Any relationship that holds the power to buoy us can also sink us, or set us adrift. From the ambiguous to the truly bad, friends come in many shades. Shane Shaps remembers the day her friend Claudia* pushed her to climb the monkey bars when they were little girls in Louisville, Kentucky. Terrified of heights, Shane fell and broke her wrist. That type of pressure from Claudia was typical. But they had been companions since they were infants, and Claudia continued to be an important—yet on balance negative—figure in Shane’s life. “Our parents were close friends,” says Shane, now 40 and a social-media consultant and mother of two. “It was a codependent relationship: She bossed me around, and I let her do it.”
During college, the two lived together for a few summers, and they moved into the same building after graduation. But the push-pull dynamic continued, with Shane intermittently receiving support from her more confident friend. During one low point, Claudia never received an anniversary card Shane had sent her. Furious, Claudia called Shane to complain that her friend had forgotten her wedding anniversary.
When Claudia later hosted a bridal shower for Shane, their relationship had become so awkward that Shane tried to demote her from bridesmaid to guest. Claudia responded by writing her: “I’ll be there and I’ll be in the pictures. You can look at me for all of time.” Claudia’s parents hosted a dinner party for the bride the night before the wedding, but once Claudia’s father learned of the underlying drama, he refused to speak to Shane. The familial meshing had frayed, and soon Shane had the courage to end it. “Our friendship never grew up,” she says. “We could not get past the fifth grade.”
Since “friendfluence” is so powerful, our pals can just as easily have negative effects as positive ones. Even caring, compatible friends can vex or hurt us. And the fluid nature of friendship sometimes makes its darker waters harder to navigate than conflicts in romantic or family relationships.
The Problem of Drift
Your friends may be perfectly considerate companions, but they can still have a subtly negative influence on you. These are friends whose goals, values, or habits are misaligned with your ideals—often in subtle ways—causing you to drift away from your core self and, consequently, from the aspirations most suited to you. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, defines the concept of “drift” as “the decision you make by not deciding.” If you’re drifting, you might feel that you are living someone else’s life, and you might daydream about escaping your circumstances. Drift often comes about when you do things because the people around you are doing them.
“Your sense of what is right for you becomes clouded by what other people think is right,” Rubin notes. For example, you drift into marriage because all your friends are getting married. Drift in friendships can also happen when you grow and change while your friends do not, or when you haven’t quite figured out your own talents and beliefs and are susceptible to conforming to the values of those around you. One friend of mine wonders: Would I have been more thoughtful as a young man if I’d had more conscientious and studious buddies back in college, instead of a group of hedonistic frat guys?
The right group—one that validates who you are and also projects an ideal version of yourself—can lift you up almost effortlessly over time. In contrast, staying with the wrong crowd will leave you walking against the wind, having to exert more and more effort just to move forward.
Avoiding drift shouldn’t be confused with ladder climbing, or using people to get ahead. Blunt networking is anathema to making friends. Yet forging sincere friendships with people who bring out your potential will likely help you get ahead and bring you more contentment than could any amount of card swapping.
The Mixed-Bag Buddy
The late Ray Pahl, a British sociologist, conducted a poll of about a thousand people and discovered that almost two-thirds identified friends as one of the biggest sources of stress in their lives. Whether it’s the friend who criticizes your fiance or the one who clings to you with a needy grip, friendship is not as rosy as it’s sometimes portrayed. Journalist and philosopher Mark Vernon, who has examined Pahl’s research, notes: “Friends are the main cause of arguments with partners and families.” And many people admit to wanting to lose at least five “flabby” friends—those akin to the extra pounds that a regular workout would shed. Think of the flabby as those who don’t necessarily incite strong emotions, negative or positive. Maybe you feel a vague obligation to keep up with them, but you don’t feel nourished by their company.
Friends who stir up both affection and annoyance, however, are much harder to manage or shed. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, of Brigham Young University, has studied ambivalent friendships—those that are both agreeable and disagreeable. Subjects in one of her studies wore a blood-pressure monitor that recorded every interaction they had. Unsurprisingly, encounters with people the subjects felt primarily positive toward were associated with their lowest blood-pressure rates. Intriguingly, blood pressure is higher when we’re in the company of “ambivalent” friends than when we’re among people we describe as “negative” forces in our lives. “Because ambivalent friends are unpredictable, the subjects probably had a heightened level of vigilance while with them, which could explain the blood-pressure spike,” Holt-Lunstad says. True “frenemies” may be less taxing than those sometimes great, sometimes not so much pals.
Why do we keep these ambivalent companions? Are they part of a dense network we can’t escape? That was the case with some of the subjects in Holt-Lunstad’s follow-up study, but the top reason for maintaining these relationships was not external but internal pressure. “Subjects wanted to see themselves as the type of person who can keep friends,” she says.
