Say farewell to frenemies
It’s no secret that Aussies love their mates. The enduring image of friendship is embodied within the very cultural fabric of what it is to be true blue: to look after your mates and stoically stand by them through thick and thin.
It’s not a bad cultural norm to aspire to. After all, sharing friendships with others energises us; it soothes the soul and nourishes the spirit. Friendship is also good for our health: it’s a proven powerful weapon against illness, depression and loneliness.
Dr Jan Yager, friendship expert, coach and author of When Friendship Hurts — how to deal with friends who betray, abandon or wound you, says sharing friendships with others is important as it serves to define who we are. “Because we find our friends at a particular time in our lives, if you are lucky enough to maintain those friends, you have friends who ‘remember you when’, so they are like a diary or journal of who you used to be,” she says.
While we’d like to think all friendships are for the long haul, they don’t always last. Some friendships can endure, outlasting school days, first romances, first jobs, marriages, divorces and all of life’s challenges along the way, while other friendships are fleetingly fragile, only briefly touching our lives.
Many of the friendships people share will evolve into mutually supportive connections that are richly rewarding. However, not all friendships are positive and uplifting. Sometimes the intricate bonds of friendship can entangle us in relationships with others that just aren’t healthy or good for us.
Mary-jo Morgan, Counsellor Supervisor at Relationships Australia, says we may think we’re making sound choices when choosing friends but we don’t always. “Some friendships make us feel bad about ourselves or can be damaging to the choices that we make,” she says. “Part of our learning and life’s journey is to work through those issues and extract ourselves from these negative relationships.”
Toxic friends can deeply affect your sense of wellbeing and happiness. Do you have friends who constantly zap your energy? Are you afraid of confronting a friend who is perpetually negative or backstabbing? Some people might find themselves pals with a chronic complainer, a friend who is shamelessly self-absorbed or perhaps one that finds fault with everything you do. Others have subtle nuances: the covert manipulator, the competitive friend or the buddy that constantly breaks promises.
If you’ve ever had a friend whose behaviours are hurtful to you, you’re in good company. A combined survey by Today.com and US Self magazine involving 18,000 women and 4000 men found that over 84 per cent of women and 75 per cent of men had confessed to hanging on to toxic friendships. So why do people put up with them?
The complexities of forming friendships
Scratch the surface of the complex human psyche and you’ll find a virtual labyrinth of answers. Some are linked to your self-esteem and self-worth (you may think you don’t deserve rewarding friendships), while others reflect your sense of the familiar — the family dynamics and personality styles you grew up with.
If you find you are attracting friends into your life who leave you feeling unfulfilled, upset or uncomfortable, your family history may have a part to play. According to Dr Alison Bocquee, clinical psychologist, the early parent/child relationship can affect the sort of character and personality traits people seek in friends and also how they relate to them. “Were your parents available to you?” she asks. “Did you feel they loved you unconditionally? How did they respond to you — were they calm, angry or upset? Were they sensitive to your needs?”
Your own personality, the traits of your siblings and your birth order within the family unit can also arguably affect the sorts of friendship behaviours and qualities you’ll seek out in potential friends; and also why you stick with them even when the friendship isn’t fulfilling.
Dr Yager says there’s also another factor that goes a long way towards explaining why people hang on to hurtful friendships. “Change is hard! Relationship changes are even harder. You get used to having someone in your life even if the relationship is less than satisfying,” she says.
It’s not me, or is it?
True friendship is uplifting; it’s based on acceptance, respect and trust. If you find you are attracting friendships that aren’t bringing joy to your life, look at your own sense of self-worth. Do you feel you don’t deserve positive friendships? According to the Mayo Clinic, some thought patterns can erode self-esteem. These include all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to negative conclusions and self-putdowns.
Adjust your thoughts and beliefs by focusing on your positives, forgiving yourself and treating yourself with love and kindness. Once you start feeling good about who you are, the universal laws of attraction mean you’ll attract those around you who will be good for you.
Breaking up is hard to do
The honest truth is there will always be things about your friends that you love and those that may drive you crazy at times — after all, no one is perfect. But some friendships can ultimately be more challenging than others. According to Morgan, it’s up to the individual to decide whether the good bits of the friendship outweigh the bad. “Can you find a way of accepting that person as they are? Can you take from the friendship what works for you and accept those things that don’t?” she asks.
If the answer is a resounding no, it could well be time to end the friendship. Deciding that it’s time to make a break in a troublesome friendship is hard. Even if it’s a relationship that you feel really does need to come to an end for your own sanity, it can still be deeply traumatic.
