How to know if you're in an unhealthy friendship — and how to get out of it

Friendships are one of life's great joys. Not only does doing something with a friend make it more enjoyable, research has shown that friendship has academic benefits, social development benefits, and somewhat surprisingly even health benefits. The key, however, to reaping these benefits of friendship is that the friendships are high quality.

Unfortunately, some friendships are unhealthy, either because they started that way — or because that's how the relationship evolved in response to changes in one or both of the friends. How do you determine if you're in an unhealthy friendship? If you realize that you're in one, how do you get out of it? I asked psychologists, therapists, life coaches, and relationship experts, as well as those who have been in unhealthy friendships: what indicates an unhealthy friendship?

Your choices are always challenged

Most of us want friends who will be honest with us. Part of friendship is seeking advice from those who know us best. Certified Life Coach Bridget Chambers told me that sometimes this brutal truth can go beyond helpful advice and turn into something more nefarious. "In friendship, honesty is important — and it's wonderful to have people in your inner circle who help you navigate decisions," Chambers told me. "However, there is big a difference between transparency and negligence. If you're confident in something — a man you love, a purse you bought, a decision you've made — and you're met with a sea of unsolicited opinions, your 'friend' might be looking out for her, not you." While asking for advice is one thing, if your friend is always suggesting that you're making the wrong decisions, you might be dealing with a Negative Nancy and the beginnings of an unhealthy friendship.

There is no emotional reciprocation

Just as important as having someone supportive of your decisions, Chambers told me that having someone who supports your well-being is also important. She pointed out that there is great power in the question 'How are you?' and that you should hear it from your friend as often as you ask it.

"If a person you spend free time with talks more than she listens every time you're together, you're in an imbalanced relationship," Chambers said. "You might know everything about her, but what does she know about you?" This imbalance in the friendship isn't healthy and can lead to more problems later on.

You never do what you enjoy

Just like you need emotional reciprocation, the kinds of activities you do with your friends requires give and take, especially if your interests don't align 100 percent. That may mean that sometimes you begrudgingly go to Sephora with your friend and sometimes she begrudgingly goes to a ladies paint night with you. Sometimes though, it may seem like you're the one doing all the giving in.

Candace Burton, a nationally recognized expert on the dynamics and outcomes of abusive relationships and assistant professor in nursing science at the University of California Irvine told me that abusive relationships can also extend to friendships and that this may be a sign you're in one. "Friendships can become unhealthy when they are unbalanced or not mutual in some way," she said. "Take a look around and see if there are things you've neglected or stopped doing that used to bring you joy, and if that's attributable to one person in your life you might need to take another look at that relationship."

You feel bad about yourself

Skye McKenzie of The Inner Compass Program has firsthand experience in dealing with unhealthy friendships in her own life. Now, she helps people navigate these experiences as a trauma care counselor. She told me that a sure sign of an unhealthy friendship is how you feel about yourself. "You know a friendship is unhealthy when you continuously feel bad about yourself when you are with that person," she said. She went on to say that feeling undervalued can lead to a certain type of depression. "Circumstantial depression occurs when a person becomes depressed due to their circumstances and not because of a chemical imbalance in the brain," McKenzie told me. "There are many warning signs that a friendship or relationship is unhealthy — how that relationship makes you feel is the biggest one."

You're always competing

We live in a competitive world. If you aren't at the top of your game, you might miss out on an opportunity. According to some experts, this competition has seeped into our relationships in what researchers have called interpersonal competition. While some level of interpersonal competition can be expected in most friendships, a warning sign that your friendship is unhealthy is if you're always competing over everything, from who had the busiest day to whose nail appointment cost more.

"The mentality of competition is that only one person wins. Rather than working cooperatively, it is divisive," said Christy Whitman, relationship and law of attraction coach and New York Times Bestselling Author of The Art of Having It All: A Woman's Guide to Unlimited Abundance. "Instead of using the support from the women around us, we end up isolating ourselves from them; we keep a running scorecard in our head."

Whitman told me that when this happens, we don't get to utilize the support that is all around us because we don't feel comfortable reaching out. "As women we are at our best when we're working together," she said. "When competition is present we can't trust the women in our lives." Without trust, she suggests, a friendship cannot be healthy.

There is jealousy or possessiveness

Sometimes a friendship can evolve in a way that leads one or both friends to feel like they have a sort of ownership over the other. In situations like these, jealousy and possessiveness can arise, especially if one friend suddenly makes a new friend or starts hanging out with a new group. Lisa Haisha, relationship expert and life coach, told me she sees a growing trend in this jealousy among friends and suggests social media is at least partly to blame.

