Friends. They may well be reckoned the “masterpieces of nature”, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it. They are the co-creators of our memories, the custodians of our secrets, and trusty accomplices in our most regrettable antics. They are a sure port in life’s sudden swells, and when all else falls away they are the ones left standing beside us, popping a cork on a bottle of wine. Friends are the family we choose and, lord knows, we need them oftentimes more than the one we didn’t. We are vulnerable, frightened creatures navigating a complex human existence in a big crazy world. Without our social networks and closest confidants to guard our backs, to look upon our horrors and humiliations with humour, and to share the burdens of life, our capacity in the world is diminished – we are weaker, lesser and, quite simply, sadder. Friendship softens the sharp edges of life’s harshest realities and dials down the foreboding of its inevitable end. We’re all going to die, but at least we’re in this together.
Still, despite a universal reverence for the bond of friendship, it is the one species of relationship that exists without the comfort and assuredness of clear-cut parameters. We know that companionship is an antidote for loneliness; we know that we need the emotional support of others for our mental stability, but that’s about as explicit as we’ve gotten in defining the basic function of human friendships. It’s like Bill Murray said: “Friendship is so weird. You just pick a human you’ve met and you’re like, ‘Yep, I like this one,’ and you just do stuff with them.” When we form a platonic bond we cannot anticipate even a loosely charted trajectory for its development like we can with romantic bonds, for example, which are packaged with much clearer boundaries. In the romantic dynamic there exists a basic set of unwritten social guidelines for how such unions should be conducted, and if the involved parties wish to alter or entirely reconfigure the generally accepted code of ethics, a discussion will inevitably take place between them about how to tailor the relationship to their specific needs. It’s a given, and has to be. If one wants monogamy, say, and the other doesn’t, it needs to be clear from the outset or a world of mess, hurt and Shakespearean tragedy might ensue. The same applies to a break-up. Generally speaking a conversation happens (or, in these woeful times, a text will usually do) and the finality of togetherness is made clear. Thereafter it’s completely acceptable never to see that person again in your life and move right along to the next affair.
In friendship, there’s no such template to customise – the code is ill-defined because the role of friendship itself is ill-defined. There’s no point at which a pair of newly acquainted adults engaging in platonic social interaction are required to say “OK we’ve been hanging out regularly for a month now, so we should probably make this official – will you be my new bestie boo?” Conversely when a friendship might have expired it’s difficult to know how to approach a ‘break-up’ discussion – because, you were just friends? And, that would be weird?
The ambiguous boundaries within the space of friendship mean that engaging in constructive dialogue about the state of the relationship can be tricky. “It really pisses me off when you don’t return my calls” is easy to say to your husband when you haven’t heard from him all day. “We value your contribution here but this report wasn’t completed to the standard we expect” is easy to say to an employee whose work needs improvement. But to a friend whose subtle jabs have been slowly chipping away at your self-esteem, or whose disregard for other people’s time has left you sitting alone at a cafe on more than a few occasions, or whose overly flirtatious behaviour with your partner leaves you feeling uncomfortable, it’s much more difficult to speak your mind or even to know whether or not you have the right to do so. In this way dysfunction within a friendship dynamic can sneak up on us, festering away unchecked for an indefinite length of time. We’re social animals wired to build alliances – they’re crucial for our survival. The problem is that in today’s world we have no clear sense of how to properly manage those alliances, and because of a lack of discourse on how to navigate friendship issues and communicate problems effectively – seeking help if necessary, the way there is in romantic relationships – opportunities for personal growth and self discovery are easily missed.
Jennifer Horak is a relational somatic therapist who works to uncover how early relationships can shape our present-day experience, both of ourselves and in relation to others. “Friendships can become dysfunctional or toxic when we stop tending to them,” she says. “What many of us don’t realise is that a friendship is a relationship. It requires maintenance, communication, vulnerability and honesty, just like a romantic relationship. Toxicity is something that develops over time when we stop paying attention to the friendship or take it for granted.”
