How to Spot if You’re In a Toxic Friendship, and How to Deal

A woman sits on a sofa next to a friend who is looking towards her. She is on her phone.

By Jessica Goodman

Nobody is perfect when it comes to maintaining and nurturing friendships. There are times when one person is more supportive than the other, someone flakes on a birthday, or one of you has a self-involved episode. But there’s a difference between experiencing a hurdle in a friendship and being in one that’s considered toxic. 

“Toxic friendships are draining rather than restoring,” says Suzanne Degges-White, a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at Northern Illinois University. “When you’re in this kind of dynamic, you’re likely to find yourself feeling worse rather than better after spending time together.” Even so, it’s not necessarily easy to determine a toxic connection when you’re in the thick of it. If you’re in this predicament, read on for expert advice on how to spot a toxic friendship and how to deal with it.

What are the signs of a toxic friendship?

First, know the signs. You can start by paying attention to how your friendships make you feel. “If someone makes you feel emotionally (and sometimes physically) drained, this could be a red flag,” says therapist and leadership coach, Karina Aybar-Jacobs. This could look like guilting you into doing something you don’t want to do; demanding a high level of support but not giving that back to you; ignoring your boundaries; or getting frustrated when you have priorities other than your friendship. 

“Toxic friends seem to have an innate desire to make others feel as bad as they clearly feel inside themselves,” says Degges-White. If a friend is competitive with you over career goals or romantic interests, or goes as far as spreading gossip about you, reflect on why this might be the case. If you’ve noticed this kind of behavior consistently, no matter what’s been going on in your friend’s life, this could signal toxicity. If the actions feel more like blips, and your friend has apologized or has been going through a tough time, it may be a one-off.

When the friend in question asks you to hang out, and you immediately start looking for reasons why you can’t, it’s a good idea to think about why this is. If any of the previous signs of toxicity come to mind, it’s time to address these issues and think about how you want the relationship to move forward.

How do I deal with a toxic friend if I want to maintain the friendship?

If you want to maintain the friendship, have an honest conversation with the other person about what’s bothering you. Degges-White suggests saying something like, “There’s something I need to talk about with you. When’s a good time to connect?” Pick a place that’s on neutral territory like a park or a coffee shop, so no one feels ownership over the space. When you actually get together, Degges-White advises that you emphasize the fact that you value the friendship enough to want to continue it, but that there are some things that need to change in order for this to happen.

Just remember to hear them out, too. Perhaps they’ve had a difficult period in other areas of their life and were acting out toward you without realizing it. Or, maybe they felt slighted by something you did or said and you had no idea. Be open to what they have to say while maintaining your need for boundaries and respect. “What you see and believe is your reality, but the same is true for your friend,” says Degges-White.

If you come to an agreement where apologies are exchanged in meaningful ways, let the animosity go and agree to start afresh. At the end of your meetup, make a concrete plan to get together in a few weeks after you’ve both had time to reflect on the conversation and your hopes for a clean slate. For your next hangout, try doing something that feels celebratory and intimate like dinner at your favorite restaurant or an activity you’ve always enjoyed together.

How do I deal with a toxic friend if I want to end the friendship?

Sometimes, it’s okay to let go of friendships that feel too destructive to continue. “If a friend consistently brings us down, or evokes awful feelings, don’t just dream of escape,” says psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger. “Get out.” 

Even though it may feel difficult, it’s time to initiate a break-up conversation. Firstly, write out the points you want to make so you can come away from the meetup knowing you’ve said everything you needed to say. Then, ask this friend to meet in a neutral location and when you see them, “don’t place blame,” says Degges-White. Instead, explain that you need to take some time apart because of how you’re feeling or how things are going in your life. If they push back, you can reiterate your boundaries, and explain that the space you’re asking for is really important.

Talking through the dissolution of the friendship can make you feel more sure of your decision and more prepared to move on. Sit down with a trusted friend or family member who doesn’t have a personal connection to your toxic friend, and chat through your feelings. (Just try not to let it devolve into an unkind gossiping session.) They’ll remind you that you’re loved and worthy of fulfilling friendships in your life.

Even after you extract yourself from a toxic friendship, it can be difficult to find new friends who you feel you can trust. It’s ok to take time to grieve your lost friendship in the same way you might mourn the loss of a romantic partner. When you feel ready to find some new folks to spend time with, try doing it in an intentional way by downloading Bumble for Friends or joining a class where you might meet like-minded folks.