8 Things To Consider About “Bad Friends” (& Why We Must Hold Our Intimate Friends Close)

After making a very painful decision to let a long-term friendship expire after repetitive boundary violating and abusive behavior caused me to hit my limit, I just read an article about “bad friends” that I found very helpful. This friendship has been problematic for a long time, and I’ve tried setting boundaries (which my friend crashes right through with no apparent care for the impact of those boundary violations on me.) I’ve tried dialing down the intimacy dial to create more safety and space, and that hasn’t stopped the behaviors. I’ve done countless therapy sessions about this friendship and written page after page in my journal.

But I finally hit my limit after a recent trigger that I tried to deescalate and heal, and my repair attempt failed. Typically, I would overextend myself, attempt couple’s therapy, and invest an inordinate amount of emotional labor in trying to save the friendship. But I’m weary from being the one who does most of the world to save a relationship. I love the part of me that tries so hard in an unreciprocated way, but it’s an old pattern, and I’ve decided to try something different this time.

This time, I’ve chosen to end contact altogether, which is very hard on the parts of me that are supremely loyal and still love this friend. The article affirmed that investing more energy in what has turned into a toxic friendship is not in my best interest at this point and probably isn’t helping the other person either.

A few highlights from the article (which I’ll post in the comments):

-50% of the friendships we have are non-reciprocal, meaning that if you’re asked to list your friends, 50% of the people you list will not list you.

-One reason for this imbalance is that many “friendships” are aspirational. We may wish someone was more of a friend than they actually are.

-About half of our friendships are “ambivalent,” meaning that we have mixed feelings about a friend. If they call, we may think twice about picking up the phone. Part of us likes the connection but another part might feel burdened by it.

-People we might like may not be good for us. If we’re depressed and we hang out with depressed people, we’re more likely to stay depressed or if we’re overdrinking and hanging out with other drinkers, our friends may be dragging us down in our growth and development rather than lifting us up, and if we start getting healthier, happier, or more inspired to live a better life, our friends might try to hold us back.

-Some friends might have values, ethics, habits, or goals that don’t align with the path you are walking towards. They may not have done anything wrong, but they may not be able to validate or support the person you’re becoming. “Stay with them, and you’ll be walking against the wind.”

-Incidents with friends that include excessive demands, criticism, disappointment, and disagreeable exchanges – were related to a 38% increased risk of high blood pressure in women over 50.

-In his paper ‘The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ (1971), the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers concludes that ‘each individual human is seen as possessing altruistic and cheating tendencies’, where cheating means giving at least a bit less (or taking at least a bit more) than a friend would give or take from us. He writes: “In gross cheating, the cheater fails to reciprocate at all, and the altruist suffers the costs of whatever altruism he has dispensed without any compensating benefit… clearly, selection will strongly favor prompt discrimination against the gross cheater. Subtle cheating, by contrast, involves reciprocating, but always attempting to give less than one was given, or more precisely, to give less than the partner would give if the situation were reversed.”

-68% of survey respondents had been betrayed by a friend (ouch). The author writes, “Who are these betrayers? At such high numbers, could ‘they’ be us? That scary thought leads me to ask: are we really striving to forgive small sins? To air our grievances before they accumulate and blow up our friendships? To make the effort to get together? To give others the benefit of the doubt? Are we giving what we can, or keeping score? Are we unfairly expecting friends to think and believe the exact same things we do? Are we really doing the best we can? Well, maybe that’s what most of our friends think they are doing, too. And if they aren’t being a good friend, or if they have drifted away from us, or we from them, maybe we can accept these common rifts, without giving in to a guilt so overwhelming that it pushes us to slap a label on those we no longer want for friends: toxic.”

My friends are one of my top priorities, second only to my daughter, yet I’ve come to realize that I’m not always the first or second or even third priority to these friends, and that realization hurts, but it’s also an eye-opener. I can count on one hand the number of friends I have that feel genuinely reciprocal, and I thank my lucky stars that I have even a handful of people who share give and take with me equally, who aren’t exploiting me, controlling me, or manipulating me, who aren’t violating my boundaries repetitively, who aren’t giving their power away to me, who aren’t so fragile in their inflated self-image that they ditch me if I mirror back anything but their light, and who genuinely love me unconditionally, the way I love them. Every one of those friends is a cherished blessing. As I get older, I value them more and more…

I’ve also invested in a lot of therapy to learn how to become a better friend. I’m learning how to shore up my boundaries so I can be a safer person to my friends. And I’m narrowing my inner circle, especially during the pandemic, to invest in those friendships and avoid being stretched so thin that I fail to show up for the mundane moments that deepen intimacy in a friendship. I’m grateful every day for these precious relationships, so losing even one is painful. But without bypassing my grief, I have to look at the opening in my friendship circle as a kind of gift.  I wonder if someone new will come to fill the space?

This year has been hard on a lot of friendships. How are YOU doing? What’s the status of your friendships? Are they paring down? Becoming more intimate? Becoming fewer in number but deeper in-depth? Are you feeling supported or unsupported or both? As we struggle to find our way in difficult times, how are your friendships faring?

*The photo is of me and my bestie, courtesy of photographer Monique Feil



Lissa Rankin



PS. Want to find better, more compatible friends? In our next Healing With the Muse session, we’ll be addressing attachment wounding and how our attachment styles make some relationships easier than others.

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