6 Types of Toxic Friends and How You Can Deal with Them

These six traits will help you consider what your friend is really like and whether or not they're a reliable, positive relationship in your life


From When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You

Excerpted and adapted by Dr. Jan Yager and reprinted, with permission, of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

There is no crystal ball to predict that a particular friend will turn out to be a reliable, positive relationship in your life or, by contrast, that a negative association will cause you emotional distress, or worse. Since destructive or negative friends are not always that easy to spot, being forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. Some friends may be betrayers from the start; others may turn into betrayers because of what's going on in their lives or because of changes in their personality. Sometimes you need to consider what your friend is really like within the contexts of all the behaviors. I can't emphasize enough that you need to consider the root cause.

Here, excerpted from Chapter 2 in When Friendship Hurts, are six traits to consider that could pose a problem in friendship. (You may even recognize yourself in one or more of these types.)

1. The Promise Breaker
2. The Double-crosser
3. The Self-absorbed
4. The Discloser
5. The Competitor
6. The Fault-finder

1. The Promise Breaker
This friend constantly disappoints you or breaks promises, most likely because she herself was constantly disappointed during her formative years. Your friend is unable to stop herself from repeating that pattern. It is an annoying but comfortable pattern for your friend, and without psychological help, it may be hard for her or him to alter this pattern. You could abandon the friend and the friendship, or you could find a way to detach yourself by lowering your expectations for this friendship. If she promises to do something for you, even to meet you for a cup of coffee, you can say, "Sure," but protect yourself by knowing, in the back of your mind, that this friend "nine times out of 10" is going to cancel on you.

Although your friend may always have been this way, she may have also recently acquired this trait because of something she is going through right now. If a friend who has always been there for you, through thick and thin, has only recently become less reliable, you might want to cut her some slack. You have to decide if this is a lifelong trait that will be hard or impossible to change, a temporary condition that will be short-lived, or something, if it does continue indefinitely, that you are willing to accept and handle.

One way to try to change the Promise Breaker is to help her to understand the consequences of your ignored pledges. Perhaps you have been keeping your disappointments about this to yourself. Try telling her how it makes you feel. "Of course, I'll understand that you're not in the mood to drive over, but I was really looking forward to our visit." Perhaps she is unaware that this is a pattern rather than an isolated incident. "Yes, of course, I understand, but do you realize this is the fourth time in as many weeks that you've backed out on something you promised to do with me?"

If you want to continue your friendship with the Promise Breaker, make sure you reconfirm any plans at least once or even right before you are supposed to meet. If you have a cell phone or beeper, make sure your friend is able to contact you so at least you won't be left waiting if, once again, she cancels a meeting. Have "back-up" for any promises your friend makes; at least if the Promise Breaker disappoints you again, you won't be as inconvenienced by it.

The next time she promises something, try saying, "Yeah, right." When she gets angry at your sarcasm, explain that you are simply pointing out her habit of breaking her promises. Then reframe it in a more positive vein by saying, "Prove me wrong. This time, keep your promise."

2. The Double-crosser
This negative friend betrays you big-time. It could happen when someone does something to hurt you, such as spreading a malicious rumor about you. Or it could be an emotional double-cross; for example, when a close or best friend stops speaking to you and you never find out why. That's what happened to Jill, who is now 47. Although angry words were never exchanged between Jill and her friend, the silence, the betrayal of their commitment to be friends and to share, was just as real as any harmful action. Jill explains:

"She was the only real friend I ever had. I didn't make friends easily. I wasn't allowed to have friends. When I got to high school, I met Dale and we became very close. The one time I ran away, I ran to her house. It was a very special friendship. We went to nursing school together. Then one day she met another girl.... About a week later, she stopped speaking to me. I'd call her; she'd hang up on me. I'd write to her; she'd return the letters, unopened."

Ten years later, they resumed their friendship, although they still have never discussed why Dale stopped calling. The wounds from her friend's emotional double-crossing are there, however. "We're close, but not as close," Jill explains. But then she qualifies her description of her friendship with Dale as "close." "For me, for the type of person I am, it's close. For somebody like my sister, it's not close."

The double-cross could be something even more concrete, like the betrayal experienced by 43-year-old Susan, a homemaker. Susan was betrayed by a married close family friend who was attracted to her sister:

"He continued to express his desire and love for her, and when she insisted that he put an end to the numerous phone messages at her office and she told him of her disgust at this attitude, he turned around and told his wife that my sister was coming on to him. It was a real fatal attraction. I personally phoned him and ended our friendship. I'm talking real betrayal. Our family felt totally betrayed by this man, whom we had all known since childhood."

