The Truth About Toxic Friendships

"She showed me a lot of affection and interest when we first met, and we bonded over our shared love of books and writing," recalls Claire*, 27, of a woman she met at university. "She was the first friend I'd ever had and it felt amazing to finally have the friendship I'd longed for for years."
Claire says she always struggled to make friends because of her autism, which was undiagnosed until adulthood and contributed to years of depression, anxiety and several suicide attempts. Her friend lived with similar issues, which bonded them further and made Claire feel duty-bound to meet her friend’s needs. "I felt I had to go along with whatever she wanted and do anything to try to make her happy."
Now, two years after a dramatic argument ended their friendship, Claire realizes her friend took advantage of her kindness and generosity and manipulated her all along. It was a textbook toxic friendship.
'Toxicity' is often used to describe romantic and familial relationships but rarely do we hear about toxic friendships with people prone to narcissistic, controlling or abusive behaviour. 
"A toxic friendship is a friendship that can leave someone feeling confused, guilty, angry, uncertain and unfulfilled," explains counsellor and British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) member Vasia Toxavidi. She uses the acronym TOXIC to define them: T stands for Tiring, as a toxic friendship can be unsupportive and draining; O stands for Obstructive, as it’s often unrewarding and discouraging, thus hindering your growth; X stands for eXhausting, as toxic friends tire you out with their unreliability and demands while giving nothing back; I stands for Intimidation, as toxic friends criticize you and make you feel like you’re not good enough; and finally, C stands for Conditional – toxic friends often create conditions, based on their own needs, to be friends with them.
The root of this behaviour, Toxavidi believes, is often the toxic friend’s own unmet needs, envy, attachment issues or feelings of abandonment, which emerge when a third person like a boyfriend or girlfriend enters into the friendship, for instance.

A toxic friendship is a friendship that can leave someone feeling confused, guilty, angry, uncertain and unfulfilled.

Vasia Toxavidi
"It broke my self-esteem to have a close friend who put me down and wasn't interested in my life," Claire admits. "I poured a lot of time, effort and money into trying to help her, comfort her and improve her mental health, and when nothing worked, she made me feel like I wasn't good enough and that her problems were all my fault. Given that this was my only close friendship, I felt like I had to stay in it no matter what."
While Claire was sympathetic about her friend’s mental health issues, she doesn’t believe they excuse her behaviour. "She turned every conversation into a monologue about herself. She was dismissive and disinterested in my life and often put me down and criticized my parents, who'd hosted her at their house, to me."
Claire remembers how she "somehow ended up offering to give her £5,000 of my inheritance to pay for therapy because she couldn't access mental health treatment on the NHS." Instead, her friend convinced Claire to lend her the money to finance the production of a play she'd written – and never paid it back, later insisting that the money had been a gift rather than a loan.
Their friendship ended dramatically in 2019 when Claire realized that, for the sake of her own mental health, she needed to start setting boundaries in how they communicated and declined one of their usual late-night calls about her friend’s problems. "I was tired, dealing with a work crisis and didn’t have the energy. Because I’m autistic, I find phone calls very draining at the best of times. She messaged saying I 'wasn't acting like I cared about her'."
Over the following fortnight, Claire was barraged with cutting texts and "a long, cruel email accusing me of things I never did and attacking my character in dangerous ways – for instance, dismissing my mental health issues when she knew I have a history of suicide attempts." Claire realizes now that it wasn’t good for her to have a supposedly close friendship which made her so unhappy. She’s happier since she cut her friend out of her life, although she never got her money back.
Ceryn Rowntree, a person-centred counselling therapist who works predominantly with women in their late 20s to mid 30s, says she’s noticed an increase in women talking about toxic friendships over the last three years. Of the 15+ clients she sees each week, at least a third typically discuss toxic friendships and the damage they leave behind.
Rowntree believes there are two main reasons why, culturally, we don’t generally consider toxic behaviour to be 'abusive' within friendships. "First, when we talk about abusive relationships, we're usually given the example of romantic partners. Maybe because there's a perception that friendships are easier to walk away from, maybe because abusive friendships rarely – in my experience – turn physically violent, or maybe just because of the emphasis our society puts on romantic partnerships."

