You deserve to feel safe with your friends.
Whenever people speak about abusive relationships in the media or with their friends, more often than not, they’re referencing romantic partnerships or family relationships.
While in the past, I’ve experienced both kinds of abuse, this time it was different.
And if I can be honest, it was something I wasn’t fully prepared for at first: It was at the hands of one of my very best friends.
I remember the first time we met, just like it was yesterday. We’d been exchanging witty tweets with one another on Twitter, and they expressed they were a fan of my writing work.
It was in 2011, and in Toronto, Twitter meetups (or as they were commonly referred to online “tweet-ups”) were big, so I didn’t think much of it. I was totally down to make a new friend, so we decided to meet up for coffee one day.
When we met, it was almost like going on a first date. If it didn’t work out, no harm, no foul. But we instantly clicked and became as thick as thieves — drinking bottles of wine in the park, making meals for one another, and attending concerts together.
We quickly became best friends, and wherever I went, they did, too.
At first, our relationship was pretty great. I’d found a person who I felt comfortable with, and who contributed to all parts of my life in a meaningful way.
But once we began sharing more vulnerable parts of ourselves, things changed.
I began to notice just how often they were wrapped up in a cycle of drama with people in our shared community. At first, I shrugged it off. But it felt as though the drama followed us wherever we went, and as I tried to be there for them and support them, it began to take a toll on my mental health.
One afternoon as we made our way to a local Starbucks, they began to ridicule a close mutual friend, trying to convince me that they were “kind of the worst.” But when I pressed for details, they remarked that they were just “annoying” and a “try-hard.”
Baffled, I explained to them that I didn’t feel that way — and almost offended, they just rolled their eyes at me.
It felt as though my loyalty was being tested and I had failed.
Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, a psychotherapist and expert in mental health shared in an interview with Refinery 29, that “Gaslighters are terrible gossip.”
As our relationship began to progress, I soon started to realize this to be true.
Each and every month, our group of friends would get together and bond over delicious food. We would either go to different restaurants, or cook for one another. On this night in question, a group of 5 of us headed to a popular Chinese restaurant in town known for its dumplings.
As we were laughing and sharing plates, this friend started to explain to the group — in explicit detail — things I had shared with them about my ex-partner in confidence.
While people had known I had dated this person, they didn’t know the details of our relationship, and I wasn’t ready to share. I certainly didn’t expect they would be spilled to the rest of the group that day.
I was not only embarrassed — I felt betrayed.
It made me self-conscious and left me wondering, “What is this person saying about me when I’m not around? What did other people know about me?”
They later told me the reason they shared that story was because our mutual friend was now speaking to him… but couldn’t they have asked for my consent first?
At first, I kept making excuses for them. I still felt responsible for them.
I didn’t know that what was happening was gaslighting or emotional abuse.
More often than not, it can happen by those we’re in intimate relationships with including friendships.
Stats have shown that for 8 percent of people who experience verbal or physical bullying, the aggressor usually turns out to be a close friend.
Sometimes the signs are clear as day — and sometimes you might feel like you’re making the situation up in your head.
Since tensions between friends can sometimes be high, often times we can feel like the abuse isn’t real.
Dr. Fran Walfish, family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, shares a few signs:
- Your friend lies to you. “If you catch them repeatedly lying to you, that’s a problem. A healthy relationship is based on trust,” explains Walfish.
- Your friend constantly ghosts you or doesn’t include you. “If you confront them, they become defensive or point the finger saying it’s your fault. Ask yourself, why aren’t they owning up to it?”
- They pressure you for large gifts, like money, and then gaslight you into thinking it was a “gift” for them rather than a loan.
- Your friend gives you the silent treatment, or makes you feel bad by criticizing you. This is the abuser’s way to control the power dynamic, Walfish explains. “You do not want to be in a close relationship where you feel put down or less than the other person.”
- Your friend doesn’t respect your boundaries or time.
Although leaving the situation may seem hopeless, there are ways out and different steps that one can take when attempting to leave an abusive friendship.
While open communication is usually the best policy, Dr. Walfish believes it’s best to not confront your abuser and leave quietly.
“It’s like setting yourself up. They’re probably gonna blame you, so it’s better to [be] gracious. These people do not handle rejection well,” she explains.
Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and a psychiatrist shares with Healthline: “You may need therapy if this relationship has been damaging to your feelings of self-worth and to understand why you entered this friendship and tolerated it in the first place in order to avoid going back into it or entering another abusive one.”
Dr. Saltz also suggests that you make it clear to others including friends and family members that you won’t be around the other person any longer.
“Tell close friends or family what is happening and let them help you to stay separate,” she says.
She also thinks it’s wise to change any passwords this person may know, or means of access they have to your home or work.
Although at first it may feel difficult to leave, and once you have, like you’re mourning a loss, Dr. Walfish believes you’ll just be missing the friend you thought you had.
“Then pick yourself up, open your eyes, and start choosing a different kind of person to trust with your feelings,” she says. “Your feelings are precious and you need to be very discriminating about who you trust.”
It took me so long to understand that what I was experiencing was abuse.
Toxic people have a funny way of rewriting the narrative so that it always seems to be your fault.
Once I realized it was happening, it felt like a pit in my stomach.
“In abusive friendships, one is often left feeling badly,” Dr. Saltz says, which she notes leads to feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety, especially when they try to leave the situation.
Clinical psychologist and author Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, in an interview with Women’s Health, said that people often notice an increase in “anxiety, headaches, or stomach disturbance,” when trying to leave their toxic friendships.
This was definitely true for me.
I eventually started to see a therapist so that I could gain the strength and courage to move on.
As I met with my therapist and explained to her some of my actions as I tried to get out of this friendship, which some might see as unacceptable and perhaps, manipulative, she explained to me that it wasn’t my fault.
At the end of the day, I didn’t ask to be abused by this person — and as much as they may try to use it against me, it was unacceptable.
She continued to explain to me that my actions were understandable reactions to being triggered — though unsurprisingly, those reactions would later be used against me when our friendship ended, turning our other close friends against me.
Abusive friendships are hard to navigate, especially when you can’t see the warning signs.
This is why it’s so important that we talk openly about them.
A quick search, and you’ll see folks turning to sites like Reddit to ask questions like, “Is there such a thing as an abusive friendship?” or “How to move past an emotionally abusive friendship?”
Because as it stands, there’s very little out there to help individuals.
Yes, abusive friends are a thing. And yes, you can heal from them, too.
Abusive friendships are more than just drama — they’re real life, and they can be an insidious form of trauma.
You deserve healthy, fulfilling relationships that don’t leave you feeling fearful, anxious, or violated. And leaving an abusive friendship, while painful, can be empowering in the long run — and it’s vital for your mental and emotional health.
Amanda (Ama) Scriver is a freelance journalist best known for being fat, loud, and shouty on the internet. The things that bring her joy are bold lipstick, reality television, and potato chips. Her writing work has appeared on Leafly, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, FLARE, The Walrus, and Allure. She lives in Toronto, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.