What Do I Do With My Toxic Friend?

I've so loved doing the book tour as it's given me such a fabulous opportunity to meet so many of you in person.  Love it!  (A few more are scheduled in SF, Southern Cal, and Seattle.)  At every signing I've met amazing pairs and groups of friends who have emphatically said, "We're friends because of GirlFriendCircles.com!" What joy it has brought my heart! Isabel and Deirdra became fast friends after meeting each other at a ConnectingCircle in the LA area!

My second favorite part of doing the book readings has been the Q&A part that follows after I read a few excerpts from my book Friendships Don't Just Happen!  I love the spontaneity of hearing what questions people have about friendships, in general, or about challenges in one of their friendships, more specifically.  Some questions get asked repeatedly, so I'm going to dedicate the next several blog posts to answering them. (Happy to take more questions too-- what do you wish I had included in the book that I didn't?  What questions were you left with after reading a certain section? What area of your friendships would you like my advice? Leave any question in the comments and I'll answer it in an upcoming blog!)

One question that is asked at nearly every gathering is about a toxic friend.

I Don't Know What To Do With My "Toxic Friend"

In asking me this question, a woman usually starts with some sadness as she says, "I don't know what to do..." that is then followed by a litany of annoying behaviors that she's putting up with in a friend, and then usually ends with a statement like "I don't think I can put up with this toxic friend anymore."

My first response is always the same, "Have you talked with her about this yet?"

Their response is typically some version of no; followed by their seemingly valid reasons about why a conversation would simply not work. Sometimes the reason is because "she" wouldn't be able to hear it.  Sometimes it's because it's too awkward.  And sometimes, the defensiveness comes with a version of, "I don't know if it's worth it.  I just don't need this kind of drama in my life."

The Three Parts of a Friendship

SO much to say... and fortunately I say much of it in my book in the 9th chapter on forgiveness where I teach various healthy ways to share our feelings and needs with others and in the 10th chapter where I talk about the damage done to us and others when we label people as toxic.  But there is always more to say!  :)

Today I want to talk about the third entity that is created when two people become friends.  There is always an "us", a "them", and the "relationship".

They are NOT the relationship without us.

In other words, when our needs aren't being met, we're quick to assume that it's "her" fault.  But in actuality, it may be the responsibility of the relationship to actually show up differently.  And that relationship-- made up of both us and them-- can't look any different without us showing up differently.

Let me give you an example.  Last week one girl-- let's call her Karen was just so upset her friend, a former roommate, was consistently "insensitive, selfish, and unable to understand her life." All signs of toxicity, according to Karen.

The crime being committed?  Continuous invitations to late night concerts since the friend could get those tickets through her work.

Those of us not involved in the situation might look at this and think it petty.  But this, my friends, is how it happens to so many of us.

From Karen's point of view, this behavior meant:

  • That the friend didn't respect Karen's demanding job and how early she had to wake up every day.
  • That her friend was needy since she kept reaching out.
  • And, that the friend was self-absorbed since the only invitations she offered had to do with her job where she could get those tickets.

Those are no small feelings.  If we feel like we have  friend who doesn't respect our job, is too needy for what we can give, and is self-absorbed-- then it becomes all too easy to label her as toxic.

But this is a perfect example for pointing out that the behaviors we're frequently upset about aren't typically some obvious wrong-doings or friendship betrayals.  Other people looking at just the facts, as we are here in Karen's situation, might look on and say, "It's not that bad!"

Indeed, we're mad because of the meaning we've assigned to those behaviors.  In other words, we interpreted them through a lens of unmet needs and concluded more-often-than-not that she must be such things as jealous, selfish, needy, and judgmental. We guessed motive and made assumptions about how she was feeling. From Karen's vantage point it, the assumptions were right.  As all of us know from personal experience how justified we feel in our frustrations.

I didn't have the privilege of talking to Karen's friend in this situation, but what if she just misses her friend that she used to live with and doesn't see as much anymore?  What if she thinks she's giving a gift by always giving Karen the first chance to go see a concert?  What if she's just scared she's losing a friend she cares about?  I could see someone having very good motives thinking that they are being amazing to keep reaching out even though they know their friend is busy.

And what if Karen's reaction comes more from just being tired at her job, exhausted at the long hours, resentful for not getting to go out with friends, and feeling bad that she doesn't have the time for this friend?  Sometimes instead of acknowledging we feel some guilt, it's easier to blame the other person for being insatiable or needy.

Maybe it's the Friendship that Needs to Change, Not the Person?

So if we have three entities in a relationship-- Karen, the friend, and the friendship-- is it possible that neither person is toxic, but that their friendship isn't currently working. Maybe they are just two women--presumably neither wanting to hurt the other-- who haven't figured out how to have the conversation in that friendship that would help transition them from being roommates to being friends that don't have as much time anymore?

Maybe it's not her that's toxic, but the friendship--the two of them together-- that needs work?  And that requires both of them doing something different, but actually then needs to start with Karen since she's the one who's feeling frustrated.

My suggestion to Karen, who wasn't sure she wanted to salvage this friendship because she was pretty resentful by this time, was to give it the chance to grow since so much time and love had already been invested. I always think we owe it not just to the people we've loved, but to ourselves--who have to keep practicing these skills of forgiveness, honesty, vulnerability, and conflict management-- to have a conversation that allows us to express our needs.

What if we assumed the best about the friend and just said,  "I'm so sorry I'm always saying no to your repeated invitations.  It's not that I don't want to spend time with you.  I miss you, too. Thank you for not giving up on us.  Unfortunately, I just can't do late night concerts with this current job so is there another time we can set up to see each other next week?"

Easy? No. Pain-free? No. Guaranteed to fix everything? No. Comfortable? No. But Karen was willing....

Who are you tempted to label as toxic where it may be a situation of two good people who actually both have good motives but have fallen into a pattern that isn't working for one or both people?