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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, eight out of ten students who responded said they had experienced an unhealthy friendship. One in four 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 his story.

Students: “The problem was them.”

“I felt for a long time that she was not being reciprocal in our friendship. I would give time, energy, attentive listening, advice, and support, but she seemed unable to return that kind of support and engagement. I tried to communicate these concerns to her in different ways and at different times. When she finally did understand how much our friendship had been jeopardized, it was already too late to fix it.” —Female first-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“I tolerated his behaviour 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

“I should have let go sooner. The only way my friend was happy was when he felt as though he was superior to me and my accomplishments. It was as though he needed me to fail to feel as though he was successful, and lashed out every time I found success.” —Female first-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario

Students: “The problem was me.”

“I neglected our friendship and put my romantic relationships first. In retrospect I would say ‘yes’ to more experiences that they wanted to have, even if I was not particularly fond of or in the mood to participate in the activity. I would also put more effort into maintaining the relationship and balancing my affection to more than just myself or my romantic relationships.” —Female fourth-year undergraduate, Brock University, Ontario

“I was insensitive to the needs and feelings of my friend and put them in uncomfortable situations while we were living together. I consistently failed to maintain healthy, safe boundaries.” —Male third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“I would say that things were OK even when they weren’t. I didn’t want to hurt any feelings but then resentment builds. I am trying to be more honest with my friends now.” —Female second-year graduate student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“I wish I had been more tolerant of their quirks and not so quick to call them annoying. I wish I had given them enough of a chance to realize what a loyal and supportive person they actually were.” —Other gender second-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario

“I wasn’t sensitive enough to the way they dealt with conflict or disagreement. I didn’t pay enough attention to how my actions and behaviours may have affected that person in a negative way.” —Female third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“I wasn’t there for him when he needed me, as I was too afraid to fall back into being bullied myself. I would have stood by his side if I had the wisdom that I do now.” —Male first-year undergraduate, Trinity Western University, British Columbia

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 behaviour? —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 counsellor at your school. —IL

Student's Story

“You have to consider if your own needs are being satisfied.”

Karl Johnston is a fourth-year Human Resources and Labour Management student at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. He is the former Canadian Features Editor of Let’s Be Wild magazine and It’s Just Light magazine, and a columnist at The Northern Journal.

In my second year of university, I invited a classmate I recently met to join a study group with a few friends of mine. At first, it was fine, but it didn’t stay that way for long. The negative rants started; she was bitter about everything. She talked about her ex-boyfriend, her job, people she disliked, the state of the world. If someone disagreed with her, she would respond in a hostile way, attacking them or mocking them when they were not around.

Over time, the rest of the group also became bitter. We were more aggressive and argumentative and were reflecting the negativity that was coming from this person. Our conversations often involved bleak topics, such as corruption in the world, crime, or personal and often polarizing issues involving politics or religion.

Rather than being open to other ideas, the toxic person was condescending when faced with a conflicting viewpoint. “Oh you believe that? Well, let me inform you how the world actually works.” This attitude alienated people and dragged the group down.

Eventually my other friends stopped hanging out with her. I felt like she’d  had a hard time and was a good person deep down. Perhaps she’d get better if she had someone to talk to; I could be that person. Instead I became a focal point for her hostility. One time, I was struggling to understand a concept, and she belittled me for not catching on right away, saying I must be stupid. She would follow that with requests for favours, like catching a ride from me and using it as an opportunity to run errands on the way home.

I started to realize I was being taken advantage of and was getting nothing positive from this friendship. I felt drained, emotionally and physically. I was more irritable around people. Although I only saw her for a few hours per week, the interactions started to seep into all parts of my life. I often felt sick to my stomach from the stress and began to doubt my own academic abilities. The final straw was when my girlfriend told me that I was beginning to sound like the toxic person I was hanging around so much.

Finally, I confronted her about the tension that had been mounting and explained why the others didn’t want to be around her anymore. She took it as a personal attack, and that was the last time I hung out with her.

Although it may seem harsh to abruptly end the friendship, it is important to remember that every relationship needs strong communication. You have to consider if your own needs are being satisfied, too. Rather than burying issues and hoping they will sort themselves out, communicate directly and openly. If I had spoken up earlier and was more assertive, I may have avoided the decline of the group dynamic.

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Karl Johnston studied Human Resources and Labour Management at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. He is the former Canadian Features Editor of Let’s Be Wild magazine and It’s Just Light magazine, and a columnist at The Northern Journal. Karl is a member of the SH101 Student Advisory Board 2016–17.