While most of us are aware that romantic and familial relationships can be violent and abusive, we’re rarely, if ever, taught that emotional abuse can exist in platonic relationships as well. As such, we don’t know enough to recognise — and end — abusive friendships.
Just as in romantic and familial relationships, the abuser in a friendship holds the abused emotionally captive — most often through fear of criticism, punishment, public embarrassment, or threats of self-harm. An abusive friend can, at times, seem incredibly caring. This duality and unpredictability is a manipulative tactic used to keep the other party in line. The abused friend may make excuses, thinking the abuser is “not all bad,” and that they are at fault for the way they are being treated.
Emotional abuse — in any relationship — is extremely harmful to the recipient of the abuse. Studies have shown that emotional abuse and bullying are linked to physical and mental health issues, such as headaches, stomach aches, difficulty sleeping, depression, and anxiety. This is why recognising the signs of an abusive friendship is absolutely critical: it’s the first step to getting out. If you fear one or more of your friends may be abusive, look for the following red flags.
1. Spending time with them is draining
An abusive friend will spend most of their time dissatisfied, complaining, discontent, and miserable. They judge others harshly and expect you to agree with their critical assessments (or else). They constantly bad-mouth your mutual friends – and yes, they’re doing the same to you when you’re not around. They’re exceptionally hard to please, and often quick to fly into fits of rage. You find yourself permanently on eggshells — you just don’t know what might set them off. An hour or two in their company emotionally drains you. Worse yet, you may find you don’t like the person you become when you’re around them.
2. They’re verbally abusive
Verbal abuse is meant to belittle, intimidate or even frighten you. This form of mistreatment is meant to do two things: tear you down emotionally and put you in your place. If your friends engage in any of the following behaviours, they may be verbally abusing you:
- Rolling their eyes when you talk
- Regularly telling you that you are stupid
- Passive-aggressive (backhanded) compliments
- Implying you’re incapable of making new friends
- Calling you names
- Blaming you when things go wrong
- Mocking your accomplishments
- Revealing embarrassing things about you to others
- Spreading rumors about you
Besides using the list above to determine if you’re verbally abused, ask yourself the following questions. Are you hesitant telling them about something positive that happened to you? Do they use your emotions against you? Do they tell others things you told them in confidence? Pay close attention to how their words make you feel. If nine out of ten times it’s bad, then you need to reevaluate the friendship.
3. The relationship is lopsided
All healthy relationships require balance — you know, give and take, back and forth. In abusive friendships, everything is decidedly one-sided. The abusive friend is incredibly self-centred, and you’ll see that demonstrated in a variety of ways.
In every situation, it’s their way or the highway; compromise is not part of their vocabulary. They choose the activity, who to invite, and the schedule — there’s no bending to accommodate anyone else. And if you aren’t interested in doing what they want to do, they will pressure you to do it regardless.
Abusive friends take advantage of your generosity and give nothing in return. You are expected to meet their needs, and will see no accountability or gratitude on their part. What’s more, they put the responsibility for their happiness (or unhappiness) directly onto your shoulders. When they do offer help, it’s when it’s convenient to them, not to you.
If you acquire or achieve something they haven’t, instead of being happy for you, they’re bitter and likely to lash out. Above all else, they lack empathy. Your setbacks and successes mean nothing — they only care about themselves.
4. Other friendships are taboo
A good friend will allow you to maintain other friendships. However, an abusive friend considers you their property, and can become extremely territorial when other friends start taking up your time. What’s more, they may fear your other friends will point out their abusive behaviour, and therefore feel threatened by the presence of outsiders.
They will take any plans excluding them very personally, often resulting in verbal abuse or threats of self-harm. In fact, they devalue your other friendships and work hard to drive a wedge between you and others. They try to convince you that others don’t actually like you, and talk badly about you behind your back. This is all done in an attempt to control you, ensuring you are only surrounded by those who are under their influence.
5. You feel trapped
The biggest, most blaring warning sign of an emotionally abusive friendship is if you feel unable to leave. Think carefully about why you feel trapped. What is it that you’re afraid of? Does your friend make you question your worth and feel unlovable? Do they place the entirety of their happiness on you? Do they threaten to harm either you or themselves if you leave? These are all indications that this is a friend you no longer need in your life. Remember, a healthy friendship is one that brings you joy — not one that holds you hostage.
What you can do to get out
Though it can be very difficult to end a friendship, it’s important to do so when you find yourself being abused. Continuing the relationship will only end up causing you more harm in the long run. You can end things in whatever way you feel most comfortable, whether it be face-to-face, via text, or in a letter. You can also cut off contact without having a conversation at all — you don’t owe an abuser an explanation.
Maybe you need to block their number and social media accounts. There’s a good chance they will fly off the handle, lie about you to others, or try to bully you into talking to them in person. Remember, you’re doing this to protect your mental and physical health, so walk away and stay away. Ending the friendship doesn’t mean that you don’t love or care about them anymore. It simply means that you respect yourself enough to stop the abuse.
Seek out emotional support. Family and good friends are a great place to start, as they have a vested interest in your happiness. If you’re still in school — and especially if you’ll have contact with your former friend in class — solicit help from your school counsellor. At university, the counselling centre is a fantastic resource to take advantage of. If you’re an adult, consider talking to a professional, as it’s liable to give you a fresh outlook on the situation, as well as help you break out of the abuse cycle.
As someone who has been in several abusive friendships, I’m a big advocate for education on this particular topic. Too many people suffer in silence, completely unaware that the friendship they’ve been told to treasure is actually doing more harm than good. It’s important that as a society, we all learn to identify the signs of abusive relationships, so that we can help ourselves and others live happier, more fulfilling lives.