends to be there for us regardless of the situation we’re in or the people we’re with. That’s why it’s upsetting, or at the very least confusing, when a friend acts differently in public than they do one-on-one or when they’re inconsistent in the way they treat you. Of course, it’s not always mean-spirited, but even lighthearted teasing, unsolicited feedback, and subtle distancing or ignoring can be hurtful and make you insecure about your friendship, especially when it happens repeatedly.
2. There’s a lack of trust
Doubting a friend’s trustworthiness is a clear sign that your relationship isn’t as strong as it could be. Of course, feeling betrayed by a friend (like learning they’ve been gossiping or sharing personal details) will affect how much you trust them. But there are smaller issues and conflicts that can add up over time and make up for a pretty destructive friendship. Feeling like a friend isn’t listening to or respecting your needs, or having to repeatedly ask them to do something that’s important to you (e.g., return your calls, tidy up after themselves, pay you back), can chip away at your trust and affect what you’re actually getting out of your friendship.
3. Things don’t feel equal
Friendships should feel balanced and fair. We usually expect reciprocity or some kind of a give-and-take. This is true for things like emotional and practical support but also for the effort we put into our friendships. When a friend is taking much more than they’re giving back to you, like when conversations feel very one-sided or when you’re always the one to reach out or make plans, you might feel taken advantage of. Like all signs, this goes both ways. And it helps to look out for hints that your friend is also feeling this imbalance.
4. Competition is alive and well
A little healthy competition is one thing – it’s even expected in many close friendships. But having a friend who constantly tries to one-up you is another situation entirely. It’s frustrating and can make you feel jealous or even insecure. Even though these feelings are completely normal, they can get in the way of a healthy friendship. Everyone reacts differently, but it’s not uncommon to respond to competition by being defensive, braggy, or standoffish. It can also hold you back from sharing what you’re really experiencing and make it harder to be present in your conversations, which takes away from the quality of your connection. If you’re caught up in excessive competition, the dynamic of your friendship might need to be reevaluated.
5. You’re caught in the middle
It’s easy to forget that our friendships happen in a larger social context. And sometimes, our relationships with others can create issues in our friendship. Time is precious, especially as we get older. It’s normal that we feel torn between the different people in our lives — our friends, family members, romantic partners, and even colleagues. But receiving ultimatums or being made to feel guilty for spending time with someone else is a sign of a fragile friendship. Of course, it’s worth asking yourself whether you really are investing enough time and effort into your friendship before concluding that it’s toxic. But things generally work much better when friends are realistic and empathetic about how hard it is to balance different relationships and responsibilities and when you’re not forced to see each other but instead feel like you’re choosing to.
6. You don’t feel like your true self
At the end of the day, we all want to feel liked and valued by our friends. But the validation we get from our friendships is only beneficial when we’re acting like our true or authentic selves. Sometimes, you might feel pressure to act a certain way because you’re afraid of being judged or losing your friendship. Noticing that you’re hiding your real likes, dislikes, or views (both from your friend and yourself) because you’re worried about how you’ll come across or that it’ll lead to conflict is damaging. When you feel like your identity is at odds with the success of your friendship, it takes a toll on your self-worth and ability to form meaningful connections.
7. Things are turbulent
Even though friendships change and people come and go, stability is an important part of a healthy friendship. We each have our own ideas about what this looks like in actual practice. Seeing or speaking to each other every day/week/month? Not speaking for several months but picking up exactly where you left off? That’s why the real marker is an overall feeling that your friendship is unstable or fragile.
Sometimes, this instability comes from conflict. But it’s also possible to have a friend who seems to be dealing with a new crisis every week. Even though it feels good to support a friend in need, constantly helping them through difficult times can make your friendship shaky and affect your own well-being. It can also make you feel like more of a therapist than a friend. Eventually, your ability and willingness to be there for them and the closeness you feel can dissipate.
8. There’s no openness to feedback or change
On their own, none of these signs necessarily confirm that a friendship has turned toxic. The most important thing is the overall pattern. That’s why dealing with these issues before they become bigger problems is so important. It’s also helpful to reflect on the ways we might be contributing to toxicity in our friendships. This goes for our behavior and particular vulnerabilities that can lead to misunderstandings or conflict (like having trouble trusting other people in general or being quick to judge).
Ultimately, recognizing that a friendship is unhealthy doesn’t mean than we need to cut ties entirely. Changing behavior or friendship dynamics isn’t easy. But the best sign of a healthy friendship is the ability to communicate your own feelings and needs, an openness to hearing your friend’s, and a willingness to work on things together.