Recognizing Toxic Friendships

Last night I stumbled across this Everyday Feminism article on toxic friendships. I ended up sharing it on my Facebook wall–yes, I still call it a wall, not a timeline. So sue me. I say “ended up sharing it” because I wasn’t sure I wanted to at first. I don’t question the writer’s experience, but most of what she said didn’t resonate with me. I don’t believe, for example, that we tend to dismiss toxic friendships because we see friendships as having less validity than romantic relationships. In my experience, the abuse that happens “between friends” is of the subtler variety–emotional rather than physical–and, as such, is harder to credit. I think, too, we actually give friends MORE leeway than we do romantic partners. We’re more apt to excuse toxic behaviors as “an off day,” or “she has a difficult time with criticism” BECAUSE we value our friendships and good, close friends are difficult to come by. I also don’t think negativity is in itself a sign of a toxic relationship, nor is an unequal level of investment.

But toxic friendships are all too common, and it’s all too easy to let them continue much, much too long. So I did share the article, and in the course of discussing it and some of my own take on the subject, one of my friends (Hi, Stef!) suggested I blog about it because she was interested in hearing more about my experience.

I had this friend, and she was toxic, and according to my therapist she nearly killed me. It’s been more than ten years since I cut her out of my life, and I still miss her sometimes. I still wish I hadn’t had to do what I did. I still remember her birthday. And I still don’t quite know how to talk about it.

We’d been friends a long time, twenty-five years. We first met when I was in eighth grade and she was in seventh. Then, she was best friends with a friend of mine’s sister, and as time went on, she became a member of my circle, a group of brilliant, artistic girls who had little use for social convention–or maybe didn’t understand it–and didn’t fit well into the strict class structure of the private school we all attended. Hearing about us later, another friend labeled us “The Original Riot Grrrls.” Maybe we were. It was the 70s, though, and we were all stuck in preppie hell, and we were all targets for bullying and shaming and…well, you get the picture. With one thing and another, we became closer than blood sisters, probably closer than was healthy. We had the shifting alliances and bitter infighting I am given to understand is normal for high-school girls, with all the intensity exponentially magnified by difficult home situations and chronic depression. After high school, the bunch of us split up and saw each other seldom, for one reason and another.

This one friend and I stayed in more regular contact, however. We ended up at the same college, and we were housemates a couple times. When I moved across country, sometimes she’d phone or write. And I was always glad to hear from her; it was always as if we’d never been apart. At the same time, though, whenever we spent any length of time together–I mean more than a couple months–I always ended up hurt and angry. She had these behavioral idiosyncrasies, affected voice and body language, a studied posture of superiority, that set my teeth on edge. But I never saw those things as a real problem, because it was just her way, and besides, I understood who she was under the mask. I understood her deep hurt. I didn’t take it personally, because I knew underneath she was a brilliant, fun, talented, warm person. So we kept enacting the same patterns over and over again.

This should have been my first clue, and I pass it on to you now: If there is a person in your life who keeps doing hurtful things, who doesn’t change, from whom you keep separating and with whom you keep getting back together, for whom you keep making excuses because “You know who they really are underneath,” that person is likely toxic. If you’re always the one trying to fix things and always seem to be the one taking the blame and/or responsibility for problems, you are likely in a toxic relationship.

Later we lost track of each other for years. I heard through my mother that my friend had become engaged, and I figured she had got married and gone off to have her own life. And I regretted a little the loss of friendship, but not enough to go out of my way to pursue it. This should have been my second clue.

A long time later, after I had moved to the town where I currently live, I got a letter from her and we got back in contact. She had relatives the next state over, and she and her then-boyfriend later-husband used to stop by for a few days on the way to visit them. She came for my wedding and stood up for me. My husband and I went east to visit several times. We became close again. We talked on the phone. She confided her indecision with her path in life, which had seemed so clear once upon a time. She called to cry when she lost her job, and when her plans fell apart, and when she didn’t know what to do.

