As the pandemic has led us to reassess what’s important in our lives, many people have been reevaluating their friendships, reflecting on who they really value and which relationships are healthy or balanced. Although the pandemic may have spurred these reexaminations, experts say that taking a close look at one’s circle of friends is something we should do from time to time, because our friendships can have a substantial effect on our health and well-being, for better or worse.
“We’re seeing more and more research about how beneficial it is to your health to have healthy friendships,” says Beverley Fehr, a social psychologist at the University of Winnipeg in Canada and author of “Friendship Processes.” “It also implies the flip side: If your friendships are not healthy, you will experience negative health outcomes.” In other words, she says, “bad friendships are bad for us,” both physically and emotionally.
On the physiological front, research has found that negative or competitive social interactions are associated with increased inflammatory activity in the body. And a study involving older adults found that negative interactions with friends were linked with increases in blood pressure among women. Meanwhile, psychological research has found that friendships that have a negative emotional valence, involving frequent conflicts, can compromise someone’s self-esteem. And studies have found that negative interactions with friends — including being on the receiving end of critical behavior, privacy invasions, social undermining or failure to deliver promised help — can take a toll on mood, morale and other aspects of psychological well-being.
Despite friendships’ effects on our well-being, people often don’t think as deeply about friendships as they do about relationships with family members or romantic partners. “There’s recognition that romantic relationships require active maintenance,” Fehr says. To our detriment, however, “we don’t seem to have that same belief about friendships.” Friendship maintenance includes assessing whether a particular friendship is healthy and rewarding or detrimental to your sense of well-being — and, in the case of the latter, what you can do to return it to the positive side of the spectrum.
Evaluating a friendship and taking action
“The mark of a good friendship is it makes us feel good about ourselves and we get a sense of belonging,” says Richard Slatcher, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. To determine whether a relationship meets that benchmark, Slatcher recommends asking yourself these questions when you spend time with a particular friend: Do I feel good about myself afterward? Does this person make me feel like I’m understood or do they get where I’m coming from?
When you’re not getting what you want or need from a particular friendship, you’ll want to decide whether to address the issue head on, let it slide or dial back the friendship.
If you decide you want to address the issue, however, some forethought is in order. “People often want to be open and honest and get things out there about what’s going wrong, but you need to know if the friend you’re dealing with will be receptive to that,” says Jan Yager, a sociologist based in Connecticut and author of “Friendgevity: Making and Keeping the Friends Who Enhance and Even Extend Your Life.” If you choose to address the issues directly, Yager recommends asking yourself: What do I want to get out of this? Do I want to engage in a back-and-forth dialogue about these issues?
A tool kit for friendship challenges
Once you’re clear about your goals and willingness to have a dialogue, the first step is to validate the connection between the two of you and be clear that you’re bringing this up because you value your friendship, advises Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert in Ottawa. Then, “focus on the dynamic — what you find working versus not working — and invite the other person’s input.”
To help you out, we’ve listed strategies for addressing some common stumbling blocks in adult friendships. (Note: We are not talking about abuse or serious betrayals of trust.)
Your friend has a habit of complaining to you excessively — and it drags you down. Describe what you’re observing or experiencing, using statements that begin with the word “I.” You might start by saying something like: I want you to have the right kind of support in your life, but I’m not in a position to give you what you deserve in that respect. Or: I’d like to help you, but I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to delve into other people’s problems right now. Then, listen to what the friend says. It may be that they weren’t aware of how much they’ve been unloading on you and will correct course now that they are.
If that doesn’t happen, you may need to consider whether this is more of a situational issue, because your friend is going through a temporarily tough time, or whether it’s a personality issue. “Sometimes you may need to acknowledge that’s how someone is, and if you’re not comfortable with his or her approach or style, it’s important to realize you’re not going to change the person,” says Yager, author of “When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You.”
A friend is often critical of you or puts you down. If your friend insults or criticizes you, you might ask, What makes you say that to me? “It may be that the friend is feeling self-critical and projecting that onto you,” Kirmayer says.
To bring up the issue in a more general fashion, you could say: I feel like our conversations often veer into put-downs or one-upmanship, and I don’t like that. Or: I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit short or sarcastic with me. Is it something I did? “Start with an observation of what you’ve noticed, then ask what’s going on,” Slatcher suggests. Once the issue is on the table, you can express your desire for support rather than critiques.
The friendship doesn’t involve a healthy amount of give and take, and you feel as if you make more of an effort. First, a reality check: Research has found that although the vast majority of people expect reciprocity in friendships, nearly half of these relationships are not reciprocal. “There shouldn’t be a balance sheet that focuses on getting tit for tat in a friendship,” Yager says. “But it should feel equal in the sense that everyone is getting their needs met, even if it’s in different ways.” Remember, too, that there are often ebbs and flows in friendships, as there are with any relationship.
But if this is a problem you want to address, “avoid overgeneralization with phrases like ‘you always’ or ‘you never.’ That type of language can be very triggering,” Kirmayer says. Instead, you might say: I feel like I make more of an effort in our friendship. What can we do to restore the balance in this relationship?
A friend doesn’t respect boundaries the way you’d like them to. If your friend often asks questions about your finances, your sex life, or your social or political views, and you’re not comfortable discussing these personal subjects, you should say so. Simply state: I’m not comfortable talking about that.
“Friends may need to hear that more than once,” Kirmayer says. “Sometimes, we tend to overestimate the extent to which we’ve set a boundary. In our minds, we know what we’re comfortable with, but we don’t always communicate that as clearly as we think we do.” If your friend still doesn’t get the message, keep repeating it as necessary.
It’s also important to be clear with friends about what information you consider confidential or private. “Some people might see personal information as more personal than others do,” Kirmayer notes. If a friend betrays your trust, you’re on notice that it’s not a good idea to share personal information with that person. Keep in mind: It’s your choice to be as open or private about your life as you want to be, with any given person.
When you don’t want to repair a friendship
If these strategies don’t help fix your friendship, or you’ve decided not to try repairing what’s gone wrong, it’s time to consider dialing back the relationship in some way, which Slatcher refers to as “pruning one’s friendships.” Options include choosing to spend less time with that friend, contacting them less frequently or only seeing them in a group of people. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to slam the door shut on the relationship; you can keep it open for the future — if you’d like to.
It’s fine, however, to simply decide the friendship has run its course and no longer serves your needs. “Some people need permission to let go of friendships, [but] you don’t need to wait until things are bad enough,” Kirmayer says.
If you decide to end a relationship, don’t ghost the person. One possibility, Kirmayer says, is to have a candid conversation about why the friendship isn’t working for you anymore while also expressing gratitude for what you’ve shared in the past. An alternative is to initiate a process of distancing where you gradually withdraw your presence and support. But, Kirmayer cautions, “this, too, might result in a need to have a frank discussion, particularly when the other person is still wanting to maintain the relationship or seek closure.”
Ultimately, “friendships are not chiseled in stone,” Yager notes. “Not only do friendships shift over time, but your definition of friendship and your needs can change.” Although letting go of a particular friendship may make you feel sad initially, doing so may also free you up to develop new ones or to spend more time with the positive connections in your life.
Stacey Colino is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md., specializing in health and psychology, and co-author of “Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.”