Toxic dynamics are not reserved for romantic or sexual partnerships. Any relationship that you have with another person can be healthy: a source of positivity and mutual empowerment. Any relationship can also then be unhealthy: emotionally abusive. It can sometimes be harder to recognize emotional abuse when it comes from friends rather than family or partners. It’s talked about less, and some friendship dynamics that can be healthy if all parties in on the joke — ie. teasing, name-calling, “good-natured” disrespect — aren’t always experienced the same by each individual.
It can also sometimes be harder to call out your friends. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re just being “overly sensitive,” that the dynamic simply takes the shape of disrespect and you should remind yourself that there’s real love beneath it, that they “don’t mean it that way.” Yet when you imagine that sort of rhetoric applied to a romantic or familial partnership, it may become clearer that no one should have to talk themselves into feeling loved and respected.
You don’t have to make excuses for your friends. You’re not taking it too seriously — your experiences are valid. It’s not that you can’t take a joke, or that you can’t appreciate that they’re well-meaning. You deserve to be treated with respect. Partnerships take work on both sides, and no one in your life is allowed to take you for granted.
Here are a few signs to look out for. If these sound familiar, it is time to think about what this person brings into your life. It may be time to reach out, or get help.
1. They don’t respect you.
They disrespect some or many aspects of you. They disrespect your appearance, your choices, your preferences, your goals, your interests, or your values. Your friends don’t need to share everything about you, but if they are part of your life, they need to recognize where you’re coming from and find a way to respect it.
You may also find that they don’t value your time, this can be displayed by them constantly being late or shifting plans. They invite you over and ignore you, or disrespect you in front of others. They tease or condescend, even though it’s clear you don’t find it funny. They don’t stand up for you, or support you. They don’t take a genuine interest in your life or your experiences.
They may gaslight when you try to communicate your hurt, responding with “lighten up,” “don’t take it so seriously,” “you know I didn’t mean it that way,” and thus not only dismissing your valid pain, but refusing to take responsibility and passing the blame onto you. They are more concerned with their comfort than your well-being, and they don’t make an effort to make you feel valued within the friendship.
2. You don’t feel safe being honest with them.
If you do want to speak out about your dynamics, you don’t feel safe. You feel like it might make it worse — you’re concerned that trying to speak honestly will motivate further victim blaming or gaslighting, and you can’t imagine it will be productive. You feel like they won’t take you seriously, or they won’t make an effort to understand. You fear it will leave you feeling worse, that you will have to make it up to them. You refrain to protect yourself.
You might feel that the repercussions would hurt your friend: send them on a spiral of guilt, shame, or anger that then still re-centers the conflict on them and further dismisses you. They may behave so insulted that you would “accuse” them of being hurtful or abusive that you may end up reassuring them. You refrain to protect their feelings, because you still do care about your friend — but also because you don’t want to end up taking care of them over something they’ve done.
3. They don’t listen to you.
You feel ignored or dismissed. You don’t feel like anything you say gets through to them, or at least not when it matters. Your perspective doesn’t matter to them. They may ask for it, but they don’t adjust or take it into consideration. If you don’t feel like they really listen to you, how can you feel comfortable communicating what you need? A healthy dynamic can’t exist if you don’t feel seen or heard.
4. You don’t trust them.
Maybe they’ve promised before. Maybe they’ve joked about it, taken you almost seriously, reassured you that they’re working on it, and you know they’d never mean for your friendship to become a source of trauma. Yet no real efforts are made; they never speak to you about how to address your needs, or how to better communicate their own. You can’t trust what they promise you.
Perhaps you also simply know that they are untrustworthy. You’ve recognized that they lie to others, but you imagined they’d always be truthful to you. Still, you might not feel safe sharing secrets with them, or personal matters. You may be concerned they’ll betray you, talk behind your back, or use what you’ve shared for their own gain. Any partnership must be built on trust. In order to have an environment of openness and communication, if they prove themselves untrustworthy, you have a right to be concerned.
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5. They need you for everything.
This can manifest in many ways. They’re always asking for your advice, they text you for everything, they expect you to constantly be available for them. While it is important to make space for your friends, even when it’s not easy, emotionally abusive dynamics can take the shape of demanding your energy — without ever giving back. They may never seem to actually listen or take your advice. They used you as an emotional crutch with no true appreciation, reciprocity, or awareness, and this drains your own mental capabilities. They may even guilt or gaslight you into believing you’re a bad friend if you don’t give them everything, when in fact, they are disrespecting your needs.
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6. It feels one-sided.
One way or another, an uneven power dynamic can be toxic. They may over-rely on you, and force you to overextend yourself. They may push you to follow their goals, or to share their values. They may be over-competitive instead of collaborative, working to dominate or best you instead of working to succeed alongside you. They may disrespect you and expect you to perceive their behavior as love. You don’t feel comfortable communicating, because the ball is in their court, one way or the other.
You might be terrified you’ll lose them.
Emotionally abusive relationships of any kind can be extremely hard to walk away from, because often, ultimately, you’re still here because you care about them — or you cared about a partnership, that maybe no longer exists the way you want it to. You don’t want to confront your pain, because they’re supposed to be your friend, your ally, and you just want things to be okay, you don’t want to lose them.
It might still feel wonderful when things are going well. It can be hard because toxic relationships don’t always feel toxic all the time, even when they are. There can be moments that make you feel like it’s all worth it in the end.
It can be so hard. No partnership is easy, and sometimes it’s a challenge to recognize when what looks like a rough patch reveals itself to be abuse.
Can you be yourself when you are with them?
Do you feel valued? Can you embrace radical self-love and be unapologetically you around them? Is their presence in your life a source of love and light, a place of solace and support?
Or do they make it hard for you to love yourself?
You deserve to surround yourself with people who recognize the radical beauty and power in all of your complexities. You deserve to surround yourself with people who lift you up, who stand beside you. You deserve friends who brighten and strengthen, who laugh with you, not at you, and who are willing to work at a healthy dynamic.
It’s not always easy to find these people — especially when you are in a transition period, or when you have to work long hours to get by, or when you don’t speak your country’s language fluently, or when you have a mental illness that attaches anxiety or pain to social interaction. But no matter who you are, it is important to recognize these abusive dynamics, and that you deserve better.
In some cases, if you feel safe, you can try to communicate to your friend, perhaps with others on your side. Let them know that you want your friendship to be a source of positivity and empowerment, and that you are willing to work at it if they are.
In other cases, walk away. Seek out support from other sources if safety is an issue. It may be painful. Victims can harbor deep attachment to their abusers for many reasons, and if they had been a significant part of your life, their absence may not be insignificant. If the friend is very close to you, and their toxic dynamics shaped a part of how you saw yourself, it may take quite some time for you to remember and rebuild who you are outside of their abuse.
You can do it. You deserve more. You deserve love, light, and understanding from every partnership in your life. You deserve to surround yourself with people who encourage you to see and be the best in yourself.
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