The commonly prescribed strategy for dealing with friendships that grow ‘toxic’ is fairly ruthless: total elimination, the way one would an allergen from the diet – even tiny doses will continue to inflame and cripple the whole system. Banish your ‘frenemies’, we’re told. Delete their number! Burn the T-shirt they left at your house! Block them from Instagram! Which isn’t a totally unreasonable response given that the reasons friendships erode are so complex and multi-layered that it can be much easier to shut the whole thing down and put it behind us. Examining the causes of the downfall can be so confronting and labour-intensive that, as callous as it sounds, sometimes we just can’t be bothered. But my suggestion, which by contrast may seem far less appealing, would be not to let exasperation obscure an opportunity for exploration.
As Henry Thoreau said, “The language of friendship is not words but meanings.” There is meaning to be extracted from every dynamic we share with another person, particularly if that dynamic happens to be a challenging one. I believe each individual who enters our life in a significant way – whether it be for a month, a year or a lifetime – has something to offer us in terms of growth. If they’re there, they’re there to show us something. If we choose to see it, a challenging relationship will illuminate a shadow self resting deep within our own psyche – how we feel about the other prompting us to question how we feel about ourselves. Friendships can’t be broken down in terms of ‘toxic’ and ‘non-toxic’ as much as we can’t compartmentalise the dark and the light that lives within us – it is all us. So in too quickly excommunicating a frenemy because “we don’t need that kind of negativity in our lives, thanks”, are we bowing out of a challenge that could potentially offer valuable insights into our own inner workings, and a deeper understanding of the nuance and complexities of human relationships?
“We need to remember that there are always two, or more, people co-creating the dynamic that occurs within the relationship,” says Horak. “Sometimes, when we are hurt or feel hard done by, we are quick to blame the other and forget about the role we play in the dynamic even if we feel we aren’t in the wrong. There is no one story of how a friendship went sour. All parties involved are operating from their own lived experience and personal history that informs how we understand something that went down.”
Those people who unlock the dark corners of our psyche could be our benefactors in disguise ... our most valuable guides on the journey to greater self-awareness.
We know from recent developments in the field of neuroscience that while the brain thrives on novelty it seeks out familiarity, even if it isn’t particularly good for us. In social psychology this is called the “mere-exposure effect” or the “familiarity principle”. Have you ever come to realise a friendship is no longer serving you and resolved either to completely oust that person from your life or, if you’re more of a natural diplomat, slowly distance yourself until the precise outline of their face has receded from memory? Then inevitably someone else with uncannily similar qualities to the offending friend ingratiates themselves and there you are again, caught in a frustratingly repetitive cycle of drama? This is an example of a negative feedback loop perpetuated by the familiarity principle. Our rational mind may decide the relationship is no good for us, but our subconscious feels otherwise. The reason we get sucked into these maddening cycles is generally because of a failure to recognise we’re part of the cause-effect dynamic – there are no passive bystanders in the tic-tac-toe of relationships.
Horak suggests that rather than deleting phone numbers and burning T-shirts, a more productive way to deal with uncomfortable feelings that arise within a friendship might be to ask ourselves: “What am I doing to contribute to this conflict? What part do I play? Is this issue something I experience in many of my relationships? Did this experience trigger memories of experiences I’ve had in the past? Are the feelings I’m experiencing familiar?”
This kind of self-referral is simply taking responsibility for our share in the problem, and realising that inevitably we seek out people with whom a part of our personalities feels at home. Even those long buried shady bits we’d prefer to think don’t exist will eventually look for connection – a friend who mirrors that unacknowledged darkness and finally speaks its muted voice aloud. If there’s someone in your life who’s consistently putting you down, for example, it might be useful to ask yourself: are they merely playing back the voice in my head? Listen closely to the narrative running on auto in the background of your mind and somewhere within it you will likely find the very negative plot that is being reflected and affirmed by that ‘toxic’ friend – and it probably began long before they came along. Aristotle said it best as always: “What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” What he knew and what we all know innately is that friendship has a mirroring effect, but we tend only to comfortably acknowledge it in positive or neutral areas: “You’re obsessed with Game of Thrones – me too! You can’t say no to a margarita or 12 – me too!” But we are mirrored too by those friends who embody or trigger our less PR friendly qualities. “You have a tendency to make scathing, underhanded remarks that work to belittle and degrade – me too! I just don’t usually do it aloud.” In this way a toxic friend can be a wonderful eye-opener. They offer up a 3D pantomime of our corrupted programs, so we can see ourselves more clearly and understand where a behaviour or belief system may be failing us.
