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Toxic friendships: It takes two

Published: March 14, 2011 | Last Updated: November 22, 2013 By | 8 Replies Continue Reading


Hi Dr. Levine,

I have read most of your posts about needy friends and overbearing friends and annoying friends. I am in a long-term friendship that is so far gone, I don’ t even know where to begin.

My basic problem is that this friend has no boundaries and no one else in her life so she relies on me for everything. I have accommodated her for so long now that it would be hard to just end the friendship. I don’t want to end it but I want to be able to have a normal friendship with her.

How can I explain to someone nicely that I can’t take any more? She is driving me crazy. Now, it’s making me depressed and affecting my personal life with other people. I don’t want to hurt her but I want to be able to live my life without considering her feelings or wants with everything I do in my life.


Hi Cece,

I don’t know how long this situation has been going on but this relationship is clearly unhealthy. I hope that by reading your own note in black and white, this has become obvious to you.

That said, it takes two people to define a friendship. So if your friend has no boundaries, it’s also true that you haven’t set any limits. If your friend is overly reliant, you’ve enabled her to be too dependent on you.

If you want this friendship to be “normal,” and by that I think you mean less burdensome, this will require negotiation and change on both your parts. You will need to set clear expectations and boundaries—and stick to them. This would be a very dramatic change from the friendship you have now.

If you can’t do this yourself and continue to feel depressed and overwhelmed, you may need to speak to a mental health professional to help you unravel how you got into this situation and to help you figure how to get out. You may not be able to change another person’s behavior, but you can change your own.

I sincerely hope this helps. I know it is a tough situation.

My best,

Here are several prior posts on The Friendship Blog about toxic friendships that may be helpful to you:

Five ways to unload a toxic friendship

Letting go of a toxic friendship—gently

Breaking up is hard to do

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Category: Creating and maintaining boundaries

Comments (8)

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  1. Kiki says:

    It doesn’t necessarily take two, especially if you are dealing with a narcissistic, borderline, or other disturbed personality. Toxic is hard to define sometimes.

    • Bonita says:

      I agree Kiki. I would also suggest that this friendship does have boundaries. They are particularly broad boundaries, but the OP has now found that she is not able to continue functioning within those very broad boundaries and now needs to change the way she does things. That is the thing with boundaries. They are flexible. You can change them to suit when they are not working. Make them narrower in some cases and with some people and broader in other cases. I don’t think there is ever such a thing as no boundaries, which tends to insinuate that there are some people out there who somehow deserve all the abuse they get.

      People are either respectful and considerate or they are not. This does not mean that the person they are abusing does not have proper boundaries, it simply means they are either not good at recognising abuse (usually a result of growing up in a toxic environment) or they are excusing the other person’s behaviour because they believe they should.

      When you get to the point of recognising abusive behaviour, you learn to make your boundaries way narrower in order to protect yourself.

  2. Dee says:

    I agree that it takes two. I am just watching one of my last unhealthy friendships unravel. She is intolerable to me now. Putting me and everyone else down. I stopped feeding into it by not calming her down if she was mad at innocent people. I stopped agreeing with everything she said, too. She doesn’t understand why she is currently unsatisfied with our relationship because she is so bitter and self-absorbed. I haven’t totally pulled back because I don’t want her to catch on that I am emotionally done with her. She sucks the life out of everyone she is around and I stood by her for years, making excuses for her rudeness to others. She blames all kind of things for her bad behavior – meds, hormones, her husband, her kids, lack of money, stress, etc. I’m just out of compassion for this person. I admit my kindness and good intentions enabled her. And so I am righting this wrong by admitting it to myself and making sure I don’t perpetuate her behavior. I found out her son is making fun of my daughter. I gave money so her son could go to camp for free at one time, although anonymously. Lots of people have chipped in to help them and the more help they get, the more ungrateful she acts. If people helped me when I was in need I would be eternally grateful. I think these kind of relationships happen when a really selfish person takes advantage of a naturally giving person. I’m not a perfect person, but I genuinely like helping others.

    • Lauren says:

      Hi Dee,
      Your toxic friend sounds very like a former friend of mine. She too sucked the life out of everyone, put ppl down badly, put me down, put down my family, flaked out, used people, cancelled at the very,very last second, etc, the list goes on and on. At some other times she was charming and friendly, and I guess that is how they keep reeling us in.

      Yes, Dee 100% I agree that these relationships happen when one very selfish person befriends a naturally giving person.

      I thought (erroneously I realize now) that I was being the good friend by frequently excusing her, helping her, forgiving her, letting her off with multiple things. But now I realize that I was actually enabling her toxic behavior. I wasn’t being a “saint”, but instead I was being an enabler, big time. I was not helping myself and I was not helping her by enabling her egregious behavior.