Susan shares other betrayals, by another friend: "One of my girlfriends is now using my sister and myself as an alibi while she carries on extramarital affairs. This is very upsetting. She has also repeated some things to another friend which were said to her in confidence." This second friend is putting Susan in a compromising position, and possibly even an ethical bind, over the cover-up of her extramarital affairs. By blabbing privileged information, she is also acting like the Discloser (described below).

The Double-crosser may have some real emotional issues that need to be addressed if you are to continue a friendship with her. If your friend was betrayed by a parent or sibling during her formative years, she may have a need to repeat that behavior with her friends. The betrayal could have been as subtle as being disappointed by her parents or as blatant as being the victim of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Your friend may need outside help to reverse the cycle she is in, of doing to others what was done to her.

If you have been double-crossed by a particular friend, you may want to consider ending the friendship. If you have not been directly harmed by this friend but have evidence that she has hurt others, you have to decide if you are risking too much by maintaining the friendship.

If you do decide to walk away from this friendship, do it in a low-key way that avoids incurring the wrath of the Double-crosser. You do not want to be her or his next victim.

3. The Self-absorbed
Certainly the Self-absorbed is a tamer type of negative friend than the Risk-taker. Still, especially over the long haul, a friend who does not make the time to listen to you will eat away at your self-esteem. For you to feel good about yourself, and for your friendship to thrive, you have to be more than a sounding board. The Self-absorbed does not care; she listens to you only because she is waiting to speak.

Self-absorbed chatter is a way of covering up an inability to tolerate silence which some, especially those who have intimacy problems, may find excruciating. You may ask your friend to try to become more aware that she is talking non-stop, and about herself, when it's really a nervous habit designed to fill up the time and space. Could your friend learn to relax more? Enjoy silence? Learn how to ask questions so that you don't feel like a dumping ground?

Once again, is this a trait your friend is aware of and choosing to ignore, or is she unaware of it but once aware of it, she will be capable of changing it? If change is not possible, is there enough that is positive about this friendship that you are willing to continue it even if it is decidedly lopsided?

Perhaps, in a gentle and non-offensive way, you could ask the Self-absorbed friend if she seems to notice that the give-and-take is unequal, that she shares more about her life than you get to share about yours.

With the Self-absorbed friend, you might want to plan an activity to share that minimizes this problem, such as playing tennis, going to the movies, or taking a class. You might want to carefully consider sitting next to the Self-Absorbed on a five-hour train ride or having lengthy meals together, just the two of you. As with the One-upper, whose profile revolves around excessive jealousy, involving more friends with the Self-absorbed might help to offset her nervousness as well as create some additional 'air times' that will even out the balance of power.

4. The Discloser
When you say to this friend, "This is just between us," she nods her head but unfortunately that promise will last only as long as it takes her to get to her phone or e-mail. Although there should be an assumption of confidentiality and trust between friends, this friend can't help herself. Telling this person a secret makes her feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Like the game "hot potato," she has to pass the hot secret along to someone else in order to relieve the anxiety knowing the secret made her feel. There are also some Disclosers who simply have a big mouth. If someone you know has this personality trait, avoid telling her your innermost secret -- unless you don't mind if it's shared with the world.

This friend quickly gets a reputation for being a gossip. Unfortunately, there may be some secondary gains to having that distinction. Maybe the primary friend is annoyed by the betrayal and the secret sharing, but everyone else, including other friends, may be delighted by the confidential information that is being shared.

You also have to be sure that your friend understands that you consider the information that you are sharing should always be confidential or secret. Spreading the news that you just got a raise or are expecting a child may seem like information that is fair game for retelling. If it is something you do not want retold, or if you want to be the one retelling it, let your friend know before you mislabel her the Discloser.

How do you know if someone will betray your confidence? If you suspect someone has this trait, share an unimportant secret that you could live with her spreading and see how fast or widespread the confidence is shared.

If you suspect that your friend is unaware that he or she discloses secrets, start by bringing this behavior out in the open. Pick a specific instance when your friend revealed a confidence, and see if he or she acknowledges his or her transgression. Does he or she apologize? Does he or she deny doing it? Does he or she ask your forgiveness, explaining that he or she was unaware the information was privileged?

If you suspect your friend is incapable of changing this pattern and you want to maintain the friendship, protect yourself by being more careful about exactly what information you share. You might also want to reconsider the level of intimacy for this friendship; if you want to maintain your relationship, perhaps it should be on a less frequent or less confidential basis.

