Time to move on: Letting go of toxic friendships

On Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall, tricky adult friendships, and knowing when and how to move on respectfully.

Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker very recently came to blows on social media, making the comment section of an Instagram post a public demonstration of an allegedly long-lasting feud between the two actors.

Whether you’re on camp Carrie or camp Samantha, the ladies’ spat made me think about adult friendships – those that are a vital life source – and then the toxic kind, and how exactly we’re supposed to work through tired or troubled companionships.

I began to wonder: how do we know when a friendship has reached a stalemate? What are the signposts of a negative relationship, and, when the time has come to move on, how on earth do we begin to unravel ties to set ourselves free?

Realising we have the power to choose our friends can be a grounding revelation for some of us. While we might not have a say about colleagues or clients, sisters or step-parents – as adults, our circle of friends should be a selection of people that add something to our day-to-day. Whether it is through bringing substance or support, in the good times and the bad, our close friends should be the colour in our lives, making the ho-hum exciting, and the unbearable liveable.

For Brisbane-based clinical psychotherapist Natajsa Wagner, adult friendships can be tricky and complex. “At best we have a network of emotionally stable, caring, and supportive friends we spend time with,” she says. “At worst we have some friendships that feel draining, unsupportive or toxic.”

What does a toxic relationship feel like?

A toxic relationship damages our self-esteem and drains our energy, Natajsa explains. It's a friendship "characterised by insecurity, self-centeredness, dominance, and control." Even worse, those of us in a toxic scenario often aren't really aware that we are.

"Sometimes we turn a blind eye to the remarks that cripple our self-esteem, the behaviour that crosses our boundaries, or the controlling actions of those who have entered into a relationship with us with the promise to love us," Natajsa says. 

What are the warning signs?

According to Natajsa, there are three common signposts that your friendship is a little one-sided.

1. You feel like you've lost your sense of self. You have a sense that you might be compromising on who you are and what you stand for in the way of your beliefs, values, or standards. Often this compromise means you’ve overstepped your own personal boundaries in some way. 

You put so much time and energy into your friendship that you've actually lost yourself in the process. When it's all about them with little space for you, it might be time to reconsider the friendship. 

2. Controlling behaviours are present. There is often an attempt to forcibly control or change your behaviour and make it seem wrong. Rather than approaching you in a way which is considered, respectful, and open to hearing what you want to say, you're made to feel wrong or the cause of the problem.

The blame falls squarely on your shoulders for any issues that come up in your friendship, and despite how reasonable you think you are – you start to question your logic. 

3. You’re not feeling happy or fulfilled on a regular basis. If you are experiencing tears and sadness regularly, if you’re not feeling happy, accepted, and cared for and loved in your friendships (probably due to points one and two), it’s time to take a closer look. 

Great friendships hold some of the most joyous and wonderful feelings we can experience. Those feelings shouldn’t be fleeting.

Live and let live: How to move on

"Breakups of the friendship kind can leave you feeling just as devastated as the traditional romantic breakup," says Natajsa. "They’re not always handled well, and often result in one or both parties left feeling hurt and confused."

For Natajsa, there are three possible exit strategies you could follow to find happiness away from a troublesome friendship. 

1. The gradual fade. Change is a part of the natural process of development as we move into adulthood and beyond. If you have a friend you don’t find yourself connecting with due to your significant life changes, lack of similar interests, or other reasons, you may find that mutually you both begin to fade out of each other's lives – and that’s OK.

This doesn’t mean that your paths won’t cross again or that the friendship can’t be rekindled, it’s just at this point in time your energy lies elsewhere.

2. Talk about the issues. If in your friendship you can both talk about the issues that are bothering you and openly communicate from your own experience about what’s causing the hurt, you can often move forward and get beyond what's happened. Being able to go through this process can even deepen and strengthen the friendship.

3. End the friendship formally, with love, care, and respect. When the end of a friendship isn’t mutual, where it might be a surprise for one person, having the opportunity to end the friendship with love, care, and respect might feel like the road less traveled, but if done well can also leave both people at peace.

Often letting someone know the important part they have played in your journey, and how valued their friendship has been, is a good place to start to let them know that you feel like your life is being pulled in a different direction. 

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