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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 the Annals of Behavioral Medicine (2007).

In a recent survey by Student Health 101, three out of four students who responded said they had experienced an unhealthy friendship. One in five 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 recent graduate tells her story.

Students: “The problem was them.”

“My roommate is 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 third-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage

“My roommate rearranged all of my clothes without my permission. She was always angry and constantly criticized my actions, my likes, and my grades. When I decided to move my loft to the other side of the room, she threatened to get me kicked out. She complained aloud, she ordered me around, she put me down in front of other people. I am still going through a healing process after the trauma of sharing a room with her. Some of the friends I confided in still hang out with her. I feel betrayed.” —Female third-year undergraduate, Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota

“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 a school therapist to really see how her relationship affects her well-being.” —Male graduate student, Sonoma State University, California

“This was in high school. 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. I found myself in another friendship in college 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 graduate student, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Students: “The problem was me.”

“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 third-year undergraduate, Northern Michigan University

“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 first-year undergraduate, University of 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 second-year undergraduate, Old Dominion University, 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 fourth-year online undergraduate, Florida International University

“I depended on them to always be there for me and felt as if it was their duty to always comfort me. In reality, it was my own responsibility to be mature and take care of my own problems.” —Male first-year undergraduate, University of the Pacific, California

How to salvage or end a friendship

How to try salvaging a friendship

By 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

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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 S. Levine, psychologist

“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, sociologist

  • 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

If you have recurrent friendship struggles

If you are having persistent difficulties making and maintaining friendships, it could be helpful to speak to a Resident Advisor or a counselor at your school. —IL

Student's Story

“Confronting a friend is hard, but feeling powerless is harder”

Maria Yagoda graduated from Yale University, Connecticut. She is a staff reporter for People.com.

When life is stressful, it’s usually for an obvious reason, like finding a mouse in your residence hall or catching a cold during midterms. But sometimes the unexpected stressors, like feeling trapped in a bad friendship, can sneak up on you—and be the most overwhelming. When you’re stuck with a friend who brings you down more often than lifting you up, you need to make a change, fast.

My junior year, I lived two doors down the hall from my closest friend. We did everything together: eat dinner, go to parties, talk about studying (we never did). As the school year progressed, I became overwhelmed with my course load. When I wanted to go to the library, she pressured me into going out for dinner, even though she knew I was struggling with finances. When I wanted to recharge on a Friday night, she dragged me to a frat party after an hour of texting me about how lame I was. Once there, she abandoned me.

My life fell out of sync. My friend took advantage of the fact that I was terrible at saying “no,” and when I actually mustered up the courage, she didn’t listen. My grades were suffering and I was suffering. I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night, since I was always at parties. I started skipping classes in order to sleep during the day. I stopped exercising or eating regular meals. Worst of all, my closest friend didn’t seem to care. In fact, she criticized me for not hanging out with her enough.

Confronting a friend is hard, but not as hard as feeling powerless. Talking with a different (neutral!) friend is always helpful. I went to a friend who had experienced a similar situation the year before. His nasty friend had criticized him constantly in public and private. He convinced me I needed to put my well-being first.

I invited my friend over for tea and I told her I needed a friend who would listen and respect my feelings. Rather than just fading away from the friendship, I stood up for myself, and for her: As a close friend, she had a right to know how I felt, just as I had a right to express it.

Sometimes a toxic friend doesn’t mean to be toxic. When she heard how I felt, she cried. I cried. And for the next few months, we spent some time apart. It was like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, with less screaming and more hugging.

With everything—whether classes, salad toppings, or friends—we must constantly assess whether our choices are still working. My friend and I were in very similar places in the beginning of the year, when the main activities were socializing and pretending classes didn’t exist, but that wasn’t sustainable. I learned that I had to align myself with people who had the same values, and more importantly, with people who were attentive and caring enough to recognize when I needed serious help. Friends should bring more positive to your life than negative, and they should listen. But remember: They can’t listen if you don’t communicate.

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Maria Yagoda graduated from Yale in 2012. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, The New York Times online, Al Jazeera America, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.