Most of us have had the difficult experience of walking away from a friendship that was supposed to last forever. It can be traumatizing and anxiety-inducing to end a relationship that was once so pivotal. Sometimes we convince ourselves that an unhealthy friendship will get better — even when history has proven it won’t.
SheKnows spoke with two experts, Amber L. Wright and Christine Gutierrez, to understand what causes us to linger in toxic friendships and how we can effectively end them.
Amber L. Wright is a Los Angeles-based communication expert, public speaking coach and award-winning adjunct professor in Communication Studies whose mission is to teach clients how to speak with less fear and more finesse — on and off the stage. Christine Gutierrez is a mental health counselor and emotional empowerment™ coach, love and addiction expert, life coach and expert in trauma, abuse, and self-esteem, who currently resides in Brooklyn. Here’s what they had to say:
SheKnows: Do you feel negative self-talk contributes to our willingness to stay in unhealthy friendships?
Amber L. Wright: I absolutely think that there’s a link. If we tell ourselves that we are not pretty or smart enough, or worse — that we’re not worthy of love — our friendships will reflect that. We’ll find ourselves connected to other women who don’t respect our opinions or value our presence. Oftentimes in this case, the relationship will fall out of balance and one will end up giving more to sustain the friendship than the other.
SK: Why are long-term friendships especially difficult to end, even when they are no longer healthy for us?
Christine Gutierrez: All relationships, including friendships, are created with emotional bonds and memories. This is what therapists like to call an “attachment” and sometimes even if the friendship is no longer working for us, we feel attached to the old idea of what it used to be and find it scary to let go.
Perhaps there is a desire to keep trying to work it out, or a fear of confrontation, which are normal feelings associated with letting go and stepping into new territories. Letting go is not easy. Even if our mind knows, sometimes it takes awhile for our actions to follow.
SK: What are the warning signs that we are in an unhealthy friendship?
CG: There will be a lack of healthy boundaries, a lack of respect, even a physically aching feeling when you’re around that person. Also, there may be abusive, belittling behavior that is verbal, emotional or even physical. The friend in question may be someone that is mean, disrespectful, jealous and/or unsupportive of you. If you find yourself scared to be yourself and don’t feel emotionally safe, this is a big warning sign you are in an unhealthy friendship. It’s important that people understand that positive relationships and friendships are based on love, support, healthy and safe communication, respect, healthy boundaries and happiness.
SK: When we finally realize that we are in a friendship that is toxic and needs to end, how can we do that without causing a blow out?
AW: Being clear on why the friendship needs to end is the first step toward making the transition. If you can identify what it is about the person or friendship that is giving you pause, it’ll make it easier to discuss it when the time for the “breakup talk” happens.
For example, if you’re ready to move on for reasons such as, “I’m the one that does all of the calling to make sure we keep in touch,” that can be said in conversation as, “I give (or have given) a lot to this friendship, but I don’t feel my efforts are being reciprocated.” That may be received a little better than, “I’m over this! You’re not a good friend because you never call me.”
In some cases, a blow out may be inevitable. Always remember, however, that you can’t control how the other person will respond, but you can control what you say and how you say it.
CG: Also, a great place to start is by doing a “friend inventory.” Write down the names of friends you spend your time with, starting with those you spend the most time with, and honestly ask yourself, how they make you feel? Do you feel safe, supported, loved, honored, inspired and respected?
If not, then some difficult conversations need to happen to adjust the dynamic, or if that can’t be done, you may want to minimize your time with them and slowly let the friendship go. Get honest with yourself first and slowly take steps to let go of the people that do not serve you. When you do this, you will also open the door to healthier friendships. Another tip is to get support from a therapist or trained life coach with experience in this area. It can really help.
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SK: How can we use communication to encourage healthier friendships going forward?
AW: Don’t be afraid to say how you feel, in both the good and bad times in your friendships right now. Tell the other person how much you appreciate them on a regular basis. Give specific examples of how they add value to your life.
If you make positive communication part of the culture of your friendships, when conflict arises, you’ll feel more comfortable confronting some of the difficult issues. A good rule of thumb to encourage healthier friendships is to speak from the heart, lead with honesty and always know your boundaries.