11 friendship red flags you should never ignore, according to psychology

As someone with just a few close friends, I really value the friendships I have. They mean the world to me, and I believe that a good friendship can make life a lot better. 

However, not every friendship is good for you. Some can actually make you feel worse. 

I’ve had my fair share of these, which is why I’ve learned over the years to watch out for the warning signs that tell me a friend isn’t exactly the friend I thought they were. 

Today, let’s look at what psychology says about why some friendships just don’t work out and how to spot those that are more trouble than they’re worth.

Here are 11 friendship red flags you should never ignore: 

1) Disrespect for your boundaries

Everyone has their own set of rules and comfort zones, and it’s super important that our friends get that. 

I’ve had times when a friend would just barge into my space or plans without asking. I’ve had friends who’d badger me into drinking more, even when I said I’d had enough. 

Then, when I’d call them out on it, they’d say it was all just in good fun. 

But honestly, it felt more like they didn’t care about what I needed or wanted.

Psychology tells us that healthy relationships are all about respect, including respecting each other’s boundaries. 

If a friend constantly expects you to drop everything for them, or they keep pushing you to do stuff you’re not cool with, that’s a red flag right there. 

It shows they’re not really considering your feelings or the limits you’ve set

And trust me, that’s not what friendship is supposed to be about. Friendships should make you feel safe and respected, not uncomfortable and stepped on.

2) Jealousy

Do you have that one friend who can’t stand it when you spend time with other people? 

And here’s another question: Do you tend to downplay your successes because they tend to get jealous over your achievements? 

Jealousy might be the culprit here. And that’s a glaring red flag.

According to clinical psychologist Kathy Nickerson, “Jealousy in friendships can crop up for a variety of reasons, but most of the time, it’s because the jealous friend has low self-esteem, low self-confidence, or feels threatened somehow.”

Still, while we might understand the reasons behind their jealousy, it does put a strain on the friendship. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like having to walk on eggshells or hide my happiness just so my friend doesn’t feel bad. 

I’d rather have friends who are truly in my corner, who’ll be right there jumping joyfully with me. That’s what healthy friendships are all about! 

3) Competitive behavior

Neither do healthy friendships involve competition. 

Look, I’m all for a little friendly competition. My friends and I even have regular game nights, where we try to beat one another at charades, card games, and video games. 

It’s all in good fun, and at the end of the night, we’re laughing and having a jolly good time, no matter who wins or loses. 

But there’s a line between that kind of playful rivalry and feeling like you’re constantly in a competition with your friend over every little thing. 

You’ll know it has turned an unpleasant corner when conversations become a contest about: 

  • Who’s busier
  • Who’s got the latest designer bag, phone, car, etc.
  • Who gets invited to better parties
  • Who has a bigger paycheck

On and on it goes. It’s going to feel like there’s constant one-upmanship. 

Just like in romantic relationships, friendships need to have a spirit of teamwork, and keeping score definitely doesn’t align with that. 

4) Fake apologies…or no apologies

This is one of the more obvious red flags, and trust me, you’d do well to heed it. 

A friend who never apologizes, or worse, apologizes insincerely should set your alarm bells ringing because it means they don’t really respect you or the friendship enough to admit when they’ve made a mistake. 

I mean, I’ve had my fair share of boo-boos. I’ve accidentally hurt a friend’s feelings quite a few times. The difference is, I try to own up to it and make things right. 

But if you’ve got a friend who either brushes off their mistakes like they’re nothing or offers up those half-hearted “I’m sorry you feel that way” apologies, it’s not a great sign.

Friendships, just like any relationship, suffer when there’s a lack of accountability and empathy

5) Gossip

There’s an old saying that I’ve always kept in the back of my head when choosing friends – someone who gossips to you will gossip about you. 

That said, gossip is a really tricky area. 

On one hand, it can be kind of a social glue. Research shows that we do it to “bond with our group members, to entertain ourselves, to exchange information, to vent emotions, and to maintain social order.” 

In this sense, we can argue that it’s harmless. 

But of course, there’s no denying it has a dark side. When the motive is to advance one’s interests at the cost of others, gossip crosses over from benign to malignant. 

