Breaking up with a friend

How to know when to let a friend go

As the seasons change, we are often inspired to embrace spring cleaning — purging our homes, and subsequently our minds, of the objects and energy that weigh us down.

Perhaps it’s something you once cherished but no longer has a purpose, such as a keepsake from an ex-partner, or maybe it’s a clothing phase you’ve outgrown. Either way, a spring clean is an opportunity to refresh and begin anew, leaving behind anything that no longer serves us.

The popularity of decluttering our lives hit a peak when Japanese organising guru Marie Kondo released her first book on tidying, which has now sold over four million copies worldwide. Since then, we’ve become significantly aware of the life-changing magic of detoxing our homes (which includes lowering stress levels, for one), but how much do we know about the benefits of detoxing our social network?

Ending a relationship is a decision we’re all faced with from time to time, whether it’s a co-worker, a high-school friend, a romantic partner or even
a family member. Just like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, there’s always going to be an assortment of people in your life; the few who aren’t good for you or don’t have your best interests at heart, and those who encourage you to be the best version of yourself. Ultimately, it’s up to you to curate a healthy friendship circle.

Tayla Gardner, counsellor and psychotherapist at The Indigo Project, a progressive online therapy practice, says: “In a healthy friendship, two individuals meet each other as equals and hold mutual respect for one another and their individuality. There is a sense of trust and understanding that is felt within the friendship, as well as freedom and healthy independence, allowing for the friendship to ebb and flow over time. This often fulfils the very real and human need for belonging, boosting emotional and social wellbeing and creating an increase in confidence and playfulness as a result.”

When you think of your closest mates, does your connection align with this description? If not, you might be dealing with a toxic friend. This could be someone who isn’t necessarily a total jerk, but who might discourage you, drain your energy, exude limiting, fear-based beliefs or simply aren’t interested in self-expansion or personal growth.

“A toxic friendship is a much more one-sided dynamic, where there is consistently no space for your own (and or the other’s) needs or views. The friendship may begin to feel very enmeshed and demand all of your attention,” Gardner explains. “A friend with toxic traits might disrespect you or your values and disregard your boundaries. This is a pretty clear indication that there is an unhealthy power imbalance at play and might leave you feeling unaligned, confused or disconnected.”

Once you’ve identified a friend who doesn’t treat you with respect, you might wonder if it’s even worth “breaking up” with them or if it’s easier to just let the negative comments slide by.

Earlier this year, I watched as a lifelong friend of mine, 24-year-old Gabby Smith*, experienced a toxic relationship with a new friend she’d met at her local gym. An attention addict with jealous tendencies, Smith’s gym buddy constantly guilt-tripped her for seeing anyone other than herself — including me — to alienate her from those she loves. Since Smith ended this toxic friendship, she has been less stressed and emotionally happier, despite losing her workout mate.

According to Gardner, there are many benefits to gain even from loss. “Detoxing from an unhealthy friendship can give you a fresh perspective on yourself and give you a chance to re-evaluate the friendships in your life. This can open space for you to spend time with existing friendships that you value, as well as establish new healthy connections too,” she says.

Signs of a toxic friend

It can be confusing to determine what constitutes an unhealthy relationship, from minor disagreements to undermining comments. “While most friendships have their ups and downs, a friend with toxic traits might consistently leave you feeling like nothing you do is good enough for them. They may communicate in aggressive or passive-aggressive ways toward you, yet portray themselves as the victim,” Gardner explains.

“If they feel you are no longer willing to tolerate their disrespect, they may act in manipulative ways and even try to isolate you from other friendships. If you feel you’re always giving more than you’re getting, you know they talk sh*t about you and you don’t trust their intentions, a friendship cleanse may be in order,” she adds.

If you’re questioning whether someone in your social network is good for you or not, listen to your gut instinct. Your immediate reactions will reveal how you feel around this person — from consistently exhausted or depleted after seeing them, to feeling relaxed and fulfilled after a conversation. If you notice you struggle to express your true self around them, or that they put you down rather than celebrating your achievements, then it might be a sign your friendship is no longer working.

The friendship fallout

While you can’t predict your friends’ words or actions, you can decide how you respond. “When a friendship becomes toxic for your health over a prolonged period of time, then you might start to consider ending the friendship. While this can be a really challenging thing to do, it can also be a positive and empowering way to reclaim your boundaries and sense of self,” Gardner says.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to ending a friendship and you might feel more comfortable letting the friendship come to a close by letting it naturally fade,” the counsellor and psychotherapist continues. “In other circumstances, you might feel the need
to have a conversation. For example:
‘I have been reflecting on our friendship, and while it hurts me to say, I feel our friendship has always been based on _______. It is difficult for me to say that this is no longer working for me and I can no longer continue with our friendship.

I still appreciate the good times we shared and I wish you the best.’”

Tips to repair a relationship

Whichever route you choose to take, embarking on a friendship cleanse can be emotionally tough. For 28-year-old Leigh Brown*, the idea of pushing someone out of her friendship circle is unimaginable … but might be necessary. “One of my closest friends has been in my life for over a decade now. We grew up together, have supported each other through family conflict, and know each other like the backs of our hands,” Brown says. “But in the last few years, she has started to make backhanded remarks, rarely gives me space to speak in our conversations and leaves me feeling drained. I don’t want to cut her out of my life, but I know our friendship won’t survive like this.”

Just because a friend is enmeshed in your past, it doesn’t mean you have to bring them into your future … but sometimes it’s worth trying to resurrect a meaningful friendship. “To do this, you might attempt to shift the dynamic to a healthier one, but where do you start?” Gardner asks. “Firstly, it’s important to identify your own needs and boundaries. What needs aren’t being met within the friendship? What boundaries are being crossed by this friend? For example, your need for respectful communication or your boundary of having time for yourself.”

Gardner continues: “The next step is to then communicate your needs and boundaries in a way that is clear but also validates your friend. Lastly, explain what it’s like for you without this boundary or need. For example: ‘I value our friendship, and I know this isn’t your intention, but
I wanted to let you know that this has been affecting me.’ Friends might not always understand your boundaries, but it may be easier for them to respect them when you’re considerate and express why they are important to you.”

Healing after a friend detox

When you decide to break up with a toxic friend, the process can be just as painful and distressing as ending a romantic relationship. According to Gardner, it’s incredibly important to grieve the loss of your friendship by allowing yourself the freedom and time to feel what you feel; suffocating your emotions will only add more harm to the situation.

“Humans are complex. It’s no surprise that when two of them form a friendship, things can become complicated,” she says. “Chatting with a therapist can provide a safe and supportive space to discuss and process your friendship challenges or break-ups. It’s also a great place to explore your needs and gain confidence in identifying and communicating your boundaries.”

The next time the mercury starts to lift, the flowers begin to bloom, and the warm breeze announces the arrival of spring, use the change in season to look beyond your cluttered wardrobe. Take the meaning of “spring cleaning” to new heights and turn inward to address every aspect of your life, including your social circle. Perhaps it will be time for a friendship detox.

3 questions for self-reflection
1 How do you feel after spending time with this friend?
2 Can you be your authentic self around them?
3 Do you feel supported? Or do you feel like you must watch what you say or do?

*Names have been changed.

Kayla Wratten

Kayla Wratten

Kayla Wratten is a Brisbane-based journalist. When her head isn’t stuck in a good book, you’ll find her on the yoga mat, in a dance class or writing inspiring stories. Find her on Instagram at @kaylawratten.

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