The Myth of BFFs: Why We Need to Let Go of Toxic Friendships

POV

The Myth of BFFs: Why We Need to Let Go of Toxic Friendships

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

O

f all the white lies we tell ourselves, “Friends are Forever” might be the most egregious. The first time I realised that not all friends mean well was in my early 20s. We were on the same team at work, with a demeaning boss and unnecessarily long hours. Like me, he was newly married. Over coffee breaks we gossiped about others on the team, cracked inside jokes, listened to music, and shared food. He made the dreadful work tolerable and at times, fun. I grew to trust him, and over time he went from my colleague to good friend. 

After busting my butt for two years, senior management shortlisted me for a promotion, but my supervisor was being unsupportive. I began losing grip of the work-life balance; the internal petty politics, increased workload intended to test my ability to cope with pressure, and overall strain on my marriage from getting home late almost every day. 

I turned to my friend for help but couldn’t find him. Instead of the warm and sensitive person whom I had been able to count on, there was this strange, cold being that responded curtly. He went out of his way to alienate me, as if the fact that I had an opportunity to move on in my career bothered him. In short, it saddens me to say, his envy trumped our friendship.

Instead of the warm and sensitive person whom I had been able to count on, there was this strange, cold being that responded curtly.

At the time, I raged over his betrayal. As it would turn out, it was only the beginning of the many disappointments I’d endure over the next decade, each one distancing me further from the silly young girl who held onto the misguided notion that “Friends are forever”.

Viewed through a lens of naiveté, friendships are uncomplicated, rewarding experiences that flourish based on the effort you put in them. I was protected for far too long from the obscurity of human nature, where people change with circumstances.

You can’t really blame me. Like many other children, I grew up having sleep-overs where we binge watched retro rom-coms and bitched about classmates, parents, siblings, and teachers; played Ouija board; and laughed over ridiculous stories until our insides split. Then, when thrust into college, we discovered new avenues of fun – partying without chaperones, dating, failed experiments with alcohol. And although we were studying different subjects in different places, the definition of friendship didn’t evolve much. Our worlds were still small and simple, happiness was never an effort, and problems had simple solutions.

Back then we’d all watched Reality Bites, a movie about four friends who graduate from college and are trying to figure their lives out. I watched it again recently and saw it in a whole new light – the love story between Troy (Ethan Hawke) and Lelainy (Winona Ryder) being a mere prop to show how their individual quests to find stability and joy affected the way friends treated each other. It’s a cult classic for a reason, depicting the nuances of friendships.

Viewed through a lens of naiveté, friendships are uncomplicated, rewarding experiences that flourish based on the effort you put in them.

At the root of it all is contentment. In a perfect moment, Troy tells Lelainy, “You see Lainy, this is all we need. A couple smokes, a cup of coffee, and a little bit of conversation. You and me and five bucks.” These words are what we spend the first quarter of our lives believing to be enough.

But what constitutes “enough” changes over time, and life goes from being a lackadaisical journey to a race where we want to prove to everyone that we are winning and having fun while at it. As we watch each other land great partners and jobs, raise happy kids, live in eclectic homes, travel, and carpe diem our butts off, there’s no stopping that comparison switch from clicking at the back of our heads. It becomes harder to say the words, “I’m so happy for you,” and mean them. 

While “toxic” has become an all-too-simplistic term to define those who bring us down, I believe the entire dynamic between two people is more complex. How needs and expectations evolve over the years, how ambitions intersect or diverge, the crises we face, our own personal growth and struggles – these affect how we react to a friend’s accomplishments or failures.

When I told a friend I wanted to quit my finance job to pursue writing, she scoffed at how stupid it was to leave a stable job to “get paid per word” and went on to judge me as being weak and spoilt for having the luxury to make such choices. I resented her for being unsupportive, but her reaction was prompted by her own limitations of having to support a family that depended on her. 

And I have done my share of being a toxic influence as well. I have used the guise of being well-intentioned to be nasty to a friend who makes crappy decisions over and over again. Instead of accepting her for what she is, I find ways to take jibes at her. Part of me believes I mean well, and yet I know I’m hurting someone I love.

Dr Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and the author of The Dance Connection says, “Friendship is often very painful. In a close, enduring friendship, jealousy, envy, anger, and the entire range of difficult emotions will rear their heads. One has to decide whether the best thing is to consider it a phase in a long friendship or say this is bad for my health and I’m disbanding it.”

While “toxic” has become an all-too-simplistic term to define those who bring us down, I believe the entire dynamic between two people is more complex

My daughter does this thing where she will fall in love with a dress and wear it until it reaches a tattered state. No matter how much she outgrows it, she will somehow keep squeezing herself into it. I laugh at her, but it is similar to what I have been doing with the friends I’ve accumulated over time, holding on to those who deserve to be shelved.

I find it difficult to walk away because I treat relationships like investments, not experiences. I hesitate to leave treasure troves of delightful yet ancient memories. The fear of finding new dependable friends as a busy adult makes me continue to bear the costs of painful maintenance. 

There are no good or bad friends, just situations that bring out the worst in each of us. Dr Lerner talks about differentiating between those who are temporarily toxic versus consistently destructive. I am learning to apply that filter to my relationships and draw boundaries between gratitude and growth. I want to be kind enough to others and myself by being authentic.

I wish there was a way we could break up honourably with friends; step out for one last night together, reminisce over wine and good food, laugh over the madness indulged in, cry for the shared pain, then part with a long embrace while whispering good wishes for the separate journeys ahead. Perhaps if we lived in a world that was more guided by rationality than emotions, this would be possible. 

But humans are emotional creatures, and a memorabilia-stuffed drawer in my home is proof. Greeting cards, slam books, long letters, scribbles on ruled paper ripped out of school notebooks; the ink has faded and my attempts to protect them from silverfish has given them a musty, mothball-tainted odour. If you sift through them, you’ll see the words “Friends Forever!”, “Love you biatch!”, “Never change!” and other similar pledges that the young and hopeful make when they first discover the power of friendship. Every time we move houses, I am tempted to throw it all away as an effort to declutter and celebrate my redemption from nostalgia. 

But then I tell myself another white lie. Friends are forever, right?

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