Signs of a Toxic Friendship
Friendships are supposed to be life-giving, but what happens when they are not? In today's podcast, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff discuss how to identify and deal with toxic friendships.
Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another podcast from the Art of Relationship. I'm Chris Grace.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm Tim Muehlhoff.
Chris Grace: We're coming to you from Biola University. It's a wonderful sunny day out here. We get to sit here in places like this and talk about the coolest topics. One is friendship.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.
Chris Grace: We've been doing that for a little while now. This topic has a whole lot of interest from listeners out there. They've written many questions in, and we get this all the time in courses that we teach on relationships and different ways that people are navigating. The field of friendships comes into play with so many people. We're going to talk about it today.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's because friendships make life easier. They can make life hard. They can make it easier. I remember graduating from Eastern Michigan University. There were five of us. You know, a crazy thing happens once you graduate. You're unemployed. Every one of us had to get these crummy jobs. I mean one guy would walk around with that sign that said, "You can sell your textbooks back at this certain time and date." I worked at a car delivery auto place, which is the worst. You couldn't pick a job worse for me. I know nothing about cars, and I'm a directional illiterate.
By the way, we lived in an apartment that got condemned by the City of Ypsilanti. A guy shows up one day, the city commissioner, knocks on the door and says, "Guys, you got 10 days. You got to be out. You can't live here. This is horrible. It's unsafe." You know what? We had a blast. Why? Because we laughed. We would kid each other about our jobs. Friendships can make really hard situations really bearable and even enjoyable. That's why I think people are so interested in friendships. You can't do life by yourself. You need that support system.
Chris Grace: Yes, that's good. Well, let's talk about then, I think one question that comes up a lot is what makes for a good friendship? What's a high-quality friendship? What are the signs and characteristics because I think people always want to grow and do better and challenge themselves? They just want to know, "Am I a good friend?" Then, another question similar to that, that opposite side of that coin is the side of, "Is this friendship that I'm in toxic? Is this normal? Is it normal for me to feel these things? When do I need to really seriously consider this friendship? Is it toxic to me?" Let's tackle those things.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, and let's do the toxic one first.
Chris Grace: Okay.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let's take a look at that. I think as we talk about the toxic nature, we're going to see what a good friendship is. Yes, let's do toxic. Here are some things I wrote about you, Chris. I actually have an acronym, you know? All right, the very first one, a toxic nature of a friendship is that person takes, and you're the one who always gives.
Chris Grace: Yes, yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: There's actually a theory we have in a personal communication theory called social exchange theory, which means there has to be a sense of equality about this. There has to be a sense where, "Okay, I feel like man, I'm doing 70% of this whole friendship. You're doing 30. I'm doing 80. You're doing 20." Now, there are seasons of life in a friendship where one person's down, and you have to pick that person up. It does seem like you're giving more because this person's in a tough spot. Generally speaking, a big flow of a relationship is we feel like we're doing, we're investing the same amount of time and energy.
Chris Grace: Yes, I think that there are always seasons in a person's life in which, as you said, it takes. You need a little bit more, right? You need to have somebody invest in you. That's just normal. That's just give and take, but I think you're right, Tim. In a toxic relationship, the other person is always ready and needing to have somebody else invest in them. It's always about their dreams, right, or their view or their passions or their hopes, you know? Those kinds of things, or their concerns or their pains or their worries. That becomes very one-sided. After a while, you walk away from an interaction with this friend, thinking, "I'm not even sure they have any idea my heart, who I am, where I am at, what I have been experiencing over the last number of days and weeks," simply because it's so self-focused on them. I think that's a great, yes, unfortunate side.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's a great point. Oh, Chris, that's a great point. Hey, do you have? I literally can take some of my friends and break them into different categories. As we're talking about this, it's me think about this. There are some friends, if I don't call them, we're not going to have a conversation, if I don't shoot out the e-mail. Now, when I do, it's great. When I call, it's like, "Oh, hey. Thanks so much for calling," but that's a weird place where you feel like, "Man, I'm always the one that's pursuing. I'm the initiator. I have other friends who call unexpectedly." It feels much more give and take, so what do you make of it? I would say we're friends with these individuals, but I do feel like I'm the initiator in the friendship. Is that always bad?
