When my Google alerts brought a recent Today Show article to my attention with the headline: Here's Another Good Reason Women Should Dump a Toxic Friend, I groaned, and then clicked. In short, the article highlights research showing that "as the amount of negativity in relationships increased, risk of hypertension [in women] also increased."
I do not argue against the research at all. I know whole-heartedly that bad relationships contribute to an increase in risk of high blood pressure in women and can leave serious damage on our bodies. In fact, we know that to be true of anything that is causing us stress. I am a very big fan of healthy friendships.
But what I want to speak out against is the advice we dole out alongside this research.
When we plaster a headline that gives the directive to dump a friend on an article about how stressful relationships are hurting us, I am left asking, "Why does no one ever suggest figuring out how we can make this relationship less stressful?"
The Traditional Advice for Toxic Friends
For long time followers of this blog, you'll know that I am not a big fan of this trend in labeling each other toxic; nor the common advice that is given that seems to always be fraught with urgent and simplistic commands such as: "Kick her to the curb," "Dump her," "Detox from her," or "End it now!"
And seriously this stuff is on the rise. It seems we live in a world where the advice is that you're healthiest or most mature when you simply eliminate all non-perfect people from your life. (But look at the most amazing people in the world-- Jesus, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi-- thank God they didn't hear this advice and instead chose to actually engage with and work alongside unhealthy people!)
It'd be one thing if we all had a plethora of amazing relationships, lived in meaningful community, and all felt tons of love in our lives-- then, by all means, I suppose you could get rid of the excess when it wasn't fun and joy-full. But this advice is being given to an incredibly lonely world of women who are starving for meaningful friendships. And we're neglecting to not only tell you that meaningful friendships come with some stress, but we're also not mentioning that the other way to eliminate unhealthy relationships is to show up differently and make them healthier!
An Alternative Approach to Toxic Friendships
I've mused about this before when inviting us to own that we are strong enough to be around unhealthy people, taught that it's not necessarily a person who is unhealthy, but an unhealthy pattern that has been developed in the relationship, and shown how I think we can decrease the expectations in unhealthy friendships as opposed to an all-or-nothing approach, but every time I see another expert using the fear of toxicity to encourage women to push each other away, I feel ever more convicted to be, what sometimes feels like, a lone voice continuing to offer a different perspective.
There are definite times when we must end our stressful relationships, or establish strong boundaries around them, so I'm not speaking out against giving women permission to break-up. What I am speaking out against is the popular tendency to make that ending as our first step, rather than as a last step. In most cases, we're at our personal "last straw" before we've ever even tried to improve it!
Step In Before Stepping Out
No one wants a stressful relationship in their life. I get that.
But neither can we just go cutting out every relationship when it gets stressful! Friction, disappointment, insecurity, guilt, jealousy, and crisis are a part of life (don't even get me started on how tired I am of this trend to "be happy all the time!") so therefore they are a part of relationships.
Rather than be shocked when our friendships aren't all laughter, cotton candy, and photo-perfect events, what would happen if we actually expected her to annoy us or disappoint us from time to time? And then, more important than trying to avoid angst, we focus instead on figuring out how we want to respond to it when it does come up?
My invitation to anyone struggling in a friendship that has mattered to you is to make it a practice to step closer to that person, before stepping away.
In other words, acknowledge that some friendships get stronger after talking something through, and choose to play the odds that it could happen to this friendship. It might not, but it could.
I view my friendships as investments-- sacred containers where I have stored up time, energy, love, memories, and vulnerability. Anyone who has started a business, or made an investment of some sort, knows that there will be times when it would definitely be the easy thing to just close up shop or walk away. But you only do so after you feel you have done everything you could do to make it work. We understandably want the investment to pay off. I want that for your friendships, too!
It takes a long time to foster a friendship. It doesn't happen overnight or easily. So when the inevitable disappointments and frustrations show up, I have a commitment to put in as much energy in the saving of these relationships as I feel I have put in to the development of these relationships. So for a new friend, someone on the Left-Side, someone I haven't invested a ton of time and energy with, I probably won't extend a ton of energy into saving what may barely be built. But with long-time friends, or intimate and close friends, I am willing to step up, lean in, show up, and give it my all to see if we can find a place of mutual love again.
Awkward? Probably. Stressful? Indeed. Unsure how to do it? Likely.
But it's also courageous, life-building, love-practicing, and emotionally deepening for us to figure it out. This is where we get to practice being the loving people that we are! This is where we either make a more beautiful relationship or grow because we tried!
Anytime there is a fight, an unmet need, a slow-boiling frustration, and repeated judgment in one of our friendships, we have the sacred opportunity to try to fix it, repair it, enhance it, and grow it before we end it.
So if I were the expert on the Today Show giving application to the research, I'd be quick to say, "This is awesome that we have this research that reminds us how damaging our stressful relationships can be on our bodies. Hopefully that incentivizes us to practice our relational skills to see if we can make these relationships not only less stressful, but also more life-giving. Staying in relationships without establishing boundaries, stating our needs, or sharing with honesty isn't serving anyone."
When did trying to fix something that is broken turn into such rebellious advice?