‘He drives me mad!’ Why don’t we dump toxic friends?

Roger and Jim have been best friends for over 30 years. They were friends when they were young and were part of a band. Their friendship was built on a mutual love for beer and music. Despite family commitments on both their sides, they still manage to meet up every few months. Roger says, "Even though it drives me crazy."
Roger is astonished to hear Jim mention toxic friendships. Roger claims that they have "the same conversation" every time they meet because Jim doesn't listen to what he has to say.

Roger, now in his 50s and from the West Midlands has never spoken to Jim about how he feels. It's past the point of politeness, I believe. I would expect a reply that said: "Why didn't your tell me years back that I was getting on your nerves?"

Roger also said that Jim is just one of a handful of old friends. "It's hard for me to believe we wouldn't see each other because there were a few annoyances."

It may seem paradoxical to have a toxic friend. Unlike our families and colleagues who might be required to keep ties, most friendships are voluntary. Julianne Holt–Lunstad, a professor in psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, said that almost everyone has a friend in their social circle they have mixed feelings about. She says, "It seems that some people just have more than others."

Holt-Lunstad started to study these "ambivalent" relationships in order to understand how they impact our health. We knew that positive relationships can have health benefits and that they can also be harmful, so we began to look at the relationships that combine both.

After hanging out, I felt so tired and terrible.

Study participants' interactions were associated with higher stress levels and increased cardiovascular reactivity, according to her findings. The mere thought of them could cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Surprisingly blood pressure also rose more when subjects were surrounded by ambivalent friends, than it was with those they disliked.

Holt-Lunstad says, "It's the mixture of positivity and negativeity." "You don't know what you might get from them. Or it may be that you care about the person. When things turn bad, it hurts even more."

These are the people Bridget Jones compared to jellyfish. Their stinging remarks that you don't see coming, but which stay with you for many days afterwards, are what she called "stinging remarks".

Sophie, a twenty-something Londoner, recalls one such friend. "I would feel so drained after we hung out, which took me a long time to pinpoint why. After we had met, she would tweet about me, saying that red lipstick was something she didn't like during the day.

Sophie would then call out the friend if she was rude or mean.

Sam Owen, a relationship coach and author of Happy Relationships says that backhanded compliments are a sign of a toxic friend. Nonverbal communication can also be a sign of trust breakdown, as it may seem like they are not communicating the same things.

Owen says that the sensations in your body can indicate whether you are attracted to or disatisfied with certain people. For example, if you feel demoralised or tense in their presence, it could be an indicator that they are not on your team.

It begs the question: Why would we continue to invest so heavily in friendships we don't like or that make us feel bad about?

Professor Robin Dunbar of evolutionary psychology at Oxford says that while we can maintain 150 friendships, we don't invest enough time or emotional closeness in them all. His research shows that 60% of social effort is directed to 15 people and 40% to the five most important.

Dunbar says that there is "constant turnover in these groups throughout your life; movement towards or away from this inner circle is just a matter of bonding time. It's a series, where you can stop and assess each stage and decide whether or not to continue.

This means that people are less likely than others to cut off ties with their enemy. Sophie was the one to instigate Sophie and her friend's separation. "I haven’t seen her in years. "She occasionally sends me messages on Instagram, but I ignore them all."

Others might limit the frequency or context with which they see their friend.

Holt-Lunstad expected that there would be some external factors to explain why people have such close ties. For example, if they lived in the same area or had many mutual friends. She was shocked to discover that they were mostly internal. Holt-Lunstad says that they had already made a significant investment in the relationship as a common reason for their decision.

It may be back to school for some people. Dunbar states that close friendships formed between the ages of 15 and 25 are more resilient over time due to the intense bonding. You also have a cultural connection: "You know that you have a long, deep history together of sharing experiences and co-living; you feel an obligation to this old relationship out of respect for it, even if your paths have diverged."

Holt-Lunstad's research revealed that many participants saw it as the right thing. They felt they had to turn the other cheek at rude or inappropriate behavior from their friends - and thus, felt like the bigger person. She says that this was also an indicator of how they saw themselves. "They didn’t want to be the person who couldn’t keep a friendship."

The good times often outweighed the bad. "They would stay because of these other really positive aspects about that person." This is a reminder to the true feeling, sometimes real pain, at center of these uneasy ties.

According to Dr Miriam Kirmayer, a toxic friendship is one that has been disrupted in function or expectation. For example, it could indicate that trust has been lost or that the investment has become unbalanced. Can it be saved?

Kirmayer says, "The heart of all this is self-reflection. So: 'Does it feel like I have a sense about what is bothering you here?' Strong emotions can indicate that one our core values has been violated (for instance, punctuality), but it is not always clear to our friends. "Sharing the reason this is difficult: People are often very open to it, and it can help you find common ground."

Kirmayer suggests that we shift our expectations and focus on the positive contributions our friends make to our lives if that fails to bring about the desired changes. This may mean that you need to set boundaries, such as avoiding certain topics and activities you find problematic. "This is a great way to manage conflict, because we don't give up on the parts that work in a relationship.

Kirmayer continues: "It's easy to recognize someone else's behavior and what they've done that we find upsetting or wrong. It's much harder, obviously, to look inward. This is not to suggest that people should blame themselves. But, it is important to recognize all relationships, even friendships, as dynamic. Our friends are responding in some way to our actions.

This raises a question that Holt-Lunstad discovered in her research. She says it warrants more inquiry. Are those who identify themselves as having ambivalent friends realistic or do they expect all the benefits and few costs from relationships?

Holt-Lunstad said that her work has made her reflect on her own relationships. "I don’t want to be the source for ambivalence for anyone else. It has made me reflect on what kind of friend I am. It's made me think about whether I am supportive or reliable. We cannot change the behavior of others, but we can change ourselves. Always look inward.

Roger and Jim are still friends despite their ambivalence. He says, "I am self-aware enough that I can appreciate that he does things that drive me mad, too." "But maybe they are intentional now."

Names have been changed for case studies