Friend or Foe? Hard to Tell in Toxic Relationships


You’re lunching with a Very Good Friend, the one who is more thoughtful, more giving, more wonderful than you will ever be--the one with the uncanny flair for making you feel awful.

Mid-dessert, she says you’ve put on a little weight. Frankly, she’s concerned, but only because you look soooo good otherwise, especially since you started tinting your hair and stopped wearing those silly hats.

Your other friends call her a viper. Your bewildered spouse just shrugs when you go out with her. You always come home thinking, “With friends like that, who needs . . . .”


But she’s human quicksand and you’re in too far to get out of the grip of . . . Toxic Friendship.

As Othello said of Iago, the wheedling friend who urged him to do in his wife:

Why has that demi-devil ensnared my soul and body?

Why, indeed.

Behaviorists say the answer is as complex as friendship itself.

You love your toxic friends and hate them over the same shrimp Louie. They know what buttons to push, and you can’t seem to stop them. Stay friends, and it only gets worse. And one day you learn: You are more than half the problem.

“Our tendency is to say, ‘Oh! My toxic friend is driving me crazy,’ ” says Philadelphia psychologist Judith Sills, whose book, “Excess Baggage,” analyzes blind spots that lead people into bad situations. “But in truth, it’s the interaction that’s toxic.”

Toxic friendships tend to happen to women more often than to men, experts say, becausewomen tend to invest more emotionally, more intimately in friends.

As with love relationships, people usually have room in their lives for only one toxic friend at a time. As with sour marriages, they tend to hang on, dig in and rationalize that the good things outweigh the bad.


It starts so innocently.

“Every major relationship begins with something we need from another person,” says Long Island psychologist Linda Sapadin, an expert on friendship.

It feels like a perfect fit. Your pal is strong, self-possessed, fun--and laughs at your jokes.


“She was attractive, artistic, interesting. She came on like gangbusters,” says a suburban Memphis college instructor whose toxic friend, an artist, offered to help redecorate her house.

Soon came the thoughtful little presents, cards, home-baked cookies, calls about what was going on this weekend and the next and the next.

“She wanted me to know how wonderful she thought I was,” says the Memphis woman. “She created all these little obligations. All of a sudden, it was like I should be eternally grateful. If I didn’t let her know exactly what I was doing all the time, she was offended.”

The Very Good Friend started insinuating herself.

“She physically oozed into my living room with her wonderful drapes and flowers. She oozed over every part of my life. With her, there were no limits.”


In hindsight, you see the initial attraction was more than an invitation to intimacy; it was a hook.

And now you’re stuck. You’re ensnared, body and soul. “You forget one birthday, she spends her life in a Hallmark store, and she never lets you forget it,” says Sills. “She digs in, you take it.”

It’s the you-take-it part that finally turns things toxic.

“We know a lot about our friend needing to be more saintly, to make better orange juice,” says Sills. “We know less about our own need to buy into it.”

Indeed, the propensity to form toxic friendships usually means we’re acting out some destructive pattern from the past, behaviorists say.

“This is especially true in relationships that are more emotionally charged,” says Joel Block, a Dix Hills, N.Y., psychologist and author of two books on friendship.

And we manage to cross paths with someone else whose own destructive pattern activates the poison in ours. Says Block: “You manage to bring out the worst in each other.”


The result can be a powerful, familiar dynamic. Somehow it all seems to fit.

With wits intact, you’d say: “Yes, you are right! I am fatter, you are more wonderful, your spaghetti sauce does put my pathetic canned pork and beans to shame--how do you do it?”

But in your Very Good Friend’s company, wits vanish.

“I end up going along with everything she says, just so I won’t make her mad,” says a 36-year-old Bay Area TV producer whose toxic friend is a holdover from their get-high-and-forget-it days.

By now, to be against her is to risk being vulnerable to all the things she knows about you, your life, your family. But to be with her is to invite her to ooze.

“She started inviting my other closest friends to dinner, almost as if she wanted to neutralize them,” says a 44-year-old San Francisco lawyer whose friend trades heart secrets, then stores information to use as ammunition later. “I couldn’t have other friends outside the realm of her control.”

Says a Sonoma County school administrator whose friend feeds on misfortune: “She came into our house after my son’s accident and literally took over our house and our family. She appropriated the whole situation as her personal melodrama.”

As behaviorists are quick to point out, it takes two to be toxic.

Psychologist Sills identifies five general categories of “baggage” that, in certain combinations, tend to cause emotional noxiousness: needing to be right, needing to feel superior, dreading rejection, feeding on drama and cherishing rage.


You might dread rejection, for example, and your friend might need to feel superior. It’s a perfect fit. She buys bigger presents and reminds you of it; you feel bad but smooth over it so she won’t be mad--and everyone is happy. Or at least in her dysfunctional element.

“It’s an emotional hook,” says the TV producer with the former-hippie-days friend. “The hook (my friend) has in me is activating this residual guilt I have about career, affluence, being semi-Establishment. It’s like hanging on to my old definition of self.”

To end or redefine the friendship requires changing your own pattern so the friend no longer hooks you, experts say. Or if you do change and the friend doesn’t change too, the relationship usually ends naturally.

And if you don’t change? You’ll probably end up with another toxic friend before the dust from the first one settles.

“To end it, I’d have to sneak out the back door,” says the lawyer. “With those relationships, you never use the front door. They might see you. Then they’d ask what’s wrong, and you’d feel guilty for hurting them after all they’ve done for you. And you’d end up going over to make them dinner.”