By Dr. Robert Navarra, LMFT, Certified Gottman Therapist
Q: I’ve made most of my adult friends either at work or at community events, and I find that I have a pattern of getting stuck in friendships that feel incredibly unhealthy — where the relationship turns manipulative, and I end up feeling insecure, and am treated poorly. Am I missing vital signs of a toxic friendship early on? How can I be more self-aware and avoid people who might be unhealthy for me down the road? And how can I do a better job at befriending individuals who are healthy to be around?
A: While friendships may have off days, and ups and downs, there are certain patterns in interactions that point to a toxic relationship. The best move is to leave those kinds of friendships ASAP. All relationships have patterns that are highly consistent and stable over time. This means that in unhealthy relationships, unless something happens to acknowledge and change what isn’t working for one or both people, things are most likely going to stay the same.
Identifying the signs of a toxic relationship starts with reflecting on how you usually feel after being with the person. Do you feel constantly judged, blamed, or defensive — like you are on trial? Does the conversation seem to center on that person and their situations, and yet you don’t feel support when you may need it, or a congratulations when things go well for you? Is it typical that you feel like you are constantly having to prove yourself as being a good friend, and your relationships with other people seem threatening to this person? Do your needs and feelings seem unimportant?
Since you indicate that you have had relationships that fell into this pattern, it is important to explore why you often don’t immediately recognize the signs.
1. Denial and minimization
Sometimes we doubt or minimize our own feelings or experiences. I have noticed that people with high emotional intelligence — the ability to understand and express one’s own feelings and to empathize with other’s emotions — may be so finely tuned in to empathy and compassion for others, that they lose compassion or empathy for themselves and end up minimizing inappropriate or toxic interactions. I recall a client I was working with talking about a friend she had that was constantly negative and critical of her. My client explained that while she recognized the long-standing toxic nature of their relationship, she tried to just look past it. She was downplaying the negative impact the relationship had on her, in part because the relationship was long-standing and she tried to be an “understanding friend,” despite the fact that it was clearly a one-way relationship when it came to support and compassion. She finally gave herself permission to end the unhealthy relationship and immediately felt relief.
2. Previous trauma
People impacted by previous trauma, particularly in their family of origin, may struggle with knowing how to recognize and set healthy boundaries. There can be any number of reasons that could contribute to not knowing when lines have been crossed, and standing up for oneself, such as low self-esteem. Internal thoughts may reflect beliefs such as: “I don’t deserve to have my needs met.” “Having approval from others makes up for the approval I didn’t receive at home and makes me feel accepted.” “I am not sure what is healthy and not healthy.”
I hope this helps you sort out when to be concerned about a friendship, and how you can act sooner to get out of a developing toxic relationship. Like my client realized, it is OK to give yourself permission to end an unhealthy relationship. Nobody should have to tolerate a toxic relationship and the associated stress.