My lifelong best friend has dated some real fucknuts. Like, bottom of the barrel dudes. A few years ago, she and I reached an impasse: I had exhausted all my compassion, and the roiling frustration that flared whenever she called in tears was making me an ugly, useless friend. I withdrew from her, and that fact still coats my mouth with a penny-bitter guilt. She’s now married to a truly lovely (employed! Not felonious!) Frenchman and I wept through my maid of honor speech and made vague but hiiiiilarious references to the men of yore but I do wonder: had she not met this golden man, would we have been irreparably torn?
We are living in a beautiful golden age of female friendship. As the traditional trajectory of the female life shifts towards something more mutable and varied, friendships have become our communities, our cabal, the thing that shores us up, makes possible our growth and happiness. And this is wonderful! I guard my friends with the fierceness of a lioness. They are the salt of the earth. A reflection of my truest and best self.
But, sometimes, like all things, they go a little bad.
“A healthy friendship requires three things from both people: positivity, vulnerability, and consistency,” says Shasta Nelson, founder of GirlFriendCircles, where she teaches monthly friendship classes for women. She’s an expert in friendship inasmuch as anyone can be an expert in something so nebulous. For whatever reason — let’s blame the patriarchy! — female friendship simply hasn’t been given the same primacy and attention as romantic relationships. We take for granted friendship will come to us, yet spend innumerable hours preparing, posturing and adjusting for romantic relationships. But our friendships are just as nuanced and certainly as important as the relationships we have with a partner, and as we grow into ever more complex friendships, we’re finding out the hard way that navigating toxicity — from god-awful romantic choices to perceived abandonments to self-destructive behavior — is really damn hard. As Nelson says, “We need to get to a place where we treat our friendships like our partnerships and practice asking for what we need, apologizing, and seeking to repair that which has been hurt.”
My friend K. has a close friend — we’ll call her Mona — who has, over the course of the past few years, made ever more harmful and mystifying choices. “We initially were work friends — drinking buddies,” K. tells me. “We both liked drinking, going to the bar and staying there until we stumbled home. I’m sure one of us said, Have I told you this before? I must have told you this before, like, several times each night. And then I think also the unspoken thing was that we were both unhappy and lonely.”
“In the light of day I’d think, it’s fucked up that Mona starts drinking wine at noon,” says K., who never drank as much as Mona. She felt guilty about her tacit approval of Mona’s behavior, guilty she wasn’t doing more to help. K. stressed about Mona’s self-immolation as she meandered between jobs and relationships, sinking deeper into depression while refusing to entertain therapy or cutting back on her drinking. Eventually, K. gave up alcohol. “Once I stopped drinking, I started to realize I never felt good after being around her.”
This is key to one of the questions Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, counsellor and author of the book Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends Who Break Them wants all of us to ask of our friendships:
1. Do I feel better or worse after spending time with this friend?
2. Do I avoid calls, ignore texts or frequently cancel on plans with this friend?
3. Do I ever find myself wondering how I ever ended up in a friendship with this person in the first place?
“Individuals prone to unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking too much, spending money too freely, or some other vice, may find themselves in friendships with other who display similar weaknesses or with the tendency to enable,” says Degges-White. “This type of relationship can easily turn toxic if a person’s tendency to cross an unhealthy boundary is encouraged by another.”
Degges-White is careful to point out that such behavior doesn’t mean the individual herself is toxic: even lovely, generous, wild-hearted people can find themselves stymied by patterns that hurt them. And since misery loves company, we often, if unknowingly, bring those closest down with us: either by seeking their participation in our actions, or through our need for advice and reassurance about unhealthy behavior. No one wants to drown alone.
So what to do? “Authentic friends appreciate the limits and shortcomings of their friends, but they don’t become enablers,” says Degges-White. “And as therapists recognize, a client — or a friend — won’t “fix” their problem until they are ready to do so.” There are ways to do this, of course, that are more compassionate than others:
1. As with dating, the way you remove someone from your life should honor their place in it. “If you’re ‘breaking up’ with a friend you only see once a year,” says Degges-White, “ghosting might be sufficient. If the friendship has been a part of your life for a long time, you may need to have an honest conversation.” Nelson echoes this. “We owe it to each other to communicate as honestly and as lovingly as possible with [our best friends] so that they understand what happened and what you’re still willing to do or not. We can give our friends the same gift we’d give a romantic partner: conversations that help bring closure.” (Much better than sending passive aggressive “hope ur well :)” texts until erupting at an infinitesimal slight and laying six years of wounds at her feet, amirite???)
2. “If the friend is a part of the scene you’re trying to leave (substance abuse, gambling, etc), let her know that you just can’t hang with her in those settings anymore,” says Degges-White.
3. If you’ve already done what you feel you can to help your friend see the harm in her actions, then keep the focus on how you have failed the friendship. Blame is a self-serving monster.
4. Use the conversation (or email) to acknowledge what your friend has given you, and how she has helped you grow.
5. Know that breaking up is not the only option. “If we decide that a friendship isn’t working, we have another option besides ending it— and that is to simply demote the friendship to a level of intimacy that feels safer,” says Nelson. “I have what I call a Frientimacy Scale of 1-10, with 10 being reserved for the most meaningful, safe and consistent friendships. One option is to ask ourselves if we’re okay with a close friend still being a 4 or 5, meaning that we can still hang out in the same groups, but be clear to ourselves that we no longer consider them someone we trust or someone that we’ll prioritize our time and energy for.” Clinical, sure, but “downgrading” a friendship sounds infinitely gentler than wrenching someone out of your life entirely. There is a cavern of emotional investment between the monthly vegan brunch friend and the friend whose heart you can slip into as easily and casually as your own.
A friend once told me, when I was about to run headlong into a romantic entanglement with a guy who hadn’t even managed to get himself to the dentist in over ten years, “I know this decision you are making will end badly, but I’ll be there on the other side of it.” It did, and she was, and her honesty was a genuine gift, and one that has made our friendship stronger.
As for K. and Mona, they don’t spend much time together anymore, and when they do, it’s quiet, in daylight, when neither of them are drinking. “We’re both on our little journeys forward and so we’re talking about that and it’s just totally different. We used to laugh so much, and I’m not laughing at all now.”
Ultimately, how we love each other will always be bound by how well or poorly we can love ourselves. As Nelson says, “We have to take care of ourselves, foster healthy friendships and fill our tank so that we can give it to others when we have it.”
Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Photographed by Emily Zirimis.