I guess what I’m saying is that it pays to be discerning – what’s the motive behind a friend’s tendency to gossip? 

If you feel that it’s a little more malicious than just a desire for some entertainment, then listen to that feeling and be more cautious around that person. 

6) Inconsistency

pic2409 11 friendship red flags you should never ignore, according to psychology

Do you have a friend who blows hot and cold? One day they’re all about spending time together, sending messages, and making plans, and then suddenly…

They disappear for weeks on end without a word. 

It’s pretty confusing and frustrating. You never really know where you stand with them. 

Are you close friends, or are you just convenient when they have nothing better to do? 

Well, the fact that you’re asking that question should alert you to this red flag. It’s tough to build a solid relationship on such unpredictable foundations. 

One of the core aspects of a strong friendship is reliability. As the theme song in the sitcom “Friends” goes: 

I’ll be there for you

(When the rain starts to pour)

I’ll be there for you

(Like I’ve been there before)

I’ll be there for you

(‘Cause you’re there for me too)

A good friend will never make you wonder if they’ll be there for you indeed. You’ll never have to guess if you’re really a priority to them or just an option.

7) Passive-aggressive behavior

Speaking of guessing, do you often have to guess what a friend really means when they say something? 

That’s what passive-aggressive statements and behavior do – they leave us guessing. 

Are they pissed, or are we just paranoid? Do they really want to do us this favor, or are they just not comfortable saying no? 

Again, it’s all about how it makes us feel. A friend who makes us feel insecure isn’t likely to be a good friend.  

8) Backhanded compliments

There is perhaps nothing more passive-aggressive than a backhanded compliment. So much so that it deserves its own section!

I think of backhanded compliments like little sneak attacks. You’re not even sure you were poked, but after a beat, you feel a twinge of pain. 

For instance, when I dyed my hair for the first time, a friend of mine quipped, “Wow, that’s a great color on you! You look so much better now!” 

My first instinct was to say thanks, of course. And then a question mark popped up in my mind: “So…does that mean I looked terrible before?”

If you’ve ever received a backhanded compliment, then you probably know that disoriented and unsettled feeling you get afterwards. That’s a red flag to alert you to the possibility that your friend may not be right for you. 

9) Demeaning comments

Of course, if it crosses over from passive-aggressive remarks to outright demeaning comments, you don’t need me to tell you that’s a red flag. 

I have no qualms in saying this: cut off friends who belittle you. You don’t need to give someone the power to make you feel small or inferior. 

But if you want to give the friendship the good old college try, Therapy Aid suggests these strategies: 

  • Shut it down. Send a clear message that you will not tolerate their behavior, and leave.
  • Be firm and patient. People don’t normally change overnight, but you do need to note if they’re making an effort to change. 
  • Communicate openly and honestly. Remind your friend how you feel and work on solutions together.  
  • Use humor – push back with a joke to gain control and turn the conversation from negative to neutral
  • Talk to someone you trust and get their feedback. 

If all else fails, take a break. Accept those feelings of sadness over the loss of the friendship, and then move on. 

10) Conditional friendship

How about the friend who operates with conditions? The type who’s only around when things are good or when they want something? 

They’re great when you cooperate or when you’re all about fun and games. But as soon as you don’t, or when it’s you who needs something, they’re nowhere to be found. 

News flash: True friendships don’t feel transactional. Favors and support are given freely from the heart, without expecting anything in return. 

11) They leave you feeling unsettled

All throughout this article, you may have noticed how I keep making references to how a friend’s behavior makes you feel. 

That’s because intuition is so important when we’re choosing friends. We may not even be psychologically savvy enough to pinpoint what exactly it is that someone is doing wrong, but we can at least recognize that it makes us feel bad or unsettled.

So let this be my last word – listen to how you feel. Hopefully, you only get good vibes, but if not, that’s your cue to do some weeding out.  

Picture of Roselle Umlas

Roselle Umlas

I am a freelance writer with a lifelong interest in helping people become more reflective and self-aware so that they can communicate better and enjoy meaningful relationships.

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