And I began to think about suggesting she and her husband move out west. Well, of course I did! She was my friend. We had history. She was unhappy. And moving west to rural Colorado had been a new start for me and my husband. There was work if you were willing to work, and if pay was low, so were expenses. There was an artistic renaissance of sorts going on in my community. I thought it might be good for my friend to get out of the smothering city. I suggested it.

It took a couple years after the idea first came up, but eventually my friend and her husband moved west. They bought a house down the street from me. We–she and her husband and I and mine–started a Celtic band together. And things began to fall apart.

Almost from the beginning, I found myself having to defend my friend to others. On my recommendation she got a job at the local radio station, where her superior airs alienated the volunteer staff. I told myself she got strident because she felt insecure in a new position and wanted to prove herself. I encouraged her to relax and loosen up a bit; we weren’t in the city anymore and things were different here. People kept complaining to me about her judgmental attitude and her self-righteousness. I told them she was really okay, they just needed to get to know her (this would later backfire on me). Eventually she alienated her way out of a job, when she made hostile demands of the President of the Board. This was something else I found out the truth of later. At the time, I comforted her when she cried and claimed she hadn’t done anything wrong; the new management had got rid of her because she had supported the former manager, who had hired her.

This is the third clue. If, when bad things happen, your friend never takes responsibility for any part of it but always blames someone else, you are likely in a toxic relationship. Losing her job at the radio station was the first time my friend did this, but not the last. In fact, near the end of our relationship, she said, “The projects I get involved in always end the same way, badly. I don’t want that to happen again, but it’s not my fault.”

In the band, my friend wanted to be the center of attention, but she refused to do the work to merit it. She also refused to admit she wanted what everyone knew she wanted. I was invested–I was default bandleader–in everyone having a good time playing music together and playing out on occasion when we could. In every rehearsal, I checked in with the band to ask what people wanted. I encouraged them to come forward with songs they wanted to do. My friend refused to be honest about these things. When I suggested she take a turn as singer, she said, “Oh, I just want to focus on playing the fiddle.” Then she went to other people behind my back to spread the story that I was so controlling I wouldn’t let her sing because I wanted to be the only girl singer (yet another thing I found out later). And I might have been able to deal with that if she had actually done the work to improve her fiddle playing. Instead, she consistently refused to learn tune sets we had agreed as a band we should learn, putting it down to difficulty, or lack of time, or the fact that she didn’t read music well. Then in the middle of rehearsal, she would whip out some tune she had “just picked up”–never one on the list we had agreed upon–and play it in an aggressive manner, challenging anyone to confront her. I cannot begin to describe how infuriating this was. Everyone knew it was going on. But trying to address the issue only resulted in hostility. Every rehearsal became like walking on eggs. She was so unable to handle criticism that more than once she actually stormed out of rehearsal when someone suggested she tune her instrument.

The fourth clue: Lies and Sabotage. Both these things make it impossible for your toxic friend to get what she wants while enabling her to blame everyone but herself for it.

And I still made excuses for her. She’d lost both parents recently. She wasn’t used to working in a supportive group. She expected hostility and criticism and was trying to fulfill her expectation of getting them by manipulating the people around her, but it was because she’d had a difficult time in social situations. If I just refused to become combative, which would prove to her that she was right, if I remained quietly supportive, she’d come to understand that life didn’t have to be the way she expected it to be. She could let herself be vulnerable and grow.

Yeah, that was never going to happen. As an aside, in later years I can to believe that the real problem was that she wanted to be a “rock star;” i.e., she wanted the limelight, the center of attention, the popularity and notoriety, the small-town fame. Yet she had no musical talent whatsoever, and I’m pretty sure she knew it. I hate to declare anyone talentless in any arena, and I kept thinking, “If she just would do the work instead of being so belligerent…” But I’m pretty sure no amount of work would have made a musician out of her.

