There’s a reason we love our friends so much. Friendships aren’t just about having a fun crew to hang out with on the weekends; they’re a hugely important part of our health and well-being.
“When we’re socially and relationally connected, we ‘feel’ better, and feeling better tends to translate physically. Those with solid, healthy relationships tend to have better physical and mental health,” says Dr. Kathy Offet-Gartner and Vicki-Anne Rodrigue from the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. “Healthy friendships can challenge us, support us, and help us grow, all of which positively impacts our mental health and well-being.”
But as powerful as a healthy friendship can be, the flip side is also true: Certain friendships can be mentally and emotionally draining if they become too much. For example, the friend who gets weirdly jealous or possessive when you spend time with another friend, or the roommate who constantly wants to confide in you but never listens when you need to vent about something. These overbearing friendships can take a toll on your happiness and emotional health.
There’s no question that investing time and energy into friendships is a good thing. “Friendships are there to enhance your life to help you feel a sense of connectedness,” says Dr. Ellen Jacobs, a psychologist in New York who works with young adults.
Making friends with people in groups you identify with—your intramural soccer team, science club, or international student group, for example—can help you deepen those experiences and get that sense of belonging that makes you feel comfortable and confident. “Making friends who have other interests is also important—it can broaden your world views, open new doors, and increase tolerance,” says Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a board-certified pediatrician in adolescent medicine in Minnesota.
There’s scientific research to back up the health benefits of having a bestie. A 2010 review of studies found that those who have few friends or low-quality friendships are more likely to die early or develop serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even cancer. On the other hand, healthy social ties appear to boost the immune system, improve mental health, and lower stress. Consider this your excuse for scheduling regular friend dates.
Good friendships gone bad
Clearly, relationships are important, but what can we do when they go awry? More than half of students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they’ve experienced an overbearing or unhealthy friendship.
Students in our survey shared stories about what made their friendships turn sour (e.g., friends who made the relationship all about them, acted jealous of other friend groups, were too nosy about things they didn’t want to share, refused to take responsibility, drained their emotional energy, or acted controlling).
“Toxic friendships are often illustrated in those who judge you for sharing honest feelings instead of showing empathy, those who doubt everything you say instead of being accepting, or those who focus much of their time criticizing or gossiping about others,” says Sam Fiorella, Co-founder and Managing Director of the Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench and #YellowIsForHello campaign. “In addition, if you have friends whose conversations and actions are self-centred, or who choose to focus on themselves, you may be in an unhealthy relationship.”
If you’re wondering whether you might be dealing with an overbearing or unhealthy friendship, Offet-Gartner and Rodrigue boil it down to this: “Essentially, healthy relationships give ‘more’ to us—they augment our lives; overbearing relationships tend to ‘take away.’”
Here are some specific questions to consider:
- Does my friend get angry if I don’t call/text back right away?
- Does my friend make me feel guilty if I don’t include them in every activity?
- Does my friend make negative comments about my busy schedule?
- Does my friend make their schedule around when I’m free?
- Do I worry about this friend to the point of distraction?
- Do I find myself developing excuses to avoid my friend?
- Do I lie to my friend about what I’m doing?
- Is my friend jealous of other people/things in my life?
- Do I get annoyed whenever this person contacts me?
- Do I dread running into this person?
- Am I overwhelmed as soon as I see this person?
- Does this friendship leave me feeling exhausted or drained?
- Does it feel like a one-way relationship where I’m giving all the support or putting in all the effort?
- Does it feel like my friend is always in control?
- Do I feel disrespected?
- Are my opinions, ideas, values, and beliefs dismissed?
- Do I feel unsafe?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, it doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is doomed. Below are some recommendations for dealing with a friendship that’s become dysfunctional.
The first step is to have a conversation—that’s what 57 percent of students across Canada did when dealing with an overbearing friend, according to a Student Health 101 survey. “When you don’t tell people how upset you are with their behaviour, you can internalize it—you end up taking all these feelings out on yourself,” says Dr. Jacobs. Talking it out can be easier said than done, but if you care about saving the friendship, it’s worth it. When you don’t talk about what’s bothering you, “it ends up damaging the relationship more and can really erode the friendship,” she says.
Offet-Gartner and Rodrigue recommend a four-step model when it comes to starting a conversation about someone’s behaviour.
Step 1: Clearly identify the behaviour.
Step 2: Mention the specific situation to put it into context for them.
Step 3: Describe the impact it had on you and ask for their perspective.
Step 4: Make a specific request for an alternative action.
Once you’ve decided to bring up the issue, how you present it to your friend matters. The experts recommend “building a sandwich”—sliding an issue such as needing more space between two positive comments. This can help reduce the chance of your friend getting defensive or feeling hurt.