5. The Competitor
A little bit of competition is healthy and to be expected. An appropriate amount of competition will motivate and stimulate. But too much competition between friends starts to destroy the friendship. One of the primary ingredients in a positive friendship is that one or both friends feel that they can be "themselves" and that they don't have to put on airs or impress one another. Competition implies a race in which one wins and the other loses; those conditions are quite the opposite of what someone typically expects in a positive friendship, especially a close or best one.

Friends who are competitors probably compete in every area of their lives and find it difficult or impossible to ease up even when it comes to close or best friends. They may compete at work, at school, and even in community affairs. They may be in competition with their spouses or romantic partners, or even with their parents or their children, The Competitor may find this distinctive personality trait hard or impossible to change or eradicate.

You can help the situation, however, by trying to avoid setting up overly competitive situations. For instance, if you share about a success in your personal life or career, especially if you ease into bragging, you may be unwittingly setting off an "I'll show you" reaction.

Helping to heighten the Competitor's awareness about this tendency might help her to deal with this proclivity. If you do want to share something that you think will propel her into a "me too" reaction, you could preface your comments with, "Let me just share something with you without it having anything to do with you, okay?"

The onus for changing the Competitor's behavior, however, is on her; developing a better self-image will diminish her need to compete with everything you say or do.

If you wish to stay friends with the Competitor, you may have to be willing to listen to her brags and boasts far more often than you can share your own.

6. The Fault-finder
Nothing you do, say, or wear is good enough for this overly critical friend. The Fault-finder was probably raised by extremely judgmental parents who were also rearing equally hypercritical siblings. Being criticized during her formative years laid the groundwork for an overly critical adult. It's a hard trait to reverse, and your friend may even be unaware that she is so critical or that it annoys and upsets you so much. Before labeling this type of friendship as hopelessly destructive, you might want to see if your friend could recognize this excessively derogatory behavior and, with time and help, change that orientation. Otherwise, you may decide that you just have to accept this trait in your friend and realize that it reflects on her, not on you or your friendship.

If you value this friend and want to try to maintain the friendship despite the Fault-finder's criticisms, try sharing with him or her how his or her behavior makes you feel. "I know you like me, and I know you may not even mean to make me feel bad, but when you find fault in everything I say or do, it makes me feel bad about myself." He or she might get defensive, even saying it's "your problem," not his or hers. But if you emphasize how the Fault-finder's behavior impacts on you, it may help him or her to reassess what he or she is saying or doing without having to be "right." Furthermore, by sharing how it makes you feel, you may be less resentful if you decide you are willing to put up with the Fault-finder.

However, if you are at your wit's end and willing to try one more thing before calling it quits, try finding fault in the Fault-finder. Those who criticize and find fault are often unable to take it from others. If you do criticize the Fault-finder, it may break the spell of negativity that is now allowing this friend to say and do anything toward you. When the shoe is on the other foot, she may suddenly have an "ah-ha" awareness of what it feels like to others. But beware: The Fault-finder might cut off your friendship forever rather than deal with your criticisms or even try to understand the larger message you are trying to convey.


See Chapter 2 in When Friendship Hurts for an analysis of the 15 additional types of potentially negative friends-The Taker, The Double-Crosser, The Risk Taker, the Cheat, The Discloser, The One-Upper, The Rival, The Downer, The Rejecter, The Abuser, The Loner, The Blood Sucker, The Therapist, The Interloper, The Copy Cat, The Controller, and the Caretaker -- as well as an exploration, with examples, of the "ideal" friend, a quiz, "Recognizing a Harmful Friendship," and a checklist of factors that distinguishes positive from negative friendships.

Dr. Jan Yager, who is a speaker, consultant, sociologist, and journalist, has studied friendship for more than two decades, since it was the subject of her sociology dissertation (City University of New York, 1983). Dr. Yager, who did graduate work in art therapy and has a masters degree in criminal justice, has taught at the University of Connecticut, St. John's University, Penn State, and The New School.

From WHEN FRIENDSHIP HURTS by Jan Yager. Copyright ©2002 by Jan Yager, PhD. Reprinted by permission of Fireside, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This excerpt contains the opinions and ideas of its author and is designed to provide useful advice in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the author and publisher are not engaged in rendering legal, psychological, or other professional services in this document. The author and publisher specifically disclaims any responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, which is incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents of this excerpt.

Jan Yager is a contributing writer for iVillage. Follow her on Google +.

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