Chris Grace: I don't know. I think there's a difference between some of ... The difference between a toxic friendship, I guess, would be one in which they're always initiating, but it's always about, they need to talk about some things that are related to them. They're always needing to vent, or they're always wanting to have you be the listening ear. That would say somebody could initiate regularly, but it's not necessarily healthy or good for you versus the friend who does care about you who may not initiate as much.
It's an interesting question, and I think maybe for some of us, we have to navigate those in our own relationships where we find that we will initiate with some people, but we might be more of the passive on the other side and still like the friendship as much. Yes, it really is an interesting dynamic, right, where you play this role in somebody's life that's really important, and they may not know that because you never call them, and yet, they seek you out and want to hear and want to talk with you. It just turns out that you tend to more the initiating. That's a weird place. That maybe requires a conversation with somebody.
Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's the key, is have a conversation about the friendship and to say, "Hey, I greatly enjoy this, but I do feel like, you know, it would be great to get a call every once in a while. It would be great to shoot off an e-mail or a text or something like that." I like what you're saying. The toxicity is that let's say you do initiate with a person, and then quickly, the whole conversation is about that person, their family, their needs, their career. You never get a word in edgewise.
Chris Grace: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.
Chris Grace: That's good.
Tim Muehlhoff: All right, that's good. That was the first one. They take, and you always find that you're the one giving.
Chris Grace: Yes, yes. Here's another one. Let's try this. How about your friend must always be right? That is the idea that there is always this sense that there isn't an error or they haven't thought about things incorrectly, or they see things in a way. I think a toxic friendship would be somebody who is always taking or always correcting a situation. They're in an argument with somebody else or in a conflict or something that happened, but they're always good. The other person is always bad. That, sometimes, even involves the friendship, what they understand and hear.
Tim Muehlhoff: Chris, like in our friendship, what if I am always right? I mean what if?
Chris Grace: It would be a different world. It would be called non-reality, so it's like ...
Tim Muehlhoff: No, but I like what you're saying because we have, you and I have spirited debates. We have friends. We love to get into with politics, sports, theology, but if there's never any yielding, if there's never any hate, that was a good point. Then, you start to feel like, "Man, I'm talking to a brick wall. This person always demands to have the last word and always be right."
Chris Grace: Yes, and I think that's exactly something to watch for in our relationship, in which you start to feel like this is happening. You might want to think about your role and argue also, in some ways, contributing to that. Are you always needing to be right or to be heard? I think, Tim, that's interesting. You and I, like you said, we have spirited debates. We're both sports fans, and so we have strong opinions about certain teams, but I also notice at times, you will say something like, "You know, I could be wrong be here," or "I may not be right here," and I think that's always fun. We can then play off of that and say, "I know you have strong feelings about that, be willing to admit that maybe I just don't always have this right. I might be saying it wrong. Maybe ..."
Then, that's where a little bit of humility comes in and saying with a friend who says, "You know, could you maybe help me? Maybe I'm not seeing this relationship or this conflict or this situation correctly that I have with somebody else." A good friend would say, "What do you think? Am I okay with this? Have I done this right? Did I see this the wrong way?"
Tim Muehlhoff: I have a friend, sophomore year in college, we met with Campus Crusade for Christ. We've been friends since sophomore year, which is just amazing to think about. He was the best man at my wedding. He is very staunchly with theological opinion, and I am the polar opposite. We've had this discussion, my goodness, for how many years. 30 years? It's not that we're ever going to convince each other. We're not going to switch camps, but there are moments where you go, "Okay. That was a good point. I need to think about it." If those moments never come, then that's a frustrating relationship. What's happening there, a sense of pride or, or right?
Chris Grace: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, that's a great point.
Chris Grace: Here's another one. I think a toxic friendship is one in which there is. They want to keep the friendship all to themselves, or they don't want you to have another friendship. There's a sense of jealousy or even a sense of needing to control the time you spend with others. If you were in a friendship in which the other person is. You're sensing they're trying to control you. They get upset or jealous when you spend time with somebody else. That might be the sign of something going wrong in a friendship.
Tim Muehlhoff: Always assuming while every weekend, of course, we're getting together. We're friends. I'm always going to be the person that you're going to call if you have extra tickets or something like that. Boy, that then narrow friendship. We belong to a group. We belong to a marriage group, a bunch of couples are in it. It's fun to have, see the different friendships form. Sometimes, we go and do stuff as a group. Sometimes, couples can get together individually. Stuff like that. I thought that it was so great just the other night when all of us got together at the restaurant. We, oh, Chris, I'm sorry. I said that.
