Friendships can make life better. Good friends are fun to hang out with, offer support in difficult times, and can help you grow as a person. Unfortunately, some friendships can turn toxic. Toxic friends make life harder and more complicated instead of better, and spending time with them can leave you feeling unhappy or anxious.
Your feelings are the most important clue. If you feel worse about yourself and your life after spending time with your friend, this is a sign that your friend could be toxic.
Our article on the signs of a toxic friendship contains general advice that will help you to spot toxic people. If you’re a guy, this other article might help you more specifically with toxic male friendships. This guide goes further by outlining the different types of toxic friends you may come across. You’ll also learn how to handle specific toxic behaviors and when to walk away from a friendship that can’t be saved.
Toxic friends come in many different forms, and some don’t fit neatly in one category. For example, you may have a jealous friend who also has a habit of lying to you or a judgmental friend who also likes to brag about their achievements.
It’s also helpful to know that some people are subtle toxic friends. Their behavior might not be blatant or outrageous, so it may take a while before you notice that they aren’t treating you very well. Try to pay close attention to what they say and do. As time goes by, you’ll probably notice patterns.
Flaky friends are unreliable. They might agree to meet up at a particular time and place, then fail to show up. They might cancel at the last minute, arrive late, or ditch you at the last minute to hang out with someone else. You may be left feeling as though they don’t respect your time or that you are a backup option.
Some small lies, also known as “white lies,” are harmless. For example, “I like your new bag” or “Thanks for making me lunch, it was great!” But if your friend is often dishonest, even if they only lie about trivial matters like what movie they saw at the weekend, they are probably toxic. You cannot trust a friend who is prone to lying, and it’s hard to feel relaxed around them.
Gossiping friends enjoy talking about other people behind their backs, usually in a negative, rude, or spiteful way. If you have a gossiping friend, they may spread rumors about you, which could hurt your reputation and cause problems in your other friendships. As a general rule, if your friend gossips about other people, they probably gossip about you too.
If your friend can’t be happy for you during good times, they may be jealous. Jealous friends may disappear when your life is going well, belittle your achievements, or try to one-up you. It’s OK for friends to be jealous of one another occasionally, but jealousy becomes toxic when you feel bad for sharing good news with a friend because you know they will take it badly.
A clingy or possessive friend can make you feel suffocated. They might want to hang out with you all the time, message you too often, and be desperate for your approval. They may be jealous when you hang out with other people.
Clinginess often stems from insecurity; clingy people usually want to be liked. At first, having a friend who always wants to hang out might make you feel flattered. However, this type of friend can be toxic if they make you feel bad for doing things without them or constantly ask you for reassurance.
Your friends don’t have to approve of everything you do, and vice versa. But criticizing your lifestyle choices, appearance, or opinions are warning signs of a toxic friendship.
For example, it’s normal for friends to have different tastes in music or clothes, but judgmental comments like “You have zero taste in music” or “You always pick unflattering outfits” are hurtful and destructive. True friends do not judge you for what you like or who you are.
If one of your friends is seriously concerned because they think you are making a bad decision, they should raise it in a sensitive way while making it clear that they respect your right to make your own choices.
User friends hang out with you or keep in touch because you make their life easier in some way. The most obvious type of user friend is someone who gets you to pay for everything, but user friends might also take advantage of:
- Your business contacts. They might ask you to network on their behalf and get them a job in your company.
- Your sympathy. For example, they may use you as a therapist.
- Your social network. They may befriend you only because you know someone they want to date.
- Your company. A user friend may only want to hang out when they are single. When they get a boyfriend or girlfriend or make friends they think are “cooler,” they might disappear. Friends that ditch you when they start a new relationship are not true friends.
It’s normal for friends to offer suggestions and advice, but if your friend tries to control your day-to-day life, they are toxic. Controlling friends often ignore boundaries, which can leave you feeling spied upon, pressured, or anxious. For example, they might read your text messages without permission or try to control who you hang out with.