      I did the slow fade with her, and when she was out of my life, I felt a huge wave of relief flooding over me. I felt free again. Now I understand about enabling others. Yes, it does take two to tango, and I, in my ignorance as an enabler, was part of that toxic dance.

  3. Irene says:

    Hi Morgaine,

    Thanks so much for sharing that story—coming to terms with the loss of such a long friendship had to be tough. But it sounds like you made it an opportunity to grow and become a bette friend.

    Warm regards, Irene 

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Dr. Levine for responding to Cece’s situation with her friend. It gives me a lot of comfort and support because, interestingly enough, I was the needier friend in the falling out with my best friend last year. I was in a major grieving process last year, when my husband had left me (there is so much more to this “saga” but I can’t get into all of it, so I’ll try to keep this simple). I demanded a lot from my friend during this process.

    After my husband left, I rebounded with a man my friend was very close to and she claimed to be okay with this new connection that her male friend and I made. Needless to say I ended things with him because it just wasn’t right between us (because he was a sex addict among other things) and I wanted my friend to support me and be on “my side” and she really wasn’t. She said that she didn’t want to get caught in the middle and it turned out that (all along) she had feelings for this man I was very briefly with (even though she also had a boyfriend of over 7 years). I became angry and resentful as my behavior escalated to passive-aggressiveness and manipulative to make her feel sorry for me and see “my side of things.” This only pushed her away from me. But to salvage some of my own dignity, I will say that I wish that she had been more honest with me about her feelings towards this man from the beginning and I wouldn’t have gotten involved with him.

    She and I have not spoken in months. But I recently wrote her a letter by making amends for my behavior and especially recognizing that other people cannot always be there for me, and that THEY ARE NOT THE ULTIMATE SOURCE OF MY HAPPINESS AND SUPPORT. Big lesson for me. Well, she wrote back and thanked me for her letter, but she also wrote how hurt she felt and how badly impacted she felt from my behavior. I noticed that she didn’t take any responsibility for her actions last year and basically, blamed me for everything. Her limits with me were unclear last year, and she had admitted to me in a very nonchalant way (when I first started dating this man) that she had a crush on him years ago when she first met him. I asked her (back then when I was seeing this “friend” of hers) if it bothered her that I was with him and she replied, “No.” I think that I may have been wrong.

    So now, she is still friends with him and my friendship with her is no more. I will miss her and never forget the wonderful 17 year friendship we had. But I will never forget how I behaved and do not want to repeat this behavior towards anyone again. I, NOW, also know that I wasn’t the only person in this triangular dance of “tango.” Yep. There were three of us in it. And I’m the only person out of the three of us that owned my part in it. This same man, basically told me that “I initiated” my connection with him (not so) and that I ended it (which is true.)

    So, again I’ll make reference to what you told Cece,
    You said “That said, it takes two people to define a friendship. So if your friend has no boundaries, it’s also true that you haven’t set any limits. If your friend is overly reliant, you’ve enabled her to be too dependent on you. “….

    I have to keep drilling that into my head and learn to be gentle with myself for how I behaved, that I am human and that my “neediness” was me “acting out” on my childhood abandonment issues…etc….I sincerely hope that one day, my friend realizes that not only does it take “two to tango”, but in this case, “it took three of us.” I NEVER want to dance THIS dance again. Ever.

    Thank you, again Dr. Levine. 🙂

    From “Morgaine”

  5. Sunny says:

    Much has been written on this blog about women who want to take some of their friendships to a toxic dump. And Irene wisely yet kindly asks us to consider that “it takes two to tango” and look at ourselves for our role in these relationships. The usual explanation is that we are enablers and have a need to be needed. I’d like to share a way that I’ve been guilty of perpetuating toxic friendships. I have relied on these types of friends to listen to me and my problems. And I’ve appreciated being listened to. But that gives a signal to my needier friends that it’s fine for them to unload on me. And they do unload. Boy, do they.
    So I don’t have a leg to stand on if I complain to them about them unloading on me too much. They can turn around and point out that I have unloaded on them, too.
    I’m starting to conclude that I should not ever unburden myself or share my troubles with these people. But when I clam up, I realize THAT doesn’t feel right, either. Not sure how to resolve this dilemma.

  6. Ranjith says:

    You need to understand your friend. You yourself admit that the person can’t live withour you. If that person ahs such a feelin, then the probable cause is you. Anything that ahs been devloped in the mind of him/her has been an outcome of your actions. I suggest that you bear it. if you leave it, then perhaps you are going to lose someone who will never again return to you in your life.

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