Chris Grace: We weren't there.
Tim Muehlhoff: That was a little bit awkward.
Chris Grace: Where did you guys go?
Tim Muehlhoff: I know, it was bad. You wouldn't have liked it. You wouldn't have liked it. That's why we didn't ask you. We just, we were being sensitive. We were considering you. No, but that is true, man.
Chris Grace: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: That iron grip on a friendship and insecure that if you go and do something without them that this is; now, you have to have a big conversation about the friendship and, "Aren't we friends," and stuff like that. I think we can have deeper talks. I think sometimes, this mythology about the best friend, "You are my best friend," I think can get us in trouble sometimes. I think the older we get, the more we do lives with people during different seasons. Sometimes, these friendships work long-distance. Sometimes, they don't, but man, to surround yourself with some good friends, I think, is healthy.
Chris Grace: Yes, and so in a non-toxic friendship, there would be that sense that a friend of you, a friend would encourage you to have other friendships, right? They would, rather than to smother, and so I think that toxic place would be if you began to feel smothered or controlled, or you have to hide that you went out and did something else from somebody because their feelings would get hurt, those are the signs that you're probably in a toxic friendship. That idea of too much jealousy or controlling, so what's another one?
Tim Muehlhoff: All right, here's one. These friends bring out the worst in you. Now, that's, that's interesting. I can think of the inverse that I have friends who absolutely bring out the best of us. Friends that are so considerate, remembering our anniversary, doing fun stuff like they, well one time. This was when we were living in North Carolina and life was crazy. We had small kids. We went to a FamilyLife marriage conference. The kids were staying with somebody. We just, you know, you've done this, Chris where you and Alisa are just running out of the house. The house is a mess, and we'll deal with that when we get back. Some friends of ours decided they were going to clean our house, top to bottom, so that when we got back, we'd have a clean house, right? So funny, the difference between me and Noreen, right? Noreen's a little bit horrified. I'm like, that lasted two seconds, like awesome idea. Please get to the garage as well.
They forgot or didn't know that we have an alarm system. They had a key that we had given them and even forgotten about it where they open up. They come in. Now, the alarm's going, and they don't know the code. Now, they're just standing there. Police show up, so now we finally get a phone call from our one friend, and he just says, "Man, I'm really sorry, but I'm standing with some police."
Chris Grace: In your house.
Tim Muehlhoff: In your house, so we got to talk to the police and said, "Please arrest them. We don't know who they are," which is the kind of friendships we would have with people. "Yes, go ahead and fingerprint them, and then, I'll tell you that we're best friends." That's the thing, right, where friends just come in. They step in. They bring out the best in you, so we want to return that, but just like the positive aspect, man, there's a negative aspect, right?
Chris Grace: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Negative humor, you start to share gossip about people because these friends are gossipers. Stuff like that.
Chris Grace: You know, I would say too in that, if you're in a toxic friendship, you'll start to have feelings about as you leave the person or when you're with this friend, if you're beginning to feel more depressed, more pessimistic, if you're going to feel almost like you are, I don't know, like you're a child around them. You're being diminished or taken away from, that's a toxic friendship that has the potential of not just encouraging the best in you but actually pulling out the worst. That's funny how that happens because most likely, you know, this idea, Tim. We talked a little bit about emotional contagions. If you're with somebody who is maybe not happy, who's maybe sad, who's maybe a little bit angry, and they share that or are always are like that with you, pretty soon, this friendship becomes something that is almost a burden and a pain and a difficult situation to be around all the time simply because they don't leave you feeling what you should, live inspired or encouraged or more happy. Instead, you live drained and depleted.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, I remember we had, long time. This was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We had some friends who like, when we just bring up spiritual things, they had this weird comment, which was like, "Wow, I didn't know it was Sunday already, right? It's church already?" They were joking, but that was the constant refrain. Again, we'd talk about spiritual things, but it was always this knee-jerk reaction of like a negative, snarky comment. Noreen would rather be with friends who, "Hey, let's talk about C.S. Lewis, God," which in my mind often is interchangeable. You know what I mean? That was weird. It did put a chill effect on the friendship a little bit.