Some people always seem to be in the middle of a personal crisis. They can spend hours talking about their problems and tend to blow everything out of proportion.
Dramatic friends are usually poor listeners because they are too focused on their latest problem to pause and catch up with your life. They might ask you for advice with no intention of following it and make the same mistakes again and again, which can leave you feeling drained. If their drama takes up a lot of your time and energy, they are toxic.
Passive-aggressive friends can’t—or won’t—discuss issues directly. Instead, they resort to hints to signal that they are unhappy. For example, a passive-aggressive person may sigh and say, “Oh, I’m fine,” when in reality, they are angry or upset. This kind of communication is a sign of an unhealthy relationship because it means you can’t address important problems.
If you have a very sensitive friend, you may feel like you always have to be careful not to say or do something wrong. They take offense easily and might be prone to extreme overreactions. Hanging out with a hypersensitive friend can be exhausting if you are always monitoring your speech and behavior.
No one is happy all the time, but people who tend to always look for the downside in every situation and complain a lot are unpleasant to be around. They are toxic because they can leave you feeling drained and gloomy. You may find yourself wanting to avoid this kind of person, even if they are kind or well-meaning because they usually make you feel worse.
Some people try to buy or earn friendship by giving gifts, paying more than their fair share of expenses, or doing favors without being asked. Someone who tries buying your friendship can be toxic if they feel entitled to your time or attention in return for their time or money.
Someone who tries to push your boundaries and make you do something that doesn’t line up with your values is not a good friend. For example, if they try to get you drunk when they know you don’t like alcohol, this is toxic behavior.
Teasing and banter between friends is normal, but it should not cross the line into bullying. As a general rule, it’s OK as long as everyone is laughing. If your friend makes you the butt of their jokes, likes to put you down, pokes fun at your insecurities, and doesn’t stop teasing you when you ask them to quit, they are not a good friend.
Bragging friends make a point of talking about their achievements or possessions to try and make themselves look better than you. Sometimes, a bragging friend may truly believe they are superior. In other cases, their bragging could be an unhealthy way to compensate for poor self-esteem.
People who boast a lot are toxic because they don’t see themselves as your equal. They might make you feel stupid or inferior, which isn’t a sign of a positive friendship.
Friendships don’t have to be exactly 50:50. It’s normal for one person to reach out more often than the other. But if your friend never calls and it’s always up to you to start conversations and make plans, your friendship might be one-sided. One-sided friendships can be demoralizing and tiring because you know or suspect that they don’t care about you in the same way that you care about them.
These quotes on one-sided friendships might help you to decide whether you’re in one or not.
If you are part of a group that deliberately excludes you from activities, it may be time to look for new friends. Friends don’t have to do everything together, but it isn’t normal or healthy for your friends to make you feel like an outsider.
You might have heard or read that the best way to deal with toxic friends is to cut them out of your life. Sometimes, that’s the best option, particularly if your friend’s behavior is causing you a lot of distress or makes you feel unsafe.
But in some cases, you may be able to handle the problem and keep the friendship. Here are some strategies to try if your friend is toxic:
Some toxic friends don’t respect your preferences or needs. For example, a controlling friend may try telling you what clothes to wear or send you an excessive number of messages every day, even if they know you aren’t keen on texting.
Decide what your boundaries are and practice spelling them out. For example, if you have a friend who tries to use you for money, you might say, “I don’t lend money to anyone” when they next ask for a loan. Or if your friend often texts you late at night and expects a response, you could say, “I don’t use my phone after 10 p.m. I reply to late-night texts the next morning.”
Read our articles on setting boundaries with friends and what to do if you’re being treated like a doormat for more advice. If you need to set boundaries with someone who makes you the butt of jokes, check out our guide on how to deal with someone who makes fun of you.
Along with clarifying your boundaries, you could also try asking your friend to change their behavior.
