(Note: Some names have been changed.)
Ashley's nose didn't stand a chance once it hit her dorm room's tile floor. After two days of starving herself and compulsive exercising, the undergraduate's body gave way and she passed out face-first while her then-best friend and roommate Lauren looked on in horror. Lauren ran to the resident assistant on duty and called the paramedics, but it wasn't Lauren who sat with Ashley in the ambulance—it was another one of her friends. Lauren was too busy stewing over the attention directed towards her anorexic friend.
The two met their freshman year at a local college. They had the perfect give-and-take friendship until Ashley's anorexia became serious. At first, Lauren would try to encourage Ashley to eat and attend social events that involved food, but as Ashley fell deeper into the world of anorexia, Lauren lashed out. Ashley's dorm room fainting spell was the last straw.
"After she saw that, it seemed like she was angry with me because of the disease," says Ashley, now 32 years old and healthy. "I asked her, 'Why are you being so mean to me?' and she told me she didn't understand why I had to be skinnier than everyone else. She seemed to be jealous, not because I was any better looking than anybody else, it was just the kind of attention I was getting. Other friends of ours would always say supportive things to me. I think that bothered her."
Lauren began saying hurtful things to Ashley. "Well, you're not really that skinny" or "you're short, you're probably going to be fat no matter what you do." Ashley shakes her head in disbelief at the memory.
Luckily, Ashley was able to shake off Lauren's insults. The sophomore went for help, and her parents brought her home for several weeks. When she returned, she distanced herself from Lauren, but she's never been able to dismantle the friendship completely. At Lauren's urging, they meet for birthdays and their shared group of friends gets together every Christmas.
While many times it's not as obvious as abandoning someone in a time of need or a steady stream of harsh criticism, most of us have had at least one toxic friend (or know someone who has). Sometimes they're merely an annoyance (think Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie). Other times, the relationship can get pretty vicious (like Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag's slanderous mudslinging on MTV's reality show The Hills). But one thing's for sure: When it comes to toxic friends, you don't have to be a celebrity to know how bad they can make you feel.
Toxic friends—also endearingly labeled "frenemies"—come in all forms and, contrary to what you may think (namely that it's mainly an adolescent problem), can affect us at any age. These so-called "friends" may sabotage our success, exclude us from plans, put us down, and, yes, stab us in the back. So why do so many of us keep them around? And how can we be sure that we even have them?
"There are a lot of red flags you could look for or start noticing" that can help identify a toxic friendship, says Julie Quimby, associate professor of psychology at Towson University and director of the university's Counseling Psychology graduate program.
Consider your mood after you hang up the phone or walk away from a friend. Are you anxious? Depressed? Realize you've held back good news because it might rock the boat?
"That's not a healthy relationship," advises Quimby.
Unfortunately, recognizing a toxic friendship isn't always so simple.
For Sally, it took almost a decade to realize that her longtime friend (and one-time coworker) Sara was doing more harm than good.
"She caused me a lot of emotional turmoil and heartache," Sally says. "Healthy friendships aren't like that."
The turmoil and heartache included Sara's trash-talking of Sally to coworkers behind her back, and her "my-way-or-the-highway" approach to the friendship. Sally tried to end the friendship a number of times over the years, but this summer she made a clean break that she hopes will stick.
But why did she stay so long in a friendship that ultimately brought her down? Sally stops to consider the question.
"She would do anything for you, that's the thing," the 35-year-old Westminster native says. "She was my workout buddy, my work buddy. I felt like I could talk with her about anything. But everything that I ended up telling her, she turned it around and used it against me."
As in any relationship—whether it's a romance or a friendship—it's easy to focus on the good times. Perhaps that's why so many of us stay in toxic friendships when the sensible thing to do would be to cut ties and move on.
"We stay connected to the positive experiences," Quimby explains. "It's not always that bad. We don't usually stay friends with people that are all bad."
Longstanding toxic friendships can be especially hard to end. "It's nice to have some stability in the form of the same old friend," says Michael Gugerty, a Sheppard Pratt psychologist. "There are lots of things that keep people in relationships for a period of time. Sometimes it feels like it would be too uncomfortable to change."
And those are merely the conscious reasons why we might stay in a toxic friendship. Dig a little deeper and some disturbing patterns may emerge. "People are driven to repeat maybe not-so-great relationships from the past," Gugerty says. "There's some process that's going on aside from the completely conscious. There's more than meets the eye."
Toxic friends, by their very nature, tend to be needy, Quimby says, so "you might feel some gratification in being in that relationship because you're the caretaker."
Or maybe you're what Annapolis and Hunt Valley-based psychiatrist Dr. Jack Vaeth calls a "people pleaser." As such, "you will often stay in a relationship to your own detriment," he says. "You may also be attracted to toxic people because you have your own fears of abandonment, so you'd rather have a toxic friend than no friend at all."
Going a step further, Quimby hypothesizes that those of us with a long history of toxic friendships (and usually toxic romantic relationships as well) may have been similarly mistreated during childhood. "Sometimes we seek that out as a way of reconciling some of the earlier [toxic] experience," she says. "Usually there's more to it if there's a real pattern."
