Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Friendships last four-times longer romantic relationships; we need to have more conversations about attachments and abuse in companionship!
When we talk about how poor childhood attachments affect us later in life, we usually look at how effed up our love lives are. This is because romantic relationships usually involve the similar smaller realms of intimacy; a couple (or throuple) is defined by the interactions in moments of closeness and alone time. We rarely talk about adult friendships. Maybe because these interactions involve the world at large and how we operate within play (yup, adults play) and how we exercise our freedom! So the intricacies of attachment are more nuanced and focusing on them takes more effort. The dominion of “friendship” is expansive! This means that everyday toxic behaviour can be diluted in measure and drip-fed discreetly over time, becoming normalised and compounded into the various experiences we have with our “friends”. So much so that we often don't identify abusive behaviour until the point where it is at a poisonous level. Most friendships are usually older and more intertwined in our lives than our romantic relationships, with history and memory spanning years. Key events involve far more intrinsic social circumstances; distant recollections of childhood, work situations, family dynamics, perceptions of other people, other friendships, and other families. Toxic friendships that should come to an end (or, atleast, require some serious maintenance and adjustment) are usually marked by one individuals insecurity vs. another individuals inability to meter co-dependency vs. both parties having a complete inability to tend to their own boundaries, exercise their self-control, and define their internal self-worth by their own standards. This manifests in a whole load of self-involved, passive aggressive, or manipulative behaviour and language that will have you playing out playground drama in your late 20's to early 30's!
“It’s X special occasion so you have to do what I want and you must excuse my behaviour even if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“You NEVER/You ALWAYS” phrases in an argument.
“Could you be less fundamentally A so I can appear more naturally B.”
“Remember this event from our past immature times, it makes present, mature you a bad person.”
“But we have been friends for years, I wouldn’t be your friend if I didn’t LOVE (with a capital L) you.”
"I like you but other people might think/have said."
Non-verbal toxicity could be:
Closing themselves off entirely from a conversation or discussion.
Providing for others needs based on assumption and not request.
Excessive gift giving without reason/ to secure forgiveness without conflict, and usually with greater sacrifice.
Resentment manifesting in deliberate argumentativeness, malicious vengence without a sense of justice, or defensiveness.
These are things that we have all done or said at some point during our social development. And most of the time, we grow out of it.
Friendship is a mine-field because developing and maintaining adult friendships harkens back to childhood when we were still trying to decide what our boundaries with people were while a multitude of other impactful and exciting experiences were happening. They happened rapidly and when the pre-fontal cortex was amped up on some seriously addictive brain chemicals! This is why most people find it so difficult to find and form later friendship bonds with others that feel as strong and worthwhile as those we formed when we were younger. Instead of discovering with another person and overcoming physical and interpersonal obstacles unknown, you are allowing another person to discover a fully-formed you while you discover a fully-formed them. There are far more opportunities for rejection based on something that has become so fundamentally, cognitively part of you that it is unlikely to change. This rejection can be devestating because it feels so much more personal and targeted. In turn we stick to what we know as a matter of comfort and security. Even if what we know is detrimental. Better the pain you know, than the agony you don't. That isn't to say healing isn't possible! However both parties have to commit to change here if the friendship is going to survive. Abuse tends to reveal itself, particularly when one party stands up and says “Hang on a sec…I’m doing the growth work, here. You’re not meeting me half-way!” and the other deliberately derails your efforts through gaslighting or willful ignorance. They're hellbent on continuing their cycle and insisting you stick around for it. If you maintain positive change but the other person is not committed to it, that is when these behaviours and phrases can be identified as what they are; abusive. Even if you have used them yourself you are owning this behvaiour, you have committed to breaking the cycle. You're willingness to change and rectify these actions is already a demonstration of you bettering yourself as a person. In friendship the wounds can feel so much more exposed and painful because of how public social interactions are, and how far back your minor misdeeds go! NEVER and ALWAYS are not just a measure of a few months with one person but sometimes years, and in full view of other people- even complete strangers! Awkwardness, embarrassment, frustration, guilt, fear; these emotions can all surface. And people dedicated to their abusive behaviours can and will use them to their advantage to secure you in their continuing pattern of toxicity. Some will engage in exacty the same tactics that we commonly attribute to Domestic Abuse. They will isolate you through lying, limiting other friendships and connections through triangulation and gaslighting. They can go as far as threatening you with their own safety. They will accuse you of "over-reacting" or causing unnessesary drama for calling out their bad behaviour. Their efforts to put you down will increase and, confusingly, their efforts to idolise you will also increase at the same time. Any conversations will be on their terms with them popping in for a "proper discussion" only for them to check-out when it is not going their way leading to arguments or heated conversations lasting hours or days without any solution.
And the outcomes are just as catastrophic: low self-esteem, anxiety, confusion, powerlessness in other relationships including romantic and familial, and depression. The physical impact of these emotional stressors can cause chronic pain, chronic fatigue, anxiety, panic attacks, nausea, brain fog.
It can be equally if not more painful to break up from a friend. And it is absolutely okay to seek additional support to manage all the difficult emotions that surface.
Therapy can help you to remember that "ALWAYS" and "NEVER" are not even remotely possible as far as human behaviour goes. Quiet contemplation is a suitable replacement for the silent treatment and they are not the same thing. Vengence binds you to the cycle while justice is restorative and ends the cycle, and are two entirely different things. A completely neutral party can help you understand that your fundamental qualities and values are not something you have to sacrifice for anyone regardless of what important event is taking place. Most importantly when it comes to older friendships, a fresh objective eye illuminates your embarrassing past mistakes as not even remotely as important as how you developed to manage problems more effectively.
As bad as the emotions feel in the soul-crushing moment of a friendship ending, it is crucial to remember that it is healthy to evolve and flourish through change so you can identify yourself as a better and more worthwhile person from within. Sometimes this can lead to stronger and healthier friendship bonds as a whole, with new aquaintences and old. And sometimes, it does mean letting a friend go…or violently shoving an abusive person, who refuses to heal, out.