Chris Grace: Yes, you know you mentioned another one. A sign of a toxic friendship built into that is that this other person might actually be somebody who talks badly about others around you, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
Chris Grace: They're even getting to a point where they are even showing contempt or mocking another person in your presence. Well, that's that emotional contagion that gets shared. Then, you wonder, "Is this person doing this when I'm not around?"
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, about you.
Chris Grace: About me, right.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, man.
Chris Grace: A friend, you're in a toxic, I think, friendship if they're putting down other people with comments or slides laughing at somebody. That, all of a sudden, starts to bring in this concern again. "What is happening when I'm not around?" That's where the doubts come in, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, and that's the communication climate, when that mistrust is there. You know what else is true about that, Chris? We have a good relationship. We laugh a lot. I'm picking up the couples that we hang out with, the male friends we hang out with, and we just laugh. There's this playful banter of kidding each other, joking with each other, but here's where I think there's a line in the relational stand. It's you don't joke about the other person's spouse. You don't joke about their kids, right? We build up our kids. We build up our spouses, so there has to be this clear line. Dude, you can't joke about that, right? Now, we can joke about each other, but there's a line. If that line ever gets crossed, boy, that would be a hard thing.
Chris Grace: Yes, and I think in a friendship, you figure those out pretty quickly. If your friend has a sensitivity to something, let's say maybe something about them, maybe even a physical feature.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, weight issue or hair, lack of hair.
Chris Grace: Right, or if they have some other kinds of thing that you could tell they're really sensitive about, you're going to pretty much realize, "I'm not going to joke about that."
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right, that's right.
Chris Grace: "I'm not going tease this person about that."
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, yes.
Chris Grace: In a toxic friendship, there really is none of that recognition of that boundary of what's out of bounds? What seems to hurt this person, which also points maybe this toxic friendship is when another friendship really doesn't read you very well. They don't read your non-verbal emotions. They don't realize that this is actually hurting, and they just keep plowing through and going over and poking and digging and getting laughs from other people. I wonder if another sign of a toxic friendship is when there's a lot of laughing in a group of people at your expense.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good.
Chris Grace: Right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, yes.
Chris Grace: This toxic friend might, everybody is laughing, and now, they're teasing about something that, let's say, I'm very sensitive about at the time. I felt like I have to laugh because I'm in public. Then, I walk away going, "Gosh, that was really unkind. They keep doing that. I don't like that kind of a friendship."
Tim Muehlhoff: We talk about communication climates here all the time. We can joke with each other, but there has to be this underlining assumption that you respect me. There has to be an underlining assumption that you really do admire me, but that's why we can kid each other. That's why sometimes, you say to a person, "Of course, this was a joke," because I actually feel the opposite. It's because I so respect you that I can kid you about this one area, right?
Chris Grace: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: If that foundation isn't there, then that friendship becomes toxic. You have to know. Man, there is respect and a deep commitment to each other. That's why we can kid each other a little bit.
Chris Grace: I wonder if there's a little bit of times in which a person will need to realize that these go, like sometimes, they could be much more sensitive to something and interpret something more negatively in a situation. It does require a reminder that wait a minute. Like you said, this person does, we do like each other. There is a trust there. This was done in a playful way because playfulness is a huge part of a good relationship.
Tim Muehlhoff: Huge part of it, yes.
Chris Grace: If you can't have that kind of fun in playing, then you probably are in something that isn't going to be good for you. You need to consider, "Am I spending too much time? Is this person not able to even have fun or to play?" Then, maybe there's some negative, negativity that starts to erode this friendship.
Tim Muehlhoff: I just thought of a good example, so we have a friend, a mutual friend who, whenever we say things like, "Hey, man, let's pray about this. We should pray about this." He always says, "Has it come to that," right?
Chris Grace: That's right.
Tim Muehlhoff: We so admire this guy that we're both thinking of. His spirituality that we just know it's a joke because he's the guy that would be the quickest to pray. That's the kind of playful banter that's established on confidence that we so admire you. This is why we can actually make a joke.
Chris Grace: Yes, and I think a toxic friendship would be one in which you see a difference. You have to gauge this, but you probably feel it. It's that difference between appropriate playfulness and fun and something that's a little bit more biting, a little bit more critical, a little bit more belittling. You walk away feeling demeaned. That, that right there is going to point to something that says. You know, even when I had this conversation with this person, they just laugh it off. They don't even acknowledge that this hurt me a little bit. They're just like, "Come on, you need to have more fun. I'm just messing around with you. Everybody has fun like that. That's not that." Again, there's that negativity involved in this kind of thing.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm thinking of just last night. Do you ever watch American Ninja Warrior?
