During her first year of college, Lynn thought she found the perfect friend. Someone who was charismatic and bubbly — someone you just wanted to be around.
The two became inseparable. “We did everything together, and her sense of humor always made all-nighters more bearable,” Lynn, now 31, says. Two years into their friendship, however, Lynn — who identifies as a victim of friendship abuse and asked to be identified by her first name — began noticing hints of abusive behavior.
Experts say there’s a difference between a “toxic” friendship and an “abusive” one. “People often confuse the terms, using them interchangeably, but they’re not necessarily the same,” says Shainna Ali, a mental health clinician in Orlando, Fla.
Toxic friends may be inconsiderate, pushy and overly needy, according to Ali. These are the friends whose texts you dread answering because they demand too much of your time. “Toxic friends may make micro-aggressive comments without realizing they’re being hurtful,” Ali says. In abusive friendships, the behavior intensifies.
Lynn says her friend knew she had an eating disorder, but continued making hurtful comments about Lynn’s appearance in front of others. “She’d say things like, ‘Lynn took forever getting ready because she’s too fat to wear her clothes,’ or, ‘I don’t eat sweets, but Lynn loves cookies,’” Lynn recalls.
According to Lynn, her ex-friend didn’t only verbally insult her; she also isolated Lynn from her other friends. Lynn’s friend told her that their sorority sisters hated her — that “she was the only friend I could truly trust,” Lynn says.
Nonprofit organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence offer support and guidance for those in violent domestic partnerships. But there isn’t a similar resource for people in abusive friendships. As a result, some women turn to discussion sites like Reddit for advice and answers, asking questions like: “Is there such a thing as an abusive friendship?” and “How to move past an emotionally abusive friendship?”
This makes sense; friendship abuse is not something that’s openly talked about — nor has it been researched extensively. Tension among girlfriends often gets downplayed and labeled as “drama” when it may be something more serious. And while abuse is associated with romantic partnerships or family relationships, it can also permeate our friendships, psychologists say.
Similar to romantic relationships, abusive friendships often start on a positive note — trust is formed, intimacy ensues. This bond can create a veil of denial, which makes it tricky to tell if a friend’s stinging comments, backstabbing behavior and angry outbursts are toxic or potentially abusive.
Fran Walfish, a relationship psychotherapist in Los Angeles, says people who bully and emotionally abuse others have often been treated poorly themselves. “This type of controlling and judgmental behavior can stem from being harshly judged, blamed or punished as a child,” she says.
Ali adds that some men and women may unconsciously gravitate toward these unhealthy relationships because of past family trauma or abuse.
For example, growing up in a dysfunctional family led Megan — who has also asked to be identified by her first name — to miss the signs of friendship abuse. “My parents divorced when I was in elementary school, and they were manipulative. Because of this, I was overly accommodating in relationships and had difficulty standing up for myself,” she says.
In college, she unknowingly played out this relationship pattern with her now-former best friend, who she alleges emotionally abused her for years. According to Megan, 26, her friend knew about her parents’ divorce, as well as her “strained” relationship with them, and used it against her.
After the two women started a business together, Megan’s friend told her she was incapable of making business decisions “because of her past.” Megan says that, as a people-pleaser, she didn’t feel as though she could challenge the hurtful comments.
Walfish calls this dynamic “repetition compulsion,” a behavioral phenomenon in which people unknowingly replay unresolved family dysfunction in new, adult relationships. “The victim might not recognize their friend’s controlling, smothering or demanding behavior, because it’s similar to the mistreatment they endured in childhood, which makes the behavior feel familiar,” she explains. In other words, for many abused people, suffering seems like a normal part of intimate relationships.
In addition to the verbal sling shots, Megan’s friend also shared confidential information with another staff member at work. “When I asked her to give me a head’s up next time, she said, ‘Why are you making such a big deal out of this? You’re being too sensitive.’ She never apologized for breaking my trust,” Megan says.
According to Megan, while these jabs were hurtful, the friend made it seem like she was being supportive: “‘You just have to trust me,’ she’d say, which made me second guess myself and feel small.”
Abusers often use excessive charm and ingratiating behavior to seduce you into a trusting relationship, says Walfish. Once this bond is established, they prey on insecurities.
Other warning signs of abusive friendships can include harassment, dishonesty and manipulation. Ali adds that physical symptoms may also be present. “If you’re in an abusive friendship, you might notice a pit in your stomach when you disagree with your friend or a wave of anxiety after setting a boundary.”
After many months of walking on eggshells around her friend, Megan started feeling physically ill. She was often fatigued, and her menstrual cycles became irregular.
Abusive friendships can cause depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. And studies show they can be physically damaging, too. A 2014 study found that negative relationships, especially those filled with criticism and arguing, can increase a woman’s risk of developing high blood pressure. Other studies show that negative female friendships can be stressful to the body, causing an uptick in cortisol levels.
Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and author of “Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness,” says if a friend isn’t willing to help you feel safe and supported, especially during tense moments, the friendship cannot deepen. “Healthy relationships cultivate positivity, consistency and vulnerability,” she says. If these things are absent, the friendship may need to be reevaluated.
Though they both had different experiences, Megan and Lynn severed ties with their abusive friends — each in her own way, which highlights that ending these friendships varies for every person. “It’s not a one-step process, and it’s important for women to feel safe,” Ali says.
Megan says that seeking professional guidance “helped me realize that I needed to set stronger boundaries with my friend.”
And once Megan stopped apologizing for her behavior, her friend found a new job. “She placed the blame on me, and said that people didn’t want to work with me, but at least I was free,” Megan says.
Instead of confronting her friend, Lynn backed away slowly by taking longer to respond to her friend’s texts, limiting social interactions and studying at new places on campus.
“I didn’t feel safe telling her that I was ending the friendship. She knew my biggest fears and insecurities and had no qualms about using them against me. Once I was no longer available, she lost interest pretty quickly,” Lynn says.
While the friendship impacted Lynn’s college experience, ending the relationship taught her to trust her intuition.