My Friend Is Toxic — Can I Break Up With Her?

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Welcome to The FAQs of Life, R29's new advice column. Each week, Colette will offer her sage wisdom on modern life and all its stumbling blocks. If you've got a query you'd like her to take on, send it to or leave it in the comments.

The Q: I have known my friend “Amy” for about five years. We met in college, and I was immediately struck by her wit and almost limitless capacity for fun. The thing is, our relationship has always been toxic. At first, I didn’t notice that she never seemed interested in what was going on in my life, that all conversations revolved around her and her opinions. I thought that her unrelenting barbs and criticisms were all in good fun. I was convinced (with a little pushing from her) that I was the problem — I was too sensitive, I didn’t know how to take a joke, I just wasn’t good enough.

Now that time has gone by and I’ve found a new group of girlfriends who treat me with respect and kindness, I’ve realized that Amy simply isn’t a nice person. She’s selfish and manipulative, and she constantly undermines me. I know I need to end this friendship — if you can even call it that — but I don’t know how. I’m not sure I’m up for the dramatic showdown that's inevitable if I confront Amy, but I feel like just ignoring her is cowardly. How do you break up with a toxic friend?

The A: If someone is threatening to dull your shine with negativity, emotional vampirisim, or toxicity, then they don’t get the privilege of joining you in this life. They also don’t deserve any further consideration or time. “Friends” like this are the reason why the ignore button was created. Delete her out of your phone, delete her out of your life, BFF’D, and don’t give her a second thought.

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

Before I get down to brass tacks, can I just admire your brass balls? I am so proud that you are choosing to take care of yourself and impose healthy boundaries. It isn’t an easy decision to make. Since we aren’t robots masquerading in skin suits (well, most of us aren’t — I’m watching you, Ariana Grande), we inherently crave others’ approval and avoid confrontation. So we allow ourselves to be cajoled into laughing at our friend’s barb, even though it hurts our feelings. We accept blame when it is not ours to bear. We let cruel narcissists occupy our emotional space, because sometimes they’re “nice” or “funny.” But, do we keep putrid, oozing garbage in our apartments because once upon a time these wrappers and peels offered us sustenance? No — we throw it away. Don’t treat your apartment with more respect than you do your life. 

You are right in your evaluation: Your friend isn’t a friend. I don’t even think the word “frenemy” suffices. Someone who relentlessly drags poisonous shit into your life and leaves you feeling gutted is a Frenema. True female friendships are beautiful and sacred oases that provide respite, validation, and the emotional equivalent of a personal pan pizza with extra cheese for your hungry heart. I would be nothing without my girl gang; they are angels of light who laugh at my terrible jokes and help me breathe. I’m so happy that you’ve found women who accept, support, and encourage you. These are your people. Hold them close as you exorcise the polturdgeist currently haunting your social calendar.

To borrow from the late, great Lesley Gore, “it’s your party and you can disinvite whom you want to.” Clearly, having Amy as a friend is stressful and emotionally exhausting — but, as you said, confronting her will be just as toxic, if not more so.

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

That’s the reason why The Fade is my preferred method for ending friendships. (Also: my favorite Drake hairstyle.) Unless you need some sort of closure, cease all contact. This means do not like her Instagram photos, comment on her statuses, or even send her the occasional Snapchat. “Miss” her phone calls; deflect her requests to hang out with vague mentions of your busy schedule. See her as little as possible. Have your interactions just peter out. You don’t owe her a face-to-face explanation, or an opportunity to argue her case. The onus isn’t on you to teach anyone how to be a friend.

You asked whether this route is cowardly. Cowardice isn’t refusing to allow unnecessary stress, guilt, and toxicity into your life. On the contrary, prioritizing your own health is the bravest thing you can do, BFF’D. Is it a little selfish? Sure, but you have every right to stop giving your love to someone who scorns it and redirect that love to yourself. I give you permission to be selfish. It’s healthier to burn a bridge (#YouGottaLetItBurn) than it is to destroy yourself for someone else’s sake. 

And, the experts agree with me. “Just slip away quietly,” says Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and the creator of The Friendship Blog. “There’s no reason for a dramatic showdown. You’re not going to change Amy’s personality, and you’ll just be setting yourself up for barbs, criticism, and hostility.” If you have to spend time with her, “do it in small doses or in the company of a group.” You only have so many moments and, as Dr. Levine advises, “you owe it to yourself to spend your time on healthy friendships, not toxic ones.”

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.

Some might think this tactic is a bit cold-hearted. You have history with this girl, after all. Yet, while this method does require you to act like the worst kind of OkCupid hookup, I think it grants everyone involved the most amount of dignity possible. What’s the alternative? Inviting your friend out to dinner or calling her on the phone — actions that are incredibly ritualized and imbued with socio-emotional significance in female friendships — just to make some grand pronouncement about your friendship ending? Isn’t that an unnecessarily cruel bait-and-switch? This isn’t an episode of The Hills — you don’t need to punctuate every important emotional development with a dinner. (Or, a scene of you driving away from all the DRAMUH while listening to Natasha Bedingfield.) Some things aren’t up for discussion or negotiation; your well-being is one of them. 

I assure you, BFF’D, this method will work. If you don’t nurture a friendship, it’s guaranteed to die, like a plant or a Tamagotchi. Yet, unlike your Tamagotchi, it’s going to take a lot more than some piles of pixelated poop to get rid of your faux-friend. You’ll need to commit to your boundaries and tolerate some awkward interactions. Repeat this to yourself: “I am worthy of love and respect.” Have your voicemail repeat this to your friend: “I’m sorry, but the person you are trying to call cannot be reached at this time…”

If you feel upset or guilty, just imagine that you sent your friendship to the same nursing home that sheltered old man Ryan Gosling and his wife in The Notebook. Your friendship spends its days sitting on the porch with a soft lap blanket, or watching old episodes of Columbo. It isn’t bitter or lonely; it’s picked up a lot of new hobbies like Viennese ballroom dancing. And, eventually, your friendship will die a natural death in a room filled with sun and peace. All friendships have life cycles — some are like fruit flies, others are redwood trees. Clearly, this particular relationship has lingered beyond its natural parameters. 

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