Elizabeth Roberts had a friend she'd known for 23 years. Roberts had grown up with this friend in a small town in Maine, and while longevity in a relationship often speaks to its strength, in her case, it was quite the opposite -- the older they got, the more the relationship turned toxic.
"She was always putting me down," says Roberts. "Whether it was out in the open and obvious, or a subtle jab, it was exhausting."
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Some years ago when I was chief resident in psychiatry at the New England
Medical Center, I decided it was finally time to enter therapy myself. I was
dating the woman who would later become my wife and I wanted to explore why I
hadn’t yet committed to her.
So I booked an appointment with a noted psychiatrist, about 10 miles from my
home, and left...
For Roberts, the friendship seemed OK, and she took the insults in stride.
"I would mention to my mother or another friend something she said to me, and their responses were always, 'What? She said that? Who says that?'" says Roberts. "And I would defend her. I would say, 'Oh, she doesn't mean it that way.' But she did, and I just overlooked it."
Whether it was the friend making a snide remark about Roberts short stature, or her weight, her clothes, or the guys she dated, their relationship was trademark toxic. Experts tell WebMD what a toxic friendship is made of, and how it can be saved -- if at all.
What Is Toxic?
"A friendship is between two peers," says Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends. "There has to be balance in a friendship for it to be healthy -- not one person whose needs get met and another whose needs are overlooked."
Friendships permeate our lives, having an impact on our careers, marriages, families, children, health, and even our retirement.
"Friendships are important everywhere, and they have positive things to contribute to all areas of your life," says Isaacs. "But that means they can also be toxic in any of these areas as well."
Isaacs explains that a toxic friendship is unsupportive, draining, unrewarding, stifling, unsatisfying, and often unequal.
"Toxic friends stress you out, use you, are unreliable, are overly demanding, and don't give anything back," Isaacs tells WebMD.
While a toxic friend doesn't have to lay claim to all of these charming characteristics, they do seem to bring on their nasty behavior on a consistent basis, as opposed to those of us who just have a bad day once in a while and take it out on some of the people we care about the most -- our friends.
"The phrase 'toxic friend' is pop psychology," says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I would say it's someone who, after spending time with them, makes you feel bad about yourself instead of good; someone who tends to be critical of you -- sometimes in a subtle way and sometimes not so subtle; a friend who drains you emotionally, financially, or mentally, and they're not very good for you."
You cross the line from helping a friend in need to helping a friend who is always needy when that friend is abusive, explains Berman.
"If your friend is asking for support, that's very different from someone who constantly asks for support and is constantly mean and abusive," says Berman.
These signs tell you someone is less friend, more foe. And not surprisingly, it's women who are more likely to be toxic than men, according to Berman. So when your gal pal turns sour and stays that way, you need to start taking control of the relationship if there's any hope of saving it.