The Friend EditJul 13, 2022
Midlife is a time when some people want to do a friend edit. After years of hanging out with school or sport mom friends or work friends (some of whom are quite toxic), we can finally be more discerning and choose our friends. I often encourage clients to do a "friend edit" to determine what relationships are worth keeping, what ones are worth mending, and what ones require a break-up.
1. What are some of the signs of an unhealthy friendship?
The clearest sign of an unhealthy friendship is when you feel bad after spending time with that person. Do you feel exhausted or depleted or have a less positive view of yourself or the world after spending time with your friend? That’s a sign that the friendship may be toxic. A good friend should uplift you, cheering on your victories and supporting you through the hard times. The relationship should feel balanced, with give and take from each of you in terms of conversation and support. If you realize that your friend spends your entire time together bragging or complaining and never seems interested in you, that’s not healthy.
2. Why do some of us stay in unhealthy friendships longer than we should?
There are a couple of reasons people stay in unhealthy friendships. A lot of us are people pleasers and have come to believe that we have to give more support than we receive, so we put up with one-sided friendships.
There is also an undue emphasis in society on the longevity of relationships even if they are not healthy. Often, clients believe they cannot end the unhealthy relationship since they've "been friends for 20 years.” Many toxic friendships are ones that were formed situationally - someone from work, the gym, or a parent group - and that toxic dynamic has always been present. When the situation changes through job loss, empty-nesting, or a pandemic - the foundation of the friendship disappears and the toxicity becomes more obvious. A lot of people are reevaluating their friendships post-COVID lockdown since they realized they were much happier when they weren’t permitted to see certain friends.
3. At what point should you "breakup" with a friend?
No friendship is perfect, we all have bad days, and it’s healthy to extend our friends grace. That being said, there are few things that are pretty clear grounds for ending the friendship: lack of kindness, disrespect, and betrayal. If your friend is badmouthing you behind your back, they are not a good friend (a big clue they are doing this is that they badmouth their other so-called friends to you.) If the friend plays on your insecurities and vulnerabilities, they are not a good friend. If your friend takes advantage of you financially or otherwise, they are not a good friend. Most importantly, if your friend violates clear boundaries (spilling a major secret or running off with your spouse), they are not a good friend. Tolerating bad behaviour from a friend will erode your self-respect and confidence over time, and can even have an impact on your health. You don’t have to have a dramatic end to the relationship but I recommend that you be busy with other things the next time they want to make plans.
4. What advice would you give someone who is ready to end a friendship?
Before severing ties, I’d invite them to explore whether the friendship is the problem or the friend. Often friendships are challenged when one friend is going through something the other friend hasn’t been through and cannot truly understand. If your friend seems insensitive but has been a good friend in the past, you can always put the friendship on pause and surround yourself with more supportive people during this time. Often these friendships can be salvaged.
If the problem is with the friend rather than the friendship, but you have hope things can change, it's worth having an honest conversation to address any issues and establish new boundaries. If your friend is willing to listen and take action, the friendship can be salvaged and even strengthened.
If you have simply outgrown a friendship and feel the need to break up, you can be honest while still being kind. You can say that your life is changing and you are very busy with other things but perhaps you can plan for an annual lunch.
If the person is toxic and you are truly over being treated badly, you can give yourself permission to disengage as much as possible. If they are still part of your work or community, I recommend Bill Eddy’s BIFF communication technique for dealing with toxic people: be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (BIFF) You can say, "Thank you for the invitation but I cannot make your birthday party.” You don’t owe them any further explanation.
However you end things, don’t draw others into the situation. If people ask why you and Sally don’t go for lunch anymore, just tell them that you both got busy with other things. That keeps things as peaceful and drama-free as possible.
5. Is there any instance where ghosting the other person is appropriate?
If your former friend has repeatedly crossed your boundaries in the past, ghosting can be the best course of action. With toxic people, no contact is often the only way to break the cycle of them trying to draw you back in for further mistreatment. When the former friend is no longer able to feed off of your energy - positive or negative - they will likely seek out someone else to befriend.
6. How do I find new friends?
Finding friends in midlife isn’t as easy as it is when you or your kids are in school and there is a ready-made community. The good news is that when you put some extra effort into finding friendships, you are more likely to connect with like-minded folks who make you feel seen and supported. Online communities are a great place to start if there are members who lie in your area. Meetups can be good and help you connect with people who share your interests. If you involve yourself in whatever you are interested in - be it an ultimate frisbee group or campaigning for prison reform - you will find other people like yourself. Remember, we are all hard-wired to be social. Your future bestie is looking to connect with you too!
Midlife is a time when we look at our lives to see what is working and what isn’t. If you think you might be in need of a midlife edit to create more purpose in your life, you can grab the free workbook.