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5 Reasons People Stay in Unhappy Friendships

2. The friend helped you through a difficult time.

Key points

  • Friendships can erode over time, just like romantic and family relationships.
  • Loyalty, history, and fear of conflict can prevent people from ending unsatisfying friendships.
  • Ending difficult friendships can make room for more fulfilling relationships.
Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Just like romantic relationships and family bonds, