To say that strong female friendships enrich our lives is an understatement. Great friendships become part of our blueprint. They help define and reveal us. It's no wonder that from I Love Lucy to Grey's Anatomy, pop culture reflects the kinds of relationships women have or aspire to have. As a sociologist interested in relationships and identity, I have interviewed many women about their friendships and the role they play in shaping their sense of self. Even my latest novel explores female friendships and the ways that women communicate with each other -- what we do and don't say to each other. In an earlier post I wrote about five common female types and why we want those gals in our lives. But not every woman we hang out with is destined to become "our person." In fact, some make us want to scratch our eyes out. Did you ever have a friend that made you wonder, "do I even like her"?
In the course of interviewing women I have heard story after story about dissatisfying and even toxic friendships. I've certainly had my own share too and have pulled the life-support plug on more than one friendship. Sometimes it isn't clear though if she's a friend or foe. Sometimes we wonder if we're the problem, or if it really is her. Then there's the issue of mixed feelings because at some point she had been a good friend, and you feel badly the relationship has changed. But is that a good reason to hang on? Someone can remain a part of our life's narrative without remaining on our holiday party invite list. Here are the top five signs that it's time to make a break:
• You're not sure if she's in your corner: Do you trust this gal to give you advice about a relationship, route for success in your career or even suggest a bold new haircut? Or, do you secretly suspect she may like it if your hairdresser made an egregious mistake? If a friend's comments seem more undercutting than supportive, trust your intuition. So often we are afraid to trust our own internal monitor, but if there's a little voice telling you that she's trying to be passive aggressive or otherwise undermine you, listen to it. A true friend doesn't make us wonder whether she "intends" to be helpful or harmful. It shouldn't be ambiguous. A real girlfriend has your back and wants the best for you. It actually is that simple.
• You're embarrassed to be around her: Sure, we all have one boundary-challenged friend who shares inappropriate childhood stories at cocktail parties or gets drunk at our wedding and hooks-up with our cousin. We know not to bring her to the office holiday party but she's a blast and we truly love her. It's normal to exercise some discretion about the events we invite certain people to, based on what we think is appropriate, but if you're regularly embarrassed by a friend, worried about what she'll say or do in front of others and just plain mortified to be associated with her, you've outgrown the relationship. Chances are at one point you thought she was funny or you just had a higher threshold for immaturity, but you've grown in a different direction and this friendship no longer serves you.
• You have friends you like much better: Our time is all too limited. We rarely have enough time for ourselves, which includes quality face-time with our friends. If you have friends you prefer to spend time with and often see spending time with this gal as more of an obligation, you're wasting your time and hers. Even keeping the relationships alive via the digital respirator of social media and email takes time and energy that could be put into more meaningful relationships. Why waste it on someone you only sorta like?
• You talk about her behind her back: We all vent to our friends and sometimes this includes talking about another friend. There's a difference between sharing your concerns about something going on with one of your friends or even blowing off some steam over a quarrel and complaining about someone behind their back. Gossip is ugly and hurtful. It's also very revealing. Of course, if you wouldn't want your friend to hear what you're saying about her then you shouldn't be saying it. But the real lesson is that you don't value and respect her the way one would a true friend. The relationship doesn't work.
• She brings out the worst in you: Picking up on the last point, the clearest barometer for the health of a friendship, or any relationship, is your own mood and behavior. If you find that you have a friend with whom you are short tempered, passive aggressive, unsupportive or simply uninterested, it isn't a healthy friendship and it really doesn't matter whose "fault" it is. Cut the cord. Good friends bring out the best in us.
Patricia Leavy's latest novel, American Circumstance, explores female friendship and the things we say and don't say to each other. Her earlier novel, Low-Fat Love, explores toxic relationships. Both are available on amazon.com or sensepublishers.com