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Could a Toxic Friendship Actually Shorten Your Life?

Cutting ties with a frenemy can dramatically improve your health.

Good friends boost your confidence, listen when you need to vent and act as human shields when life throws you curveballs. The stress buffer that friends provide reduces your risk of depression, heart disease and dying young, according to longevity researchers.

“Friends strengthen your health when they give into your life, and you give into theirs,” says Melissa Hague, MD, an OBGYN from Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. “Your outlook on life is different when you have strong connections with others—you feel a kind of anchoring to your community or, at the very least, to another person.”

But not all friendships are good for you. A number of studies have revealed that negative friends may have just as much—if not more—of an impact on your health as uplifting ones. A friendship that creates ongoing stress may lead to higher blood pressure, decreased immunity, worse anxiety and depression symptoms, along with a higher risk of heart disease.

We asked Dr. Hague, who also counsels women on relationships and communication in her sexual wellness clinic, to weigh in on how to recognize an unhealthy friendship and what to say when it’s time to cut ties.

Be intentional when choosing friends
With around half of marriages ending in divorce, fewer Millennials signing up for family life and more people living far away from relatives, friendships are the longest-lasting, most meaningful relationships for many. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who share your health habits and have a strong sense of purpose.

“When you’re a child, you tend to be friends with the person sitting next to you in school,” says Hague. “But as an adult, you can be more intentional about your friendships. You get to decide: I want to head in this direction, so I need to surround myself with people going the same way. When you don’t, you eventually start to feel manipulated or pulled away from your priorities.”

To determine which friends are helping you grow, write out your life goals, recommends Hague. Next to each goal, write down the friends who are helping you achieve it. If the same names keep showing up, they’re most likely positive friendships. If there are people who don’t appear on the page at all, you may need to evaluate whether the connection is worth keeping, she suggests.

“Sometimes you’ll put more work into a friendship than you benefit from it—maybe that person has been through a difficult life event, and it's fine to pour into their life temporarily. But if you thought that you were in a mutually beneficial relationship, and you make that list and find out that's not the case, it can be eye-opening,” says Hague.

Do you have one of these toxic friends?
One well-known psychology researcher has identified over 21 types of “bad friends,” but these types may be especially harmful to your health:

The friend who triggers a relapse: Or encourages you to binge eat, smoke, drink to excess, etc.You are who you're with,” says Hague. “If you tend to be around people who smoke, you’ll probably wind up smoking. On the other hand, if you have a friend that calls every time she works out, eventually, you’ll want to go with her. Surround yourself with people who have a healthy outlook on life and positive habits—it will make a difference in how you treat yourself.”

The overly needy friend: This person is demanding of your time, money and attention. Even though they take so much from you, they don’t return the favor. You might pick up on this pattern, and try to loosen ties. But they make you feel guilty about needing space—either through emotional outbursts, threats of self-injury or suicide, or simply by making you feel sorry for them.

The gossip: This friend keeps tabs on everyone, possibly even you.This person seeks you out only to say negative things about other people,” explains Hague. “They rarely mention anything about themself, or what's positive in their life. They might never ask you how you’re doing, either.” If they do ask about your life, watch out for interrogation-style questions about your job or relationship—they may spread the word behind your back.

The flake: Whether they’re changing the subject when you need to talk, cancelling plans last minute or disappearing when rough times hit, this person is always absent when you need them most.

The abusive friend: This “friend” brings you down with verbal insults or emotional manipulation. They might:

  • Blame you for things that aren’t your fault
  • Shame you in front of others
  • Dismiss or put down your opinions
  • Constantly point out your flaws
  • Make you feel like you couldn’t survive without them
  • Make you believe they won’t survive without you

If a close friend or intimate partner is verbally, physically or emotionally abusive, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for help.

How to break up with a bad friend    
“Often, in friendships, you feel a mutual obligation to keep going even though you both know the friendship’s unhealthy or it’s not benefiting either of you,” says Hague. “But sometimes, you need to take a break—the way you would with a boyfriend—and you might find that the other person is relieved to part ways, too.”

Rather than completely cutting off a friend without explanation, or “breaking up” via text, Dr. Hague recommends clear, face-to-face communication. But before you meet, take some time for personal reflection; think about how you would want to hear that you’re not in a beneficial relationship any more, she says.

“Say, 'Here are five things about you that I appreciate or reasons why I respect you. But right now, I need to take a break from our friendship. And here's why…I'm not saying we’ll never talk again, but at this point in my life, I need to dedicate my time and attention to other pursuits.”

You may pick up with each other again in a year or six months, but taking a break can often break a toxic cycle, says Hague.

Read more from Dr. Hague.