So who are these toxic friends anyway? Don't they have issues, too? Vaeth definitely thinks so. The psychiatrist puts toxic friends into four distinct categories: the critic, the voyeur, the borderline, and the narcissist.
"The critic is in a relationship because they love to critique your life," he explains. "They can be derogatory, but they do it in a way that sounds like they only care about you and want to make your life better. They'll word their critique so it sounds like they're really interested in your well-being."
While it's okay for a friend to occasionally point out our shortcomings, we shouldn't have to absorb a constant barrage of criticism. "You don't need to hang around a critic," he advises. "We're often our own harshest critic."
The "voyeur" is that friend who needs to know every single detail of your life, but never reveals much about him or herself. You willingly divulge the dirt, and feel interesting in the process. But Vaeth advises caution: "They gather a lot of this information to make themselves feel better by telling someone, 'So and so's really messed up.' You assume there's some degree of confidentiality involved. They're getting a thrill that they know more about you than anyone else. It's a power trip."
"Borderline" types thrive on chaos and are ultimately fearful of abandonment, says Vaeth. "They'll love you and make you feel on top of world, but when times become stormier, they will really devalue you. Just as you go to get rid of them, they put you back on a pedestal." (Those of us with low self-esteem may be especially vulnerable to the borderline, as we have trouble putting ourselves up on that pedestal, he adds.)
And finally, Vaeth says, there's the "narcissist," whom, as you might expect, may be very charismatic or good looking, someone who may make you feel grateful that he or she even wants to associate with you. "They'll suck you dry by exploiting you. They are in a friendship for their own personal gain," Vaeth warns. "Internally, they're very insecure. A narcissist is constantly wanting people to envy them and view them in a positive light."
Columbia resident Bill has seen them all. Heck, he's probably had them all.
"Oh my gosh, all my friends were toxic friends," he says of a long string of buddies spanning junior high through college.
The 49-year-old has managed to rid himself of these toxic relationships, but only after a lot of soul searching and a string of 1980s self-help books ("armchair psychology," he cracks).
"In the world there's two kinds of people: there are energy-givers and there are energy-suckers," he says. "Toxic people are the energy suckers just by being demanding, negative, manipulative, or by trying to evoke guilt to get what they want. Their personalities are sort of like a black hole. They suck everything in. They're totally self-centered and they can't help themselves in most cases."
Bill's tolerant, nonjudgmental nature made him a sort of magnet for toxicity. Finally, as a young adult, he recognized that his toxic friendships were beginning to take a toll on his psyche. "I started to learn that these people had an adverse impact on me," he says. "I began to act and react to them in ways that were unhealthy for me, and life's too short to do that. It's just better not to get involved with people like that."
So how did Bill get rid of his toxic friends? It wasn't easy, he says.
"A clean break is the only way to do it," he says. "You have to be totally committed to it. And sometimes you need help doing it."
Experts agree. Vaeth recommends a couple sessions with a therapist. If you don't want to go that route, choose someone who won't just tell you what you want to hear, he says.
Once you recognize that you want to end a toxic friendship, the psychiatrist advises a "guillotine to the bonds of friendship." In other words, a clean cut.
"If you really want to end a relationship with someone, if you don't do it cleanly or clearly, they'll linger on," he says. "The problem with slowly fading is they don't want you to fade. They'll always be there."
If you think the friendship is worth salvaging, then it's time to get assertive and speak up, Gugerty says. This approach takes self-confidence, but if you don't address toxic friends, "they'll continue to behave in the same ways that irritate you."
Quimby wishes there was some sort of manual on how to end a friendship, but so far she hasn't found one, so in a sense, we're all flying blind.
"We don't talk about ending friendships as much as we do romantic relationships," she says. "There's just a lot of guilt that you're dumping a friend, but we have the ability to choose who we want in our lives."
While we're evaluating our friends, it's a good idea to evaluate ourselves, too, Quimby says.
"We all should look at how we approach friendships and ask ourselves if we are the most supportive," she says. "Everyone has the potential to be a good friend and a not-so-good friend. We can all be better friends."
As for Ashley and Lauren? They still do get together for group social events. On those dreaded occasions, Lauren, despite being all too familiar with Ashley's troubled past, consistently makes comments about other people's weight and what they're eating. Ashley knows getting together with Lauren is the wrong thing to do—dangerous, even ("Once you have [anorexia], the slightest thing can trigger the craving to do it again and again," she explains) but "I give in pretty much every time," she says with a sigh.
The Baltimore resident leans forward in her chair and ponders her past, recognizing a pattern that's emerged over her lifetime: toxic friends. "I hold onto [these relationships] probably past the point that I need to," she admits. When it comes to Lauren, the reason she hasn't broken ties comes down to history. "We've seen each other through so many things," she says. "It's a need to hold onto the past. And she has redeeming qualities. She's not a totally crazy person. She can be kind."