Dr Irene Levine, psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Break-Up With Your Best Friend, says when a friendship fractures, getting over it can indeed be painful. “Yes, you will get over it, but getting over such a loss may be slow and painful,” she says. “With time you’ll be able to accept what has happened and you’ll grow to accept the good parts of the friendship and the lessons you learned.”
Friendship feng shui — declutter
Some friendships can end without just cause because both of you don’t want to acknowledge and work through conflict — which is part of every relationship. There are friendships that are worth saving. If you have issues with a friend’s behaviour, talk to your friend about your concerns — it may help to salvage your relationship.
Friendships will always have subtle (or not so subtle) shifting dynamics as other external factors within your lives evolve and change. You may move cities or get married; one of you may become a stay-at-home mum or a career dynamo.
Regardless of what’s going on in your friend’s life, sometimes things can change and you don’t know why. Perhaps your once-loyal friend has become unreliable, secretive or critical. Dr Bocquee says if this is the case, try to talk to your friend to gain some perspective. “Don’t make the assumption that their changed behaviour is because of something you have said or done,” she says. “It may have nothing to do with you. Let them know you are concerned about your friendship and that you are there for them if they want to talk.”
If a friend’s behaviour continually upsets you and you want to try to save the friendship, work at setting some boundaries. First, look at your own needs and be very clear about what’s acceptable to you and what isn’t. Dr Bocquee says this doesn’t mean finger-pointing. “It’s about using ‘I’ statements to let them know how you feel,” she says. For example, ‘I feel upset when I’m left sitting in the restaurant for an hour on my own’, or ‘I feel uncomfortable when I’m being criticised all the time for what I wear.’
If you can positively discuss your own spatial needs about what’s OK and what’s not, you may just be surprised at the outcome. “It’s a good test to see if the friendship can honour your boundaries,” says Dr Bocquee. “If a friend is willing to listen and accept your boundaries, it’s a sign of a strong, evolving friendship.”
If you feel you have done all you can, tried to talk to your friend about your concerns and nothing has changed, you need to weigh up the cost-vs-benefit of the friendship. Ask yourself, is this friendship helpful and meaningful to me or is it causing me more angst than enjoyment and fulfilment?
Friendship faux pas
A friend who blabs your secrets. Pick a specific example of when you know your friend betrayed your confidence and discuss it with them. Do they deny any knowledge of it or apologise to you? Dr Bocquee says breaking confidences is for most people a no-go zone in friendships. “Most adults have social awareness of what to share with others and what not to share,” she says. “Be assertive; let them know how you feel and what they can do to make amends.”
If your friend can’t respect confidences and you want to stay buddies, be careful about what information you share with them in the future.
The competitive friend. Shared friendship is about honesty, trust and companionship. Friends should be able to express themselves freely and be themselves, but some friends don’t see it that way. They are fiercely competitive in all aspects of their lives, including their friendships. Dr Yager says the onus for changing the competitor’s behaviour rests squarely on their own shoulders. Developing a better self-image will diminish his or her need to compete with everything you say or do, she says.
“If you wish to stay friends with a competitive friend, you may have to be willing to listen to her brags and boasts far more often than you can share your own,” she says.
A friend who zaps your energy. How much do you value your friendship? Morgan says if you want to save this friendship it’s important to be honest and talk to your friend about what you find draining about it. Friendship should be about give and take, but for some it’s all about them. “The problem here is that some people are not aware of how they come across to others,” says Morgan.
Do you believe in your heart that the person is capable of changing? If so, give them another chance; if not, move on to more rewarding friendships.
A friend who criticises everything. A fault-finding friend will habitually nit-pick everything you say or do. Over time, this can diminish your sense of self-worth. Dr Levine says your fault-finding friend is probably a “frenemy”, so you need to exercise caution when you are around them.
If the undermining is excessive and leaves you feeling bad about yourself, Dr Levine suggests backing away from the friendship.
Dealing with the end of a friendship
Some friendships can be torn apart abruptly: one person stops returning phone calls or refuses to engage; for others it’s a dwindling process. Regardless of whether you were the one instigating the break, it can be heartbreaking when a friendship ends.
Is a friendship of yours on the rocks? Dr Yager suggests some ways to help you work through your feelings and move to a place of acceptance.
1. Accept that you may feel guilt, shame, and anger.
2. Try to learn about yourself from the friendship’s ending. Was there a conflict or argument that might have been handled differently?
3. Think about the benefits to you if you find a way to forgive your former friend instead of harbouring resentment or thoughts about how to get even.
4. Explore your feelings by writing about it (journalling) or talking with someone you trust.
5. Spend time with other friends, your mate, family, pet, hobbies or in cultivating a new positive friendship.
Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist who writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia. She loves exploring the great outdoors with her young family.
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