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Why do we find it so hard to let go of toxic friendships?

The schoolmates who make you feel uncomfortable. The colleagues who take credit for everything you do. Growing out of old relationships is completely normal, says Viv Groskop, but why do we find it so hard?  

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By Viv Groskop on

Since we launched the Dear Viv podcast at The Pool three years ago, we’ve received hundreds of emails and letters from listeners on many different topics. Every problem is different and individual, and some of them are completely unique. Such as the woman who was thinking of embarking on an affair several weeks before her wedding day. I often think about her and hope that she took my advice to keep her pants on.

But there is one subject that comes up all the time and does not require anyone taking their pants on or off. Since we relaunched the podcast as a weekly this month, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s the one single topic we get the most number of letters about on Dear Viv: the tricky matter of toxic friendships.

This seems to show up as a problem in different ways at different times in women’s lives. It could be mum friends who suddenly seem really judgemental about how you’re raising your kids. Or school friends who make you feel uncomfortable because you’ve outgrown them. Or work friends who take credit for everything you do.

Whatever the situation, there seems an extraordinary amount of angst about how to gracefully let go of friendships that are not serving us. We are scared of being seen as mean and bitchy. And I think we often worry that by wanting to spend less time around people who don’t make us feel great that we *are* somehow mean and bitchy. But it’s not mean. It’s just self-preservation.

I sometimes think that people are hanging on to old friends who make them feel terrible about themselves out of habit 

I don’t use the overused expression “toxic friendship” lightly. It reflects the anxiety and pain that is often evident in the letters we get. If you have a friend whose giggling annoys you a bit or who has bought the same handbag as you, you’re not going to write in to an agony aunt about it. The people who are writing in about their friendship difficulties take them extremely seriously because the situation is destroying their happiness. A friendship that used to make them feel understood, special and less alone now makes them feel miserable. That is what I mean by toxic. (Long-term, repeated same-handbag-buying could also go into this category.)

From the outside, it’s easy to see that certain friendships worked simply because of the context. You were both new parents. You were both single and liked going out late and partying. You bonded because you were surviving a tough work environment. Once life changes and our interests and priorities change, it’s not surprising that there’s a shift in the friendship. Yes, that is hard to deal with and often very difficult (and ill-advised) to voice. But it is just part of life and it’s completely normal.

The only way to get over a friendship that is making you feel unhappy is to acknowledge how you really feel. Often the question behind the emails is this: “What’s wrong with me? Why has this suddenly gone wrong?” There is nothing wrong with you. You may never know why exactly it has gone wrong. But you need to acknowledge the change and do whatever you need to do to move on while causing as little hurt as possible to everyone involved. Sometimes this means a subtle withdrawing. Sometimes it means a clear-cut conversation. Often just realising and accepting that this friendship has had its day and there’s no point over-analysing it… Well, that’s enough.

I sometimes think that people are hanging on to old friends who make them feel terrible about themselves out of habit and because they are scared to make new friends. But letting go of one way of thinking and behaving inevitably lets in new stuff and new people. And that can be a good thing. Especially when they can see your life afresh and advise you, for example, not to take a lover just before your wedding. Come on, we all need that friend...


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