Everyone wants and needs friends. But not all friendships are created equal—some are true and some are toxic. What if our friends are really hurting us?
Friendship is important to everyone. We seek friends very early in childhood; and if we are lucky, some of those early friendships may stay with us for life!
King Solomon wrote, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
Unfortunately, not all friendships are created equal. Some friendships produce a very positive impact on us, while others do not. It is the difference between one that is a true friend and one that is not.
What makes a true friend, and how do you know when you have one or are one? Is it possible to have a friendship that is actually hurting you?
A toxic friendship can cause a lot of damage, emotionally, mentally, even physically. Here’s how you can tell the difference.
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Are you someone who struggles to say “no” to others? If so, you are a likely target for a toxic relationship. There are always people waiting to take advantage of others. They will push you to do things that you are uncomfortable with, even things you know are wrong. They want to talk about things you don’t want to talk about, encourage you to spend money you don’t have—especially for them!
Toxic friends almost always get their way. They are pushy and demanding, and they will use criticism, negative feedback and other emotionally manipulative ways to coerce you with guilt into doing what they want. They are not interested in your welfare, but rather in what they can get from you.
Unsupportive and unreliable
Toxic friends are not there for you when you need them. They want you when they have needs, but they find excuses and are often self-justifying when the reverse is true. The bottom line is, you can’t rely on them when things get tough.
In conversation the topics are often about them and their problems; and when you want to talk about something bothering you, they may listen for a brief moment before bringing the conversation back to them. They are lousy listeners!
This kind of relationship consistently leaves you feeling drained and perhaps used, rather than satisfied and content.
Feeling trapped and unhappy
If you have a toxic friendship, chances are you’re feeling miserable! You probably know on some level that there are problems with this relationship, but you don’t know what to do about it. Perhaps you think you won’t be a good friend if you break off contact with this person or confront him or her.
It’s time to take action!
If you recognize toxic qualities in a friendship, something needs to change. You can’t afford to wait and hope the situation will change itself—it’s time to take action! Here are some practical steps you can start taking right now.
1. Recognize the problem without condemning the person.
Toxic friendships hurt and often leave us feeling frustrated or angry. In fact, we may suddenly realize we have been feeling this way for a while now. But it is important that we be measured in our reactions.
For many people the first reaction may be to lash out and tell the person what a lousy friend he’s been, venting anger and frustration that have been kept bottled up inside. Others simply want to walk away—or run away—from the relationship without talking at all. While either approach would end the toxic friendship, neither is as helpful as a different kind of response could be.
Stop and ask yourself, “What has my friend gone through in life that has led to his treating me this way?” Understanding and compassion may be helpful to this person. However, the fact that someone else has had a difficult time in life is not a reason you should reap the consequences! It often does help us and perhaps him if we recognize an underlying cause, but you must be careful about what you allow in your own life.
2. Take responsibility.
If you’re in a toxic relationship, it’s up to you to change it! Casting blame on the other person may be convenient, but it is generally unproductive. If you’ve been treated poorly by someone, chances are you’ve allowed it. So start by acknowledging your part, and focus on what you can do to change yourself.
3. Set healthy boundaries.
All relationships require personal boundaries. Boundaries are guidelines or limits that define how you interact with others, and how you allow other people to treat you. They are defined by your core values, which say a lot about you.
For example, your ability to say no to others may demonstrate that you have self-respect. You recognize when certain people or situations may be unsafe and you stay away. Or you are able to identify when you are getting overloaded with responsibilities, and you speak up in order to take care of yourself or prevent having so much to do that you don’t do a good job on anything.
People who have very permeable boundaries are always letting people in who prove to be dangerous to them in some form or another. They put others’ wants and desires before their own needs, and they become easy targets for those who are seeking to take advantage. If this describes you, then determine now what your boundaries will be and make them stick.
4. End the relationship.
A true friend is loving—not with a selfish type of love, but with the kind that puts others’ needs first.As distasteful or difficult as it may be, if you’ve tried to establish some better boundaries with your toxic friend and nothing changes, then it may be necessary to get out of this relationship. A person like that may never respect you or see you as an equal. Staying in such a relationship will only continue to damage you. There are other people who are willing and able to be a true friend to you!
5. Seek professional help.
In some instances, particularly if there has been intimacy or romantic feelings, you may feel unable to break away from an unhealthy, toxic relationship. Then it’s time to get outside help! Continuing to live the way you are now won’t solve the problem. You need to find out why you are letting yourself be treated with such disrespect. It can be tough to break away from long-standing habits, but it can be done! Advice from someone outside the relationship who is unbiased and professional can make the difference in your restoring balance to your relationships and life.
6. Spend more time with nontoxic friends.
The best way to know the difference between a toxic friendship and a healthy one is to hang out with people who aren’t toxic! Hopefully, you already know at least one person like this, but if not, then you need to carefully consider where you are finding your so-called friends.
Once you’ve made a connection with someone you enjoy being with, who doesn’t use or abuse you or your time, pay attention to what’s different about this relationship so that you can focus on finding those qualities in others—and being a true friend yourself.
Qualities of true friendship
God’s Word is filled with ways to identify qualities of a true friendship. Here are some to consider:
- True friends are loyal. They stand by you in good and bad times. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times.” Proverbs 18:24 adds, “A man who has friends must himself be friendly, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
- In a true friendship, there is reciprocity—a healthy balance of giving and receiving.
- True friends don’t flatter. They tell the truth, even when their honesty may sting. In Proverbs 27:6 King Solomon was inspired to write, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”
- A true friend is trustworthy and reliable. You can count on that person to keep your secrets, give you good counsel when you ask for it, and to always speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
- A true friend is loving—not with a selfish type of love, but with the kind that puts others’ needs first. There is a well-known chapter in the Bible about what real love is. It says, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians13:4-7).
- A true friend will not try to lead you to do things that are wrong or hurtful, but rather is there to support you and encourage you to make right, healthy and proper choices in your life (Proverbs 1:10-14; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
The perfect friend
This perfect level of friendship may seem like an impossibility to achieve with any of your friends, and in fact, you’re right! None of us is perfect, so we all eventually disappoint or frustrate others. Having a great friendship isn’t about expecting perfection.
However, there is one friend we can have who is perfect in every way, and He wants to be your best friend if you’ll let Him.
In John 15:13-15 Christ said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends, if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.”
Jesus Christ died so that we might live, and His life is a testimony for us of what the truest of friends is like.
You don’t need to continue to suffer with toxic friendships. There are steps you can take to improve the quality of your friendships, and God can guide you to better, healthier relationships. Even more importantly, you can have that perfect friendship with One who will never let you down, never mistreat you, and who will always be there to listen and give the answer He knows you need at the right time in your life.
Learn more about building good friendships by reading the other articles in this section, “Friendship: Keys to Finding and Keeping Good Friends.”