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5 Questions to Consider in Cultivating Healthy Friendships

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Positive bonds support our happiness, but soured relationships may need to be re-evaluated. Here are five things to consider.

Last month, while in New York City sharing a meal with my friend Katie, I found myself lamenting over a friendship that, in my perspective, had turned sour. During the conversation, I shared that this particular friendship with Ann (not her real name) had started to feel tense, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt a sense of loyalty to Ann — she had strongly encouraged me to continue pursuing my writing career when no else did.

After listening to the details of our recent interactions, Katie, in a very straight-forward, no-holds-barred tone, put it out there: “She’s jealous.” I flatly denied it. In fact, I rose to Ann’s defense and provided concrete examples of how she supported my work.

But Katie wasn’t having it. “Every time you are around her, you walk on eggshells,” she said.

I put my fork down and couldn’t even reply. In my gut, I knew it was true. I saw  Ann struggling with her career, parenting, and marriage — and there was nothing I could to help. Everything that I suggested to her fell on deaf ears. Whenever I shared even a sliver of what I was working on, there was either silence or snarky remarks. I actually found myself feeling tense when we talked.

While my conversation with Katie shed clarity on my relationship with Ann, we hit on something deeper. We started to talk about toxic friendships.

It is not unusual for friendships to go through transitions and rough patches, but when they begin to cause stress, it may be time to carefully examine how it is affecting your overall well-being.

How do you know if you are in a healthy or toxic friendship? While there is not a definite litmus test, here are some things to consider when you are cultivating healthy connections:

  1. Do you find yourself worried that what you say or do with that person can be misinterpreted?
  2. Are you often processing elements of your friendship with another person to try to make sense out of it?
  3. When you experience success or a reason to celebrate, is that person cheering on your happiness?
  4. During your conversations, do you find yourself often defending your actions?
  5. When you leave that person’s presence, do you find yourself brighter or bitter?

If upon reflecting on these questions you find yourself unhappy with the answers, it may be time to consider if this friendship has legs. Is this person’s personality type well suited to yours (their demands on your time may not be rewarding, and this high-maintenance friendship might be one to re-evaluate). Perhaps your friendship is struggling because of long distances. Or a new chapter, such as having a baby, has you feeling like you are in different worlds.

Building healthy friendships takes time and commitments from both people, along with shared equality and respect. When personality differences are too problematic or you’ve decided that you do indeed want to sever all ties, how do you go about saying goodbye?

There are several options depending on what feels right to you and your relationship. You can schedule a sit-down conversation in a public or quiet place, and explain that you need to call it quits. Your friend may feel relief, or he or she may be taken by surprise and want a chance to create some new agreements for the friendship. Being firm but gentle and setting boundaries in either case will be good for you both.

If you choose to go separate ways, for the sake of your emotional well-being, it is best to brief. You may have a few examples of how you feel this friendship is difficult to sustain, but be cautious. Once you begin to open up about your feelings with the past, this sharing can unleash a lot of emotion on both sides.

If you do decide to cease all contact without an explanation, chances are your friend will come begging you for a reason. Consider a simple, prepared, and honest response.

A middle-ground approach of a trial separation might work best if you simply want some breathing room. In other words, if you aren’t ready to throw in the towel yet, you can try to begin to emotionally distancing yourself. This means that you create a delay in responding to their texts and phone calls. And then observe not only their response, but be aware of your emotional reaction. You may feel relief and a sense of peace knowing that you don’t have to give them attention.

Poor friendships can stunt our emotional growth. Certainly, there are varying factors to consider before separating from a friendship, but we are not bound to continue in anything that restricts our potential. Breaking up is not easy, but at times it may be necessary to preserve our sanity.

 

TELL US: How do you know when a friendship is making you brighter or bitter? What do you do to build healthy connections? Let us know in the comments section below, or Tweet us @ExperienceLife.

Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master’s level clinical social worker and the author of the forthcoming book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing.