Toxic Friendships: Walk Away, and Better Relationships Will Blossom

Recently, I received a breakup letter from a girlfriend. This wasn’t the ending of a romantic relationship, but a platonic one. Yet many of the same elements were there. We had drifted apart, she said. Things were different. It wasn’t her, it was me.

In a way, I was relieved. I had been drifting away. We were both part of a small circle of friends, mostly moms, and I was realizing that despite the amount of time we spent together, she and I had very little in common. This break was for the best.

So far, 2014 has not been a great year for me. Nothing major, like a death in the family, has happened, but a series of unfortunate events has seen me spend the better part of the past six months in a constant state of stress and emotional unrest. I decided, under my doctor’s care, to wean myself off my antidepressant, which led to weeks of physical and mental withdrawals. I lost a job, had major car expenses and saw my son nearly drown at an indoor pool, all by the time spring rolled around. I’m lucky to be surrounded by loved ones who have listened (and listened, and listened!) to my rants and survived my mood swings. But this friend was never one of them. She never once checked on me emotionally or showed empathy. Not one time.

This constant cattiness — which I had come to expect and even see as normal for women — was taking away my sense of security.

A real eye-opener for me was the day that my son almost drowned at our gym’s pool. This was a new facility, and on our first visit, my then 5-year-old went down a water slide into the deep end. I was still putting water wings on his brother and didn’t see him head to the slide. After landing in the deep end, my son panicked, and another mom recognized his distress and jumped in, fully dressed, to pull him to safety.

A few minutes after the rescue, when the reality of the situation was just kicking in, my friend came by the pool. As she approached me, I was in a full panic and told her, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now. Things are bad.” She turned around and left, never even asking me what was happening.

This glaring failure to support gave me perspective on our friendship. I realized that while I had shared many laughs with her and our mom group, and I had been there for her through many of her life struggles, our friendship was toxic. In fact, I began to see clearly that a good chunk of the time I shared with this group was spent gossiping and mocking other people. I’m no saint; I was guilty of it, too.

What I didn’t realize, until my friendship with this other mom was dwindling, was that this constant cattiness — which I had come to expect and even see as normal for women — was taking away my sense of security. How could I be vulnerable with my close friends if I suspected that when I wasn’t around, my own life’s drama would be fodder?

As I pulled back from my toxic friend, I made more room for other friends — ones who took the time to check in when it was obvious I was struggling. And I found myself more able to reach out and to say, “No, actually, today has not been a good day” without apologizing for my honesty. I’ve cried in front of friends, I’ve been hugged and soothed. And I’ve returned the favor, happily and without hesitation.

Now that I’m living life without medication for depression and anxiety, I’ve been hyperaware of my emotions. One night, I was having dinner with some new friends, and I mentioned how silly I feel when I tear up over “nothing.” In doing so, I felt the tears begin to well. I was embarrassed, but rather than make a light joke about hormones or being “crazy,” like my old friends would have done, they held my hand and celebrated my ability to feel again.

I realized that for most of my adult friendships, I’ve never felt truly safe to be myself. But now that I’m older and wiser (or maybe just pickier), I don’t want to spend my free time dissecting someone else’s life. Being a mother has taught me empathy. I know now how tough life can be. If I muster up the energy after working and parenting and being a wife to nurture friendships, I want that time to be spent doing something worthwhile.

By walking away from a toxic friendship, I’m now surrounded by women who build me up. I’m in two book clubs. I’m making friends at the gym. I discuss politics and community activism over margaritas. I’m getting inspired to write more because of other writers I’ve met. But most importantly, I feel safe. I’m remembering the old adage that we are all fighting our own battles, so I’m being kinder to those I come in contact with.

Good women aren’t hard to find, I now know. And by surrounding myself with them, I’m becoming a better one, too.

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