8 Subtle Hints That a Friendship Is Toxic, Say Experts
That pit in your stomach every time you spend time with a certain someone might suggest you're dealing with a toxic friend. An expert identifies the "hallmark" symptom.
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Friendships aren’t just fun; they’re also a powerful source of stress relief (and potentially a longer life). A March 2023 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggested that healthy social relationships can impact our blood pressure and heart health. This supported a widely cited 2007 study which concluded that those who experienced high negativity in close relationships were at a greater risk of developing and dying from heart problems.
On the flip-side, a longitudinal Harvard University study found that healthy relationships were the single biggest contributor to health and longevity.
Unfortunately, most of us are aware that not all friendships are the same. According to experts, some friends can end up doing you more harm than good. “A toxic friend will claim to be your friend—and maybe they really believe that they are—but they are simultaneously doing things that are harmful to the friendship and to you and your well-being,” explains Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, a psychotherapist with Choosing Therapy.
Keep reading, then come back and take this 2-minute quiz Gillis and other psychology experts helped us develop to help you narrow in on whether you’re dealing with a toxic friendship.
4 major signs of a toxic friend
Gillis says the word “toxic” is pretty overused today. “Many people will call someone ‘toxic’ just because they do not get along with the person, but this is an untrue—and even unfair—use of the word to describe a simple personality conflict.” The hallmark of a toxic relationship is that one person is being emotionally or psychologically taken advantage of or even harmed, she says.
It’s also important to remember that some amount of conflict is normal and expected in any relationship, adds Kate Nichols, LCSW, a psychotherapist practicing in New York and New Jersey. “A friendship may have turned toxic if there is a consistent and ongoing pattern of [conflict] causing you chronic, repeated stress without resolution, draining you more than energizing you, and if there is a general lack of accountability or reciprocity coming from the friend.”
Toxic friend red flags
There are some big red flags when it comes to toxic friends, like if they talk behind your back or if it feels like you’re always the one who’s giving. Still, a big way to tell if a friend is toxic is if they’re constantly disrespecting your boundaries.
Not all people who disrespect boundaries are toxic—sometimes, it’s just a lack of understanding, communication, or awareness. “However, there is a difference between someone who violates a boundary unintentionally, versus someone who does it maliciously, or because they just don’t care,” Gillis says.
Just a few example scenarios, if they:
Try to get you to talk about a personal situation or belief after you’ve asked them to stop
Try to guilt you into staying out late, though you’ve made it clear you to get up early
Pressure you to attend a party in spite of your social anxiety
Ask for money or to borrow items when you’ve expressed you’re uncomfortable with it
Keep reading—the experts offer more subtle signs you may be dealing with a toxic friend.
Subtle signs of a toxic friend
1. You feel stressed after you see them
If you have physical signs of stress after being with them, that’s a bad sign, says Joyce Marter, LCPC, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life. “This might include headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, and sleep or appetite disturbances.”
2. You cringe when they reach out
A healthy friendship shouldn’t trigger a sense of dread when you see their name pop up on your phone. But if you’re in a toxic friendship, you might “have a visceral physical response of putting up walls and defenses, or you cycle through guilt and anxiety about choosing to respond or not respond,” Marter says.
3. They don’t respect your time
Marter says toxic friends are entitled and expect you to drop everything to be there for them at the drop of a hat if they are in need. They may call at odd times and get annoyed if you don’t offer an immediate or adequate response. They may be chronically late, or even ghost you if you have plans.
4. They don’t take responsibility for their actions
A toxic friend often refuses to take responsibility for their actions or apologize for their mistakes. “Instead, they may blame others or make excuses for their behavior and may not take any steps to improve their actions or make amends,” Martin says. “This behavior can be a sign of a lack of accountability and respect for others.”
5. They’re possessive
A toxic friend may try to control your time and get jealous or upset if you spend time with others, Martin says. This could result in guilt-tripping or gaslighting to make you question your relationships with others—so that you’ll be more dependent on them.
6. They love-bomb you
Behaviors like excessive gift giving or love-bombing—lavishing someone with excessive affection—may be seen as generous, a form of admiration, but turn toxic when it comes from a place of manipulation (which is usually subtle). “[They] may just be doing it to ensure that you never leave them,” explains Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW. “When you try to leave the friendship, they may try to guilt you by holding the gifts they have given you over the years.”
7. They’re passive-aggressive
Let’s say you’re planning to get dinner with your friend, and you tell them you can meet somewhere local because you need to be up early. They suggest somewhere further away, and you reiterate what you’re able to do. “But when you see them, they say, ‘Well, the princess who can’t travel too far is here,'” Nichols says. “A pattern of communication like this is a sign that there is discord in the relationship that is going unresolved.”
8. You feel anxious communicating with them
“It’s possible that we feel worried when we communicate with a friend because of our own fears around setting boundaries,” Nichols says—so it’s important not to take nervousness as a sign that the friendship is toxic. “However,” she adds, “if you do communicate clearly about what you want and need and they always try to change your mind or convince you to do what they want instead, it makes sense you’d feel anxious whenever you talk to them, and a sign that this friendship may be hurting you more than helping you.” Don’t forget to scroll up and take our short toxic friendship quiz.
Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, a psychotherapist with Choosing Therapy
Kate Nichols, LCSW, a psychotherapist practicing in New York and New Jersey
Joyce Marter, LCPC, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life
Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW
Social Psychological and Personality Science: "The Good, the Bad, and the Variable: Examining Stress and Blood Pressure Responses to Close Relationships"
Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review"