Here’s an example: “I love how much fun we have together—you’re my favourite person to hang out with on the weekends. This semester is so crazy for me though, and I don’t really have time to hang out on weeknights too. Let’s book Saturday nights for each other in our calendars, OK?”
If the issue is deeper—for example, addressing a friend who has been putting you down or being manipulative—it’s best to be direct but kind, says Dr. Jacobs. “Say, ‘I feel this way when you do X,’ rather than say, ‘You are X.’” People are more likely to be receptive when you talk about how an action is making you feel vs. getting defensive if they feel accused of something.
Course correcting a friendship involves sharing your perspective and listening to theirs. Offet-Gartner and Rodrigue have another four-step model when it comes to really hearing the other person’s perspective and what they have to say:
Step 1: Be open and listen for context.
Step 2: Summarize and describe what you’ve heard.
Step 3: Ask question to clarify relevant points.
Step 4: Respond.
You can distance yourself amicably without totally cutting ties, says Dr. Jacobs. “Get busy and start getting involved with other people,” she says. In doing this, you don’t necessarily have to tell your friend why you’re spending more time on other things if you feel it would be unhelpful or hurtful to do so, she adds.
Instead, encourage your friend to get more involved in other activities too. You can even introduce them to some new people—with more options, your friend won’t be as dependent on the time spent solely with you.
When the person you live with is super overbearing, handling the situation can be extra tricky. Be clear and let your roommate know you need a bit of breathing room or that your apartment/dorm is becoming a high-stress zone for you. Draw up a list of roommate rules that leave you both feeling respected in your space.
In the worst-case scenario, take yourself out of the stress zone and seek solace in an open lounge, the library, or a favourite café or coffee shop when you need a little peace.
Sometimes it can be helpful to talk things over with someone outside the situation. Offet-Gartner and Rodrigue recommend seeking a facilitator for your discussions if you’re finding it difficult to get the other party to respect you and respect your boundaries. The objective is “to ensure that communication between yourself and the other party remains respectful,” they say. Perhaps a parent or mentor, or if you live on campus, your Residence Advisor, can help. The campus counselling centre can also offer an unbiased ear. You’d be surprised how many students meet with someone professional to talk about friendship and roommate stress—nearly a quarter of our Canadian survey respondents say they dealt with their overbearing friend this way. By assessing the things that are challenging and communicating sensitively, you can move forward with more energy to devote to all of your other pursuits.
“Friends are really good opportunities to learn about yourself,” says Dr. Jacobs. “Whenever you’re having difficulty with a friend, it’s always good to take a look at what you’re bringing to the equation.” If the dynamic in your friendship has changed for the worse, ask yourself if there’s anything you may have contributed to that. For example, have you started hanging out with someone new who isn’t very inclusive of your older friends and might be sparking some jealousy? “It’s important to also take responsibility for your role in the dynamic, if possible,” Dr. Jacobs says.
Some friendships shouldn’t be saved. Ask yourself if your healthy dynamic has turned sour or if you’ve maybe just realized that there are certain personality traits in this person you don’t like or that don’t bring out the best in you. In the latter case, you can—and should—distance yourself in favour of healthier relationships that align with your values.
Offet-Gartner and Rodrigue say that if your “friendship/relationship is one-sided, or if the other party is aggressive (i.e., you feel bullied by them), and you’ve attempted speaking to them about it and their behaviour persists, choose to end the friendship (or take a temporary pause from being in a relationship with that person).”
“Walking away from a friendship that feels unhealthy will not make you less happy, will not make you lonely, and will not make you unworthy,” says Fiorella.
“Don’t ever feel guilty or bad about doing this. There’s no shame in taking care of yourself and walking away from a bad friendship. You owe it to yourself and to the important people in your life to be in a better place,” says Tiffany K., a fifth-year undergraduate at the University of Victoria.
The Friendship Bench
The Friendship Bench is a destination where secondary and post-secondary students who are struggling to connect with others, and find it difficult to ask for help, can talk with someone willing to offer an ear to listen with, a shoulder to cry on, or just a friendly “hello.”
Your school’s counseling centre is also a great resource for support and guidance.
Sam Fiorella, Co-founder and Managing Director of the Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench and #YellowIsForHello campaign, thefriendshipbench.org yellowisforhello.org.
Marjorie Hogan, MD, Pediatrician, University of Minnesota.
Ellen Jacobs, PhD, Adolescent and Adult Psychologist, New York.
Kathy Offet-Gartner, PhD, Alberta and Northwest Territories Director, Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, www.ccpa-accp.ca.
Vicki-Anne Rodrigue, MEd, CCC, Ontario Francophone Director, Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, www.ccpa-accp.ca.
Hefner, J., & Eisenberg, D. (2009). Social support and mental health among college students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(4), 491–499.
Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, S54–S66. doi: 10.1177/0022146510383501