Use “I-statements” to get your message across in a non-confrontational way. Try this formula:
“When you do X, I feel Y. In future, I’d like you to do Z.”
- “When you make fun of my accent in front of everyone else, I feel embarrassed. In future, I’d like you to stop making jokes about the way I speak.”
- “When you expect me to pay for our drinks or meal every time we go out, I feel like I’m being used. In future, I’d like us to pay for our own food and drinks.”
If your friend ignores your boundaries and requests to change their behavior, you don’t have to keep giving them more chances. But if you want to keep trying to save the friendship, try laying out consequences for toxic behaviors.
“I feel uncomfortable when you make judgmental comments about my partner’s appearance. If you do it again, I’ll end the conversation.”
Be prepared to follow through. If you don’t, your friend will learn that there are no real consequences to their behavior, which might make them more likely to cross your boundaries in the future.
You might decide that you’ll only hang out with your toxic friend in specific settings. Re-adjusting what you expect from your friendship can work well if their toxic behaviors are annoying rather than malicious.
For example, your friend might be flaky, but they may also have a good sense of humor that makes them fun at parties. You might choose to spend time with them at big social events but not hang out with them one-on-one.
As a general rule, if your friend values your relationship, they will take the initiative at least some of the time.
If you’re in a toxic one-sided friendship where you have to make all of the efforts, try not to accept all the responsibility for keeping it going. If you’ve asked your friend twice to hang out and they’ve declined both times, tell them you’ll be happy to hear from them again when they’re free. Leave the ball in their court. If it’s a good friendship, they will probably reach out.
It’s difficult to deal with passive-aggressive people because they often refuse to tell you what they truly feel or think. Psychology Today has a useful five-step guide to dealing with passive-aggressive people.
When a friend comes to you and asks, “What should I do about my problem?” ask yourself, “Do they actually want a solution, or do they just enjoy being dramatic?”
Dramatic friends usually want attention and validation rather than constructive advice. Try saying, “What are you going to do about that?” or “That sucks, what’s your next step?” This makes it clear that you see their issues as their responsibility.
If your toxic friend likes gossiping or tends to use other peoples’ secrets against them, don’t assume that they will keep your private information private. You can still talk to them if you like their company, but try sticking to light-hearted topics of conversation.
You are not to blame for anyone’s toxic behavior. If someone treats you badly, it is their fault. However, in some cases, the way we talk to others can trigger unnecessary conflict or competitive behavior.
For example, let’s say you have a friend who brags a lot about their possessions or achievements. It’s possible that they are just an insecure person who tries to make themselves look successful and important.
But if you also tend to boast a lot, your behavior could encourage them to do the same. If you improve your self-esteem and make an effort to stop boasting, you might find that your jealous friends also brag less often because they don’t feel the need to compete with you.
It’s a good idea to see your social life as an ongoing project. Keep meeting and befriending new people and do not rely on the same friend or group for support and company all the time. It can feel easier to walk away from toxic people if you aren’t dependent on them for company. Our guide on how to meet people and find friends contains lots of practical advice on widening your social circle.
You cannot mend every friendship. It’s usually best to walk away if:
- You’ve asked your friend to behave differently but they haven’t changed
- Your friend has become abusive towards you
- Your friend makes you feel unsafe
Remember, your friendships should enrich your life. Our guide on how to end a friendship may help if you aren’t sure how to cut ties with a toxic friend.
Major changes in your friend’s behavior could mean that your friendship is turning toxic, but there may be another explanation. Try to find out why your friend is acting differently before jumping to the conclusion that they don’t like or respect you anymore.
For example, if your friend isn’t making any effort to reach out to you anymore your friendship might have become one-sided. But they could also be dealing with a personal crisis or going through a period of depression.
If your friend’s behavior seems odd or out of character, try asking them whether anything has changed in their life. Our guide on how to be honest with friends may be useful if you aren’t sure how to have frank conversations.