Well, anyway, I kept trying. I didn’t like the job of booking gigs, so I suggested my friend should take that over. She was all for it. And that’s when the gaslighting started. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means “using systemic manipulation to undermine a person’s perception of reality.” It comes from the 1938 play, Gas-Light, in which a husband drives his wife crazy by dimming and brightening the lights in their house, and denying there’s any change when she questions it. It’s a common technique of sociopaths. Here’s an example: We had two gigs we were considering, one in Durango, about six hours’ drive away, and another in Delta. The Durango gig was at night, and could be expected to end well after two in the morning. The Delta gig was the next morning at eleven. I told my friend I would do one or the other but not both, because I did not want to play until two in the morning and then have to get up at five and drive seven hours back to Delta. She booked both gigs. When I reminded her of my conditions, she said, “You never said that. You told me to book both gigs.” And furthermore, she added, “You know, Kel, a real band would be expected to keep those kind of hours if they were on tour.” Intimating that our band was not real, that if I wanted to participate in a “real” band I was not allowed to have any boundaries, and basically the way I wanted to live my life was invalid.

The fifth clue: Gaslighting and Undermining. If your friend consistently challenges your desires for your life and your experience of reality and supports her own version of events with compulsive lying, GET OUT.

Since this blog post is already over 2000 words long, I’m going to try to cut it short. I got depressed, so depressed. I’d started the band to share joy in music, and by that point I detested music. It’s only recently, over ten years later, that I have begun to sing again on occasion and have begun to entertain the possibility of pulling out my flute. I got sick and was hospitalized with gallbladder disease. My friend books gigs for our band for the time I was in recovery from surgery and evinced astonishment when I told her there was no way I could stand up and perform a few days after my gut had been cut open. She found a couple session players to take the place of myself and my husband, and told them I was too lazy to keep a commitment. Shortly afterward, my therapist told me, “I don’t like telling clients what to do, but if you don’t get that person out of your life you’re going to end up dead.” So I broke up the band and I wrote my now-ex friend a long letter explaining exactly why. I still feel like a miserable coward for not confronting her to her face, but there was no way I could have done it.

A few weeks after I sent my former friend the letter, I found a box of mutilated photographs from my wedding in my backyard. I’m fairly sure I know where they came from.

My friend stayed around the area for a little while, living right down the street. It made me sick to look out of my dining room window. After a year or two, her husband fell in love with someone else and divorced her. She floated around town for a while and many people found her charming. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t friends with her any longer. When I tried to explain, they invariably said, “Oh, bands break up.” And they still didn’t understand. My friend tried being in a couple other bands, but eventually she got kicked out of them all for her hostility and rudeness and no one would play with her. Eventually she burned too many bridges and moved away. She still owns the house down the street, I think. My therapist saw her a few months back. She asked if she could have my therapist’s dog. No one knows why.

All the projects she gets involved in end the same way, badly. She doesn’t think she wants it to happen again. But it’s not her fault. It’s never her fault.

A few weeks after I broke up the band, my husband met this former friend for a beer because he wanted to find some kind of closure with her. He told her, “I never felt like I really got to know you and be your friend.” Her response? “Oh, was that important to you?” And part of it I’m sure came from her having a habit of never taking responsibility for her actions, never being honest, and coming at every conversation from a position of superiority. Turning every attempt to address her honestly into…a contest of wit and defenses. But part of it, I know now, came from the pure fact that she was clueless about how friendships work. She could be a remarkable sycophant–she loved making up to people she viewed as being in power. And she could be a tyrant, a superior, a dictator, greedy for all the privilege inherent in the titles. But she could never be an equal. I’m sure she’s very lonely, and I think that’s very sad. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I did everything I could ten years ago.

If any of this story sounds familiar to you, please get help. Get out. Don’t cling to a friend because you understand where they’re coming from or because you have history. You’re just hurting yourself.




3 thoughts on “Recognizing Toxic Friendships

  1. Oh Kel, I’m so sorry about this. I really never knew. I know I’ve been distant, but if there is something I can help with, please let me know.

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