Teasing banter with pals is an entertaining release for many, yet outright negative and competitive encounters with friends might wreak havoc on your health by unleashing inflammation in the body. Jessica Chiang, a graduate student at UCLA, and colleagues had volunteers keep diaries documenting all of their good, bad, and competitive interactions (from games and sports to work or academic rivalry to interpersonal competition—say, vying for attention at a party). She then measured subjects’ levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Higher levels of these cytokines were found in those who had told more negative and competitive tales in their journals.
“Inflammation is a healthy response,” Chiang says. “We need it to heal wounds, for example. But activating that system when you don’t have to, in the absence of physical injury, is dangerous over time. Those who suffer from chronic inflammation can develop cardiovascular problems, arthritis, and depression.” Chiang notes that leisurely competition, such as playing games or sports, did not increase inflammation, while the other forms of competition did. “The media coverage of ‘toxic friends’ might be an exaggeration,” she says, “but over years, an accumulation of social stressors really could cause physical damage.”
The Mirror-Image Trap
“A true friend stabs you in the front,” Oscar Wilde said. True friends by this definition may be rare indeed: Our close buddies, in fact, avoid extreme honesty when it might hurt us. They may even misperceive reality because they are so invested in the relationship—they need to discount truths that could rock its foundation. That’s the conclusion that Weylin Sternglanz and Bella DePaulo came to after they found that while friends are better than strangers at using nonverbal cues to identify emotions, less close friends are better than closer ones at sniffing out hidden negative emotions. The idea that good friends are motivated to maintain a certain image of one another echoes advice some psychologists dole out to couples: Having positive illusions about your beloved can hold the two of you together longer than a cold, clear view will.
One honesty killer is the need to believe a friend is exactly like you. Friendship researcher Jan Yager discusses the “mirror-image trap” in her book When Friendship Hurts. “Does your friend fall into the trap of assuming everyone should approach life the same way that she does? Instead of respecting your differences, does she try to change you or tell you that you are wrong?”
Dissecting the latest political scandal with buddies can set off personal conflicts. It’s easy to feel so passionately about an issue that you assume all good and rational human beings—including your friends, naturally—will take your side. Some can relish a rousing debate and appreciate friendly sparring. But for those who themselves fall into the mirror-image trap, disagreement on a social issue can feel like a personal affront, one with a scary underlying message: “We’re not as close and mutually admiring as we thought.”
If you’re on the other end of a debate with a friend who insists the two of you remain “twinsies,” Yager suggests that you might keep your opinions to yourself, or even lie. You’ll just have to bite your tongue on charter schools or the death penalty; otherwise you risk having a distinctly unproductive conversation that leaves you less enlightened about the issue at hand and more frustrated with your friendship.
Brutal Betrayal and Natural Demise
A pal who broadcasts our most sensitive secrets is going beyond the normal human instinct to gossip. Certainly, friends have the power to hurt us profoundly. When people pull away or use their knowledge about us to create emotional weapons, their behavior can be scarring.
Sixty-eight percent of those Jan Yager surveyed for her book had been betrayed by a friend. In addition to repeating confidences, common betrayals include spreading lies or rumors, stealing a lover, and not paying back financial loans. Betrayals are more common among friends who have grown apart. For that reason, Yager recommends letting those friendships wither rather than ending them outright, which could spark a desire for revenge.
Shedding friends naturally is quite common. Psychologist Laura Carstensen mapped friend quantity over time and found that the number of people we hang out with dwindles after age 17, increases in our 30s and declines again from age 40 to 50. Losing friends is inevitable—some sort of pruning as we travel through different life stages only makes sense. Keeping up with all the friends we’ve ever had would be very taxing and would surely cancel out the good influence of friends who can best support us through each era. Still, when two friends are not on the same timetable or of the same opinion about how close they should be, egos get bruised.
Also, changes in marital status often dismantle friendships. When a spouse dies, friends may not feel comfortable with the newly single, and they may end up choosing sides when a couple divorces. Indeed, parting ways with a buddy can be more difficult and complicated than breaking up with a boyfriend, says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends. Though it might be naïve, we have a belief that friendships are forever, whereas most dating relationships are expected to end. Friend breakups, she adds, can challenge our sense of self, especially if we’ve been invested in and intertwined with a friend for many years.
Such breakups are especially difficult for women. Clinical psychologist Terri Apter has studied friendship in women and girls, noting that women have higher expectations for friendships than do men. Some think that for a friendship to be viable it has to be pretty perfect: When there are differences or a change in the emotional weather, they may feel it’s all coming apart. If something is a little bit bad, they want to make it all bad.
But as complex as friendships can be, a life without them is likely more devastating. Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo describes loneliness as the fallout from not fulfilling a biological need for social contact, one almost as strong as thirst or hunger. Thanks to his work, we know that loneliness is associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,obesity, diminished immunity, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts. Exposing yourself to the vulnerabilities that come with intimacy, withstanding the discomfort of connecting to people who are different from you, and striving to assert your authentic self among pals eager to sway you in other directions are most certainly worthwhile struggles compared with the bleak alternative of friendlessness.
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