Ever had a friend who routinely made you feel unhappy about yourself and your life? Just as positive relationships are known to be good for our emotional and physical health, unsupportive friendships can be harmful, research shows. Unreliable or critical friends may keep us in a state of tension and stress, threatening our cardiovascular health, according to a study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
In a recent survey by Student Health 101, more than half of students who responded said they had experienced an unhealthy friendship. About 15 percent of students acknowledged (with admirable self-awareness) that they had been an unreasonable friend. Unhealthy friendships require that we take action to limit the damage. Here, a high school senior tells her story.
When friends grow apart: One student’s story
We had the kind of friendship where people didn’t even understand what we were talking about half of the time. We’d do our homework together, hang out at the park and eat DQ, obsess over Harry Potter…as long as we were together, it didn’t matter what we were doing. We had met in fifth-grade orchestra class. Seven years later, we’re still in orchestra together, but perhaps not as close as we used to be.
I started to realize the friendship might be unhealthy sometime last year. The stress of junior year was getting to me, and there wasn’t anyone I wanted to turn to more than my best friend. The problem was, when I needed her the most, it felt like she wasn’t there. She started ditching me or making fun of some things I did or liked. Sometimes she would even ignore my texts or Facebook messages. I started feeling like I wasn’t worth her time or wasn’t as important to her as other people were. When I realized just how far apart the two of us had become, it felt like a serious case of whiplash.
Finally, summer arrived, and all I wanted to do was repair our friendship—to catch up with each other and shrug off the weirdness around us. When we did finally hang out, there was an obvious forced tension and awkwardness that we desperately tried to ignore. I figured that our growing separation was due to the stress of school, and although we both acknowledged that something about our friendship was a little off, we didn’t really sit down and talk about it. We were barely texting, and most of my Snapchats to her went un-replied. Did she not want to hang out with me? Had I done something to offend her? Was I just not on her priority list?
One day, I decided to jot down all the things I liked and disliked about our friendship. Instead of a list, it turned into two pages’ worth of things that upset me. I cried. I could barely think of what I did like about our friendship—all the reasons seemed superficial. I texted my friend and told her that we really needed to talk.
It took a while, but we finally met up. Ignoring the problem hadn’t helped either of us. She hadn’t known that some of the things she did bothered me, and we recognized that there were times both of us weren’t putting enough effort into the friendship. It was hard putting the problems out in the open, and it was hard to hear them, but it showed us what we needed from each other and what we needed to work on.
Talking it out has been a huge step in our relationship. We’re a little more careful, a little more cautious, but being mindful means being better friends to each other. I only wish I had brought it up sooner. If you aren’t totally happy with a friendship, make time to talk to your friend. Whether the friendship needs a break or to end, the best thing you can do is to be honest with yourself and with each other. Whatever you decide, it helps to know that you’re both on the same page.
Danielle* is a senior in Winnetka, Illinois.
*Name changed for privacy
How to try salvaging a friendship
Dr. Irene S. Levine, psychologist, producer of TheFriendshipBlog.com
Dr. Jan Yager, sociologist, author of When Friendship Hurts (Touchstone, 2002)
“Bear in mind that no relationship is perfect. Friendships take effort. Try to analyze the problems you’re having and see if you can find ways to remedy them.”
—Dr. Irene Levine
“If your friend does something upsetting, count to 10 or take some time to cool off. Avoid overreacting or saying something you may regret down the road. Resist playing out your frustrations on social media or publicly naming the difficult friend.” —Dr. Jan Yager
- Sometimes it’s helpful to speak to a third person, in confidence, to help you gain perspective. It might be a family member or another close friend. —IL
- Put yourself in your friend’s place rather than always seeing things from your own perspective. For example, your friend may be having difficulties because of stress in their life. Can you find out what might be behind their behavior? —JY
- Gently point out that your friend is acting difficult. Emphasize how much they and the friendship means to you without being overly critical. They might not even be aware of how they are acting toward you or others. —JY
How to end a friendship
“You may need to scale back on your contact or take a break. Not all friendships, even close ones, last forever. Friendships are voluntary relationships that should be mutually satisfying.”
—Dr. Irene Levine
“Since every personality and every friendship is unique, there is no one way to politely and gently end a friendship. Try to do it in a way that is less likely to lead to a vendetta or worse feelings than necessary.”
—Dr. Jan Yager
- Be busy when your friend wants to get together so they can start to strengthen connections with other people. When they realize you’re ending the friendship, they won’t be completely alone. —JY
- If you think your friend is open to discussing the issues that are causing you to end the friendship, emphasize that you value your friend and your friendship. Say that, right now, the way the two of you are interacting isn’t working for you. You’re not rejecting your friend but the friendship. You might want to leave the door open for reconnecting down the road if things change. —JY
- Try to avoid a big confrontation. Don’t lay the blame entirely on the other person. —IL
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If you have recurrent friendship struggles
If you are having persistent difficulties making and maintaining friendships, it could be helpful to speak to a school counselor. —IL
Students’ stories: “It wasn’t me, it was them.”
“My friend had just ended a relationship with a guy I was friends with. She started to show insecurities, and I reminded her of her worth to try to make her feel better. The next semester, I had two classes with her ex. Since we were friends, he’d show up on my social media. One day, she told me that I was too close with him. I was offended because I would never do that to her and I didn’t think of him like that. This sent me over the edge and I called her out on her insecurities. It was a problem affecting our relationship, and I started to space myself from her. We made up, but it has never been the same.”
—Female, senior, Boston, Massachusetts
“He’s a bully. If someone stands up to him, he throws a tantrum lasting up to a month. He believes all his actions can be forgiven and forgotten, but he’ll end up friendless.”
—Male, Anchorage, Alaska
“My ‘best friend’ and I were basically sisters. It was during spring break when the two of us started drifting apart. It was because I didn’t want to take part of what was ‘fun’ to her, drinking and smoking. She met new people and became friends with them because of their involvement in those activities. After a long time of drifting apart, finals were approaching, and she texted me for help, so I helped her. I finally felt like I had my best friend back. A day or two later, the texts stopped. She used me. What I learned from this experience is that you should always stay true to yourself, and one day you’ll meet someone who will love you for you.”
—Female, junior, Brooklyn, New York
“I tolerated his behavior for way too long. He would treat his girlfriend badly, and when I expressed concern, he would get into arguments with me about minding my own business. I finally ended the friendship and encouraged his girlfriend to see the school therapist to really see how her relationship affects her well-being.”
—Male, Rohnert Park, California
“I wish I could say it was all her, but I had a part. I let myself get sucked in and participate. It took a more mature me to realize it was unhealthy and end it. A few years later, I found myself in another friendship with a similar person. At this point though, I was older and beyond taking part in friendships that were not mutually loving. I ended it quickly. I love and do my best to be supportive of my friends.”
—Female, Little Rock, Arkansas
Students’ stories: “It wasn’t them, it was me.”
“I sometimes deal with my own problems by undermining other people. It just so happened my friend was in a place that made it easy to pick on her, even if my intentions were friendly. I didn’t take into account how she felt, and I learned to be more empathic in the future.”
—Female, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts
“I had a friend who had a ton of social anxiety. He was awkward, fumbling, nervous in social situations. In my youthful wisdom, I thought it would be a good idea to give him a tough time, make jokes at his expense, to try and ‘toughen him up.’ I assumed he’d been coddled. We never talked about the impact my behavior had on him, but I can only imagine what it would be like for your friend to also be your bully.”
—Male, Marquette, Michigan
“I should have been more supportive of my friend instead of enforcing my own opinions.”
—Female, senior, Boston Massachusetts
“I was very manipulative and guilt-tripped this friend to get almost all of their attention. I sabotaged their relationships with other people so they were dependent on me. This was a few years ago, and I have learned my lesson. I managed to not lose this person as a friend, but I now give them lots of space. I just wish I could have been a supportive and healthy friend the entire time, because that is the kind of friend my friend deserves.”
—Female, Memphis, Tennessee
“I didn’t understand that everybody lives their own separate lives. I saw people as secondary characters in my own story and didn’t think about them being their own main character.”
—Male, Norfolk, Virginia
“I’ve been extremely negative in the past and have made comments that have really affected my friends. I learned to be aware of what I say before I say it because of how others feel. I’ve also sought counseling and other relaxing methods that help dissipate my negative thoughts.”
—Female, Miami, Florida
Irene S. Levine, PhD, psychologist, producer of TheFriendshipBlog.com.
Jan Yager, PhD, sociologist, author, When Friendship Hurts (Touchstone, 2002).
Duenwald, M. (2002, September 10). Some friends, indeed, do more harm than good. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/10/health/some-friends-indeed-do-more-harm-than-good.html
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7).
Holt-Lunstad, J., Uchino, B. N., Smith, T. S., & Hicks, A. (2007). On the importance of relationship quality: The impact of ambivalence in friendships on cardiovascular functioning. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33(3), 278–290.
Student Health 101 surveys, October 2014, November 2015, and August 2016.