She sent me a long, cruel email accusing me of things I never did and attacking my character in dangerous ways.

Claire, 27
"We're told – particularly as women – that we should be there for our friends through thick and thin, so when a friendship becomes toxic many of us don't challenge that and put it down to the friend having a bad time and just do what we can to support them – even as their behaviour gets increasingly worse."
Thirty-seven-year-old Lena* was friends with a man she met through work for eight years before a pattern of controlling behaviour, which she now realizes had been there all along, bubbled to the surface during a two-week holiday in 2017. "I’d shut my door at night and wake up to find it open. Initially I thought it was opening on its own but eventually he admitted to opening it because he didn't appreciate me closing the door. Even when I showered, he’d open the bathroom door. It was weird and it made me uncomfortable."
Lena reflected on his past behaviour and started spotting red flags she hadn’t noticed before. "I'd say I liked something and he’d buy it just for the sake of having it first, from small things like home decor to more expensive things like designer speakers. At restaurants, he’d make me order first so he could order the same thing and he’d ask me to eat exactly what he was eating for breakfast. He’d prepare it for me and when I’d decline, he’d call me unappreciative and weird. I was always trying not to upset him."
Lena realized that the more positive she was, the more negative he’d make her feel. Whenever she expressed a lust for life – wanting to have fun and meet new people – he’d try to bring her down. She recalls an evening on holiday when they’d agreed to go for dinner. "I went downstairs dressed up and he was waiting for me in the living room. He scanned me up and down and said, 'I'm tired of you, I don't want to eat with you tonight. Do whatever you want'." Shocked, Lena decided to stay home and eat by herself.
"After an hour, he returned and took a man up to his bedroom, where they started having loud sex. I could still hear them through noise-cancelling headphones but couldn’t leave because we only had one key and I didn't know if he’d let me back in. It felt like a punishment. Afterwards, he came downstairs half-naked and asked if I enjoyed the noises because it was all for me. I knew then the friendship was over."

We're told – particularly as women – that we should be there for our friends through thick and thin, so when a friendship becomes toxic many of us don't challenge that.

Ceryn Rowntree
Lena hasn’t seen him since they said goodbye at the airport after that holiday. She wrote him a letter thanking him for his friendship but said that, while she’d be open to reconnecting in future, it was no longer serving her. He ignored it and blocked and deleted Lena from social media.
"It was hard because he could be the sweetest person when you did things the way he wanted. But ultimately, he made me feel like I wasn't good enough and I was never going to be." While she has no regrets about ending it, Lena says the friendship gave her anxiety and made her cautious and sometimes fearful of new friendships.
Toxavidi concurs that toxic friendships can affect our sense of identity and self-confidence and even result in depression, anxiety or PTSD. However, she advises against ghosting, since a toxic person "won’t leave the relationship easily as they don’t understand boundaries." Her advice? "Explain you need some space and if the toxic friend keeps contacting you, the more consistently you avoid seeing them or talking to them in a kind way, the quicker they will gradually fade away."
Emma Carrington of the charity Mental Health UK acknowledges that letting go of a friend is never easy and there’s no one way to do it. "It’s likely that feelings are going to be hurt on both sides, and you need to do what’s right for you. If you feel able to talk to your friend, or write to them, this can provide you with closure, but don’t feel bad if you aren’t able to." She adds that the end of a friendship can be "difficult to process emotionally, especially if your relationship has lasted a long time" so it can be a good idea to seek therapy to help you.
It might not be easy but as Claire and Lena’s experiences show, it is possible to make a clean break from a toxic friendship. 
*Names have been changed
If you are struggling with mental health, please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association for local resources. If you are in crisis, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.

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