7 ways to deal with a toxic friendship (and how to know when to cut ties)

There is never a good time to realize that your friendship has gone toxic. It’s a nagging push-and-pull of “Is it really?”

“Is it not just in my head?” 

“Am I being unfair to them?”

And friendship loyalty might even make it feel like a betrayal for even thinking of this. It sucks and it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

You try to rationalize, you try to make it prettier and more palatable than it really is. However, if you’re looking up this article, chances are, you already have an inkling of the possibility.

So, let’s talk about it. From the signs to ways to deal with it, and how to know when to cut ties. 

Signs of a toxic friendship

In a TEDx talk by author, business and marketing coach, and speaker Dr. Sharon Livingston, she said something profound about toxic friendships, “You can’t have a relationship walking on eggshells.”

Let’s marinate in that statement a little bit. You can’t have a relationship walking on eggshells.

I ask you this, have you ever felt like you’re walking on eggshells in your friendship?  

Have you ever felt like you had to tiptoe around them? Their feelings? Their reactions? Their opinions?

Do you feel unlike yourself when you’re with them? Someone you can’t recognize? 

Here are some more signs:

Power imbalance

  • When the decision-making lies only in 1 party.
  • When you feel like you need to keep the other person entertained or interested just so they stay as your friend.
  • When your opinions are not being heard or taken into account.
  • When you feel like they’re always one bad day away from cutting off the friendship for no reason. 
  • When you’re scared to let your opinions known.
  • When they gaslight you.

Transactional friendship

Mentally exhausting and energy-depleting interactions

  • When things are good, it’s amazing. When it’s bad, it’s a disaster. 
  • You dread interacting with them.
  • You feel like your friendship is performative.
  • You come home exhausted after interacting with them.

You don’t OR can’t trust them

  • You don’t trust them with secrets.
  • They’ve betrayed your trust before.

Ways to deal with a toxic friendship

ways they manipulate conversations 7 ways to deal with a toxic friendship (and how to know when to cut ties)

Are the signs glaring crimson and radioactively toxic at you right now? Getting a case of “Ooh snap, so that’s what it is”?

Okay. What, now?

1) Set or affirm your boundaries.

Bestie, I’m a people-pleaser and a lot of you might sadly resonate with that. 

Boundaries? Some of the toughest things I’ve had to learn, and something I’m still actively learning, to be honest with you.

Setting them made my knees tremble and affirming them now still makes me doubt myself. 

But my goodness, it’s glorious. Scary, but necessary.

And setting and affirming them is one way to deal with a toxic friendship (or any toxic relationship).

In an article from online therapy company Talkspace, they listed 5 of the appropriate boundaries you can set in your friendship:

Time boundaries

Examples:

  • Remind yourself that you don’t need to be available to everybody 24/7. It should be okay to decline invites when you’re not up for it and to not answer messages as they happen.
  • Make it clear to your friends that your time is as precious as theirs (particularly important to note for friends who show up late to everything AND expect others to wait for them.)
  • Friends who constantly flake on you need to be reminded of the importance of keeping your word. 

Material boundaries

Examples:

  • Asking for debt repayment or not loaning money when you can’t or don’t want to. 
  • Being strict when letting people borrow your possessions.
  • Asking for compensation for borrowed items that were lost or damaged. 

Physical boundaries

Examples:

  • Not a hugger? Let them know. Uncomfortable with all forms of physical contact? Let them know.
  • Even spaces you don’t feel comfortable having anyone else in are included, like your bedroom or even your house. 
  • Actions that make you uncomfortable should also be communicated. 

(Ex. No outside clothes on the bed, no sharing of makeup, not taking photos when going out just for social media, etc. I say this as it’s easy to feel like we’re “ruining” the fun when we choose to have these kinds of boundaries. ) 

Emotional boundaries

Examples:

  • Not participating in emotionally charged conversations when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do so. 
  • Having the option to exit any conversation you feel uncomfortable in.
  • Not participating in conversations that you feel might trigger you.
  • Not participating in drama.

Intellectual boundaries

  • Not letting verbal attacks or disrespect pass just because of a difference in opinion. 
  • Choosing not to engage in the conversation at all if you know the topic might be too heavy, like politics and religion. 
  • Engaging them in discourse about differences in opinion to know where you stand.

2) Reflect

Newsflash, bestie: Sometimes, we’re the problem. This is a good time to reflect on how we’re adding poison to the friendship mix.

Or if we’re the sole provider of it. Yikes.

I’ve had my fair share of toxic friendships throughout the years. And on either end of the toxicity to boot. Let me tell you, the self-reflection was rough. 

I’ve had years of unlearning toxic behaviors and years of enduring them from others, too.

And no, it’s not pretty, unlearning rarely is. However, I’m not ashamed to admit that I was part of the problem, whether actively perpetuating toxic behaviors or passively letting others go unchecked.

So, a good objective look at ourselves will be beneficial and crucial. What we then do with this knowledge can fundamentally change our friendships moving forward. 

We are products of our environment, but we are given chances to be better friends, partners, parents, sisters, brothers, and people. This is one of them.

Yes, we can be the problem, but we can also choose not to be. Growth starts with being honest.

3) Consult a trusted and objective party to provide perspective.

pic1456 2 7 ways to deal with a toxic friendship (and how to know when to cut ties)

This isn’t to add fuel to the fire. Nope. You need someone objective to provide perspective.

You need someone who can look at the situation from the outside in, with no bias and no agenda. Or at least can separate themselves from their biases.

And who can tell you if you’re being the problem, too. 

A few ways this could go: 

a.) They might tell you that you’re right and you are in a toxic friendship. 

b.) They might tell you that you got it all wrong and that you aren’t in one. 

c.) They might tell you to wait it out. 

Any of the three is an added perspective but ultimately, the decision is still yours to make. 

Added perspective can just make you see more sides of the story, but it can never make the decision for you.

4) Limit interaction. 

Once the realization of the toxic situation sinks in, it’s going to get even harder to interact with these people.

A way to deal with it is to limit interaction

You can:

  • Opt not to join hangouts.
  • Lessen time interacting on social media.
  • Take time before replying to messages. 
  • Decline invites. 
  • Make yourself less available.
  • Focus on yourself.

5) Talk it out, and see if growth is possible.

“You can talk with them and let them know what’s upsetting. [And] give them a chance to change.” – Kati Morton, LMFT

Eek. The Talk. 

Time to address your concerns. And I know it’s going to be hard, there’s no denying that at all, but this could be a point of growth.

Granted, it could also be the point of no return. 

But still, remember to be assertive, not aggressive. You want your voice to be heard, not to drown out theirs. 

If growth and compromise is possible, both of you need to work through it. Be firm in the boundaries you need to set. 

In the video I linked of Kati Morton up top, she also said that it’s okay to end or exit a confrontation that’s getting too heated. 

After all, we’re not really sure about how people will react in these kinds of conversations. 

6) If not, cut ties.

When exactly do you cut ties, though? Good question.

  • If there was an apology but no change
  • No apology at all
  • If there’s an escalation in behavior

If change isn’t possible, let go. Yes, bestie, drop them. 

This is probably easier said than done, I know, but what is the cost of enduring the toxicity?

Your peace of mind? Your sleepless nights? Your tears? The space in your life that could be filled with friendships that do you no harm?

If you’ve already tried opening the conversation with them and they paid it no mind, why should you? This isn’t about grudges or being petty, this is about knowing the limits of what you can and should endure. 

If they’ve never apologized, how long will you wait for it before you say no more? If their behavior worsens, what then? 

This is one of those times when it’s acceptable to distance yourself completely. To cut off contact. To take your peace and call it a day. 

If you’ve done your best and it wasn’t enough, maybe it’s time to find a place where it *is* enough. 

Should I ghost them?

Ghosting toxic friends is one of those topics that divide people. (Tbh, ghosting, in general, is a contentious topic.) 

I, personally, am all for it, but ONLY in certain situations. If there’s an escalation in behavior, for one. If you feel unsafe around them is another. 

And also if they’re not willing to compromise, change, or save the friendship.

However, you might disagree with me and that’s totally fine. You can always slowly distance yourself from these people and have limited contact with them if that’s what you’re comfortable with.

7) Find support, where you can.

And finally, find support. Ask for help and accept help when it is offered. 

There are so many self-help resources out there for toxic romantic relationships, toxic workplaces, toxic families, etc. but comparatively few for toxic friendships.

Why is that? When friendships are so integrated with our lives and friendship breakups are as painful, if not more painful, than romantic breakups.

Our friends help get us through so much, so a friendship souring is a nasty feeling. And when it sours, as some friendships unfortunately do, don’t suffer through it alone.

There is help out there, whether from other people around you who genuinely have your back or from a professional. 

For what it is worth, I’m rooting for you. May the road ahead be illuminated, may the company you keep be the one who wants what’s best for you.

Michelle Marie Manese

Michelle Marie Manese

M Manese is a part-time creative writer, illustrator, and full-time fangirl hoping to find her way within the Content space. She makes art here: @michellemmanese

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