The 101 on dealing with unhealthy friendships


Elle Love

When we imagine how a friendship should be… We believe that they would not do anything that could potentially hurt us. Graphic by Philly Nevada/the Gateway.

Friendship has no definite meaning. In a universal definition, it is a “state of being friends.”

To me, the best definition of friendship is “the combination of affection, loyalty, love, respect and trust to each other,” according to the Friends website.

When we imagine how a friendship should be, we trust that our friend will be there for us whenever we need them the most. We believe that they would not do anything that could potentially hurt us.

With unhealthy friendships, however, the people that we would normally go to for support and comfort become the source of emotional distress, making it harder to release because we feel like we have no one to turn to.

That was my experience with an old friend of five years named JK. We felt like we were inseparable because of our similar interests, and the trust we had for each other grew the more each of us revealed about our lives.

JK and I were there for each other through our ups and our downs. He was the solution whenever I needed someone to lean on, but later he became the source of my problems.

Dr. Juan Casas, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and the director of the UNO psychology graduate program, said friendships can serve as an important basis of social support for individuals.

Friendships are not only an important outlet to release pressure by having fun with your friends, but also a safe place to vent about how things are going – well or unwell, said Casas.

When we think about a friendship, generally we think of the individual providing the different kinds of support that we are seeking, including companionship.

Casas said in the case of unhealthy friendships – where you are not treated fairly in the relationship – there are violations to what can be considered a good friend.

“It’s a tough subject because true friendship isn’t about keeping score,” said UNO’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) mental health therapist, Katherine Keiser.

It is important to recognize if you’re in a situation where kindness and respect are not reciprocated, Keiser said.

If I’m with a friend that repeatedly does not display curiosity about how I think and feel, it might be an indication that I should look into other friendships and activities that can contribute positively in my life, rather than expecting reciprocation of interests from that friend, Keiser said.

The dynamic between JK and me began to sour the more we fought with each other, and our interests began to clash the older we became.

I thought the fights we had with each other were normal, however, it took a toll on my self-esteem when I asked myself if I was the bad person in every situation.

Keiser said that over time an unsupportive friendship can take a toll, especially if there is constant invalidation, causing someone to doubt themselves.

“If I am in a relationship for a long time where someone regularly invalidates my feelings, then if I believe them over time I’ll second guess myself,” Keiser said. “I won’t trust my own gut.”

These second guesses of mine turned into the need to constantly apologize. Even if it was a minor argument I had with JK, it would end with an immediate apology and an addition to the list of what not to do around him.

The trust between us began to erode. It no longer felt fun to hang out with each other anymore because of the heart-sinking feeling that accompanied me whenever we met.

Sometimes there are specific events that precipitate a change in the relationship, an event where you feel like a friend has thrown you under the bus, and it changes the way we orient ourselves to one another, Casas said.

“Sometimes in these ‘toxic friendships,’ we have people that we believe are closer to us when we disclose personal information, but turn around and share the information,” said Casas. “That is a violation of trust that you would not expect from a friendship.”

One major event that forever changed my trust in JK was when he eventually revealed our arguments on his Instagram for people to see, painting me in a negative light. His Instagram followers didn’t know who I truly was as a person.

I was afraid of the potential danger I could be put in if anyone took the matter into their own hands and revealed more of my personal information online. This event left an emotional scar that will take some time to heal, even though I forgave him as a way for us to remain friends.

Casas said the pattern of forgiveness is seen often in people, especially kids.

“Sometimes kids are struggling in their social relationships in general so they are just happy to have somebody they can consider to be a friend, even if the way they are interacting is recognized as unhealthy,” Casas said.

After each argument, JK and I continued to remain friends, but I was left feeling emotionally drained because of the lack of confidence I had to make new friends.

After talking with other friends about my situation with JK, I realized it was healthier for me to invest in other friendships and hobbies that would build me up, rather than working with one that left me emotionally exhausted.

Casas said that when dealing with unhealthy friendships, we need to recognize if we have a relationship that adds another layer of stress to our lives. He also said to think about whether we find value and enjoyment in being with that friend and if we feel good about what we are contributing to the relationship with that person.

“If the answer is not positive, then perhaps it’s time to move on,” Casas said.

Keiser said people can recover from the effects of an unhealthy friendship.

“People can go to counseling and figure out ways to validate themselves,” Keiser said.

CAPS provides a safe, neutral space for clients to express themselves without judgment and to verbally process what’s on their minds, said Keiser.

Keiser also said it’s healthy to talk to someone who’s not too involved in your life.

“We try to empower clients to trust themselves, to validate their own thoughts and feelings and, when needed, to have the courage and skills to communicate those thoughts and feelings,” Keiser said.

Keiser said it is important to know who you are and what is important to you. Not only do we need to know who we are, but we also need to communicate that with other people so they will know and understand our boundaries.

“The better you know yourself, the easier it is to determine how you fit with someone else,” Keiser said.

UNO Counseling and Psychological Services offer Students Overcoming Stress (S.O.S) 1-2 p.m. every Tuesday for students to meet confidentially, express feelings and learn ways to deal with stress about relationships, communications, self-care and more. For more information, contact CAPS at 402.554.2409.