"I have found from many of my clients that jealousy among close friends is a growing trend," she told me. "[Clients] say that when they introduce their best friend to someone of importance and then [the best friend and the new person] connect online, that the client's possessive nature comes into play." This, Haisha said, is because her clients' trust for their best friends is being challenged and they're upset about what the relationship between their two friends will be. This is exacerbated as it all plays out through social media posts. "We spend hours building digital connections rather than building strong, authentic ones," Haisha added. "The unintended result is loneliness and disconnect, which can emotionally drain someone, making them vulnerable to incubate jealous tendencies."

If you're finding that one of your friends is becoming very jealous of your other friendships (online or in person), or wants to be the only person you spend time with, this could be a red flag.

Your friend lies or gossips

Just like competition between friends can lead to distrust, catching your friend in lies or listening to them gossip about other friends can be hallmarks of an unhealthy friendship. "At any point in a friendship, if there appears to be deceit, lying, manipulation and/or some type of disrespect, that makes a friendship unhealthy," licensed clinical social worker Nicole Zangara told me.

She said that a warning sign is when you catch a friend in a lie, a sentiment echoed by Psychic Intuitive Davida Rappaport who has experience counseling people through unhealthy relationships of all kinds and who said that even a "white lie" is a warning sign. Rappaport went on to tell me that gossiping is just as much of a red flag. "When your friend continually gossips about your mutual friends and people you know, you end up learning that they also gossip about you and do not keep your secrets," she said. If you can't trust your friend, it isn't a healthy relationship.

You feel exhausted

Just like a quality friendship should make you feel good about yourself, it should also bring energy into your life. Sometimes though, we find that certain people seem to drain us. I spoke with licensed clinical social worker Mandi Biesinger and she told me this can be a sign of an unhealthy friendship. "We've all been in one of those friendships," she said. "We know we are tired at the end of a lunch but don't quite know what to do about it."

Biesinger said that when we find we have less energy, optimism, and empathy than we did before spending time with a person, it's a sign the relationship isn't a healthy one. She also told me that many times this is an issue of boundaries. "If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed when the topic of relationships, kids, school, etc. come up with this friend, set and maintain the boundary that you just won't go there," she said. "Change the topic, ask a redirecting question, tell the friend you just don't want to talk about it and move on." Biesinger noted, however, that sometimes this won't work and you may have to consider ending the relationship altogether.

Getting out of an unhealthy friendship

Ending a friendship can be tricky, especially if you have mutual friends or if the friendship has been a long one. Licensed psychologist Dr. Ben Rutt told me it's important to decide if you feel the relationship is worth saving." If you do want to approach your friend, start by pointing out times when your friend crossed your boundaries and how that affected you," he said. "When most people are confronted with that kind of information, they apologize and take steps to make things better. If your friend apologizes but does not change their behavior in the future, that's a red flag." Dr. Rutt went on to say that if your friend becomes defensive or doesn't want to listen to you, it's probably further proof the friendship will not work out.

Distance yourself

Licensed clinical psychologist, Helen Odessky told me there are steps you can take before cutting someone off completely and one of those is to start distancing yourself. "There are many ways to do this — seeing the person less often, seeing them only in group situations and limiting your total time spent together are all options," she said. "If you have decided the friendship is unhealthy, then limiting personal disclosure is an important step."

Treat it like a breakup

Social worker Mandi Biesinger agreed with Dr. Odessky that you may be able to distance yourself and phase out the friendship gradually, but she also suggested you should be ready to have an assertive conversation if that doesn't work. "Pull out your best breakup moves," she told me. Examples she gave are "It's not you, it's me" as well as "I'm working on my boundaries" or "I'm trying to focus on work, family, etc, and I just don't have the time to go out that I used to."

Biesinger emphasized that it's important to avoid being unkind or bringing other common friends into the breakup. "Keep it civil and when you come across one another in social settings be kind but maintain your boundaries and don't get pulled back into a relationship you worked hard to separate."

Moving on

Ending a friendship, whether you distance yourself gradually or break it off immediately, is never easy. You've invested time and emotion into a relationship and it can feel like suddenly you have nothing to show for it. It's important to note that friendships end for all sorts of reasons and that doesn't mean either person is the "bad guy" or that you should give up on friendships altogether. Use the knowledge you gained from a friendship that has ended to inform new friendships. Find someone who reciprocates interest, values your time, and earns your trust. The first step is the hardest part of moving on.