Chris Grace: No.
Tim Muehlhoff: No. It's this obstacle course thing that people do. One of it is called the inclined wall. It's like 14 feet high.
Chris Grace: Oh, yes. Actually, I've seen it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, yes, yes.
Chris Grace: Okay, I get it.
Tim Muehlhoff: We're watching it last night, me and my wife and my oldest son. I'm just laying there, and I go, "You know, you think I could do the incline wall?" Noreen, not even missing a beat goes, "No." I just turned and looked at her. I said, "My rock, my foundation." I said, "Mike?" He goes, "No way, Dad." I'm like, "Oh my gosh. I thought I could go on, conquer the world." Now, the only reason that's funny is because Noreen is my rock. And Michael is encouraging in so many other ways. That's where the humor part comes in, but if you even start to think, "They think I'm a doofus." Then, it starts to erode. It is that fine line, boy, but yes, toxic relationships, you walk out feeling worse about yourself, right? Man, that's a tough place to be.
Chris Grace: It is. How about another one? How about in the area of honesty, you know, or a little bit maybe deceit? Your friend, you're in a place in which it's related to the trustworthiness, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.
Chris Grace: Maybe they're even. You sense or find out in this friendship that the person is not really; it might be even be hidden from them, but they also seem to have that borderline quality of, "I'm not sure I can trust what you're saying. It doesn't seem to be honest here." It could very well be that that person is always trying to show their best side, never showing their bad side. They're always trying to maybe cover up something that they're not good at, but it almost borders into the area of untruth.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. With our friends, you have to have people that you've, I believe you're shooting straight with me. I believe that you are going to tell me the truth right now. That's hard.
Chris Grace: It is, yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: I have a good friend of mine. You know him. His name is Tim Downs. He's an accomplished author. He's won a bazillion awards, so annoying. I will give him my writing every once in a while. I'll send him a chapter, and he'll say to me, "Hey, what do you want from me right now?" My joke is, "I want unabashed praise." He'll say, "Oh, loved it. Best thing I've ever read." I said, "Okay. Tell me what you really think." Then, he's a friend that will tell me, "Hey, I don't think this was your best. I think this could have been, I was confused here," right? Now, that takes time to develop that kind of trust.
Chris Grace: It does.
Tim Muehlhoff: I think a toxic relationship is a person who tells you the truth without any packaging of the truth. They are harsh in their critique. Again, I know Tim is committed to me. We've known each other. Oh my gosh, we've known each other 30 years. But a toxic friendship is, "Well, I'm just speaking the truth. Isn't that what friends do?" Yes, but man, soften it a little bit. You know what I mean?
Chris Grace: Yes. Now, this is good. Well, there's a sense in which toxic friendships become this question that we have, especially when we walk away from something, again, feeling more drained, feeling tired, feeling like, "Oh, no. I have to interact with this person."
Tim Muehlhoff: You literally could inverse that list.
Chris Grace: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: You literally can do the opposite, and that would be a positive friendship.
Chris Grace: Well, let's do that next. What do you think?
Tim Muehlhoff: That sounds great.
Chris Grace: Let's have another podcast on what is a high-quality good friendship? What are signs that you are in a place where you ought to be and a friendship that you want to be encouraged in and you want to continue growing? Let's do that.
Tim Muehlhoff: I think this is the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. Name the movie. Name the movie.
Chris Grace: I have no idea.
Tim Muehlhoff: Casablanca.
Chris Grace: Oh, yes, there you go.
Tim Muehlhoff: Not that we promote gambling on this podcast.
Chris Grace: Well, Tim, it's been fun as always.
Tim Muehlhoff: No one topped that. Virtually no one.
Chris Grace: There's nobody laughing right now.
Tim Muehlhoff: I know. I am. Thank you for laughing with me. It's been fun doing this. Let's continue on. Hey, if you want more information, go to our website, cmr.biola.edu. Check out all of the different things we have. There are other blogs and podcasts, videos and things like that and events we're putting on throughout. It was good visiting with you, and we'll talk to you next time.
Chris Grace: Take care.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.