In a piece for Psychology Today, author, psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton explores the purpose of friendship according to the ancient philosophers. “If friendship ultimately escapes definition, then this is because, like philosophy, friendship is not so much a thing-in-itself as it is a process of becoming,” he writes. “True friends seek together to live truer, fuller lives by relating to each other authentically and by teaching each other about the limitations of their beliefs and the defects in their character, which are a far greater source of error than mere rational confusion. For Socrates as for Plato, friendship and philosophy are aspects of one and the same impulse, one and the same love: the love that seeks to know.”
Through the other we come to know ourselves, and through ourselves we come to know the other. It’s helpful, then, to resist judging a friend’s troubling behaviour and rather work towards a deeper understanding of what’s driving it. Are they overtaxed within the friendship? Have you been placing too much pressure on them to be a constant support for you? Are you expecting too much? Or, are they themselves hurting – wrestling with trauma or self-judgment that could benefit from your encouragement, patience and positive influence? Perhaps it’s honesty and love rather than stonewalling and blacklisting that they need. Which is not to be permissive towards bad behaviour or a doormat for bullies, it simply means asking the question: can we be strong and centred enough within ourselves to compassionately hold space for someone else’s crap even when it’s directed at us? And can we be brave enough to melt our defences long enough to look critically at what the situation might be trying to tell us? There are ways other than blanket condemnation to rise above dysfunctional behaviour – to be the ‘bigger wo/man’ – and one is via acceptance, openness and facing up to the God-awful truths that surround us daily, personified by the people we attract.
“Developing and practising healthy relationship skills like non-judgment, compassion, empathy and perspective-taking are crucial to working through difficulties in friendships,” says Horak. “Be vulnerable in a relationship. Share how actions and behaviours make you feel and do so shortly after they happen to clear the air and prevent the accumulation of ‘things you’ve done to me’. Take healthy relational risks. Give feedback to your friends the way you would a romantic partner. Give one another equal airtime during times of conflict. Practise empathy, curiosity and compassion during conflict and remember that doing so doesn’t invalidate your hurt feelings.”
Looking back, I think I’ve learnt the most about myself, and the human condition in general, from those ‘unhealthy’ relationships that drove drama and turmoil into my life. Those weird, messed up, slightly unhinged friends have been some of my greatest teachers who, simply by being in my life, have shown me my black spots – those weird, messed up, slightly unhinged non-dominant traits within myself that might otherwise have gone unchecked.
And sure, I would be the first to agree that there are circumstances in which the wisest conclusion to a destructive situation is to sever ties quickly and cleanly. If a friendship has become emotionally abusive and damaging to your physical or mental health, walking away is the most sensible option short of a restraining order. But I think really trying to understand why we’re drawn to who we’re drawn to, and why certain people bring conflict into our lives, is crucial to our emotional evolution. Those people who unlock the dark corners of our psyche could be our benefactors in disguise and our most valuable guides on the journey to greater self-awareness if we could learn to speak openly with each other about the condition of friendship itself. Poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote: “Every friendship travels at sometime through the black valley of despair. This tests every aspect of your affection. You lose the attraction and the magic. Your sense of each other darkens and your presence is sore. If you can come through this time, it can purify with your love, and falsity and need will fall away. It will bring you onto new ground where affection can grow again.”
There is immense connective power in the simple words “me too”. If there’s anything to be gained from the sense of solidarity we find in friendship, it’s the totality of insight it offers into who we are – not just through all of the shared interests, in-jokes and good times, but also through the insecurities and sensitivities that show up to be seen. Ultimately we all want the friend who’s genuinely thrilled for us when all’s going well and sincerely empathetic when things are not – who’ll show up at our door with champagne and streamers when we get that new job, or a tub of ice-cream and a sturdy shoulder when our heart’s been broken (and to be honest, that’s the friend I’d personally aim to be), but if we can manage to keep perspective and a solid sense of self, sometimes the friend who prompts us to face our deep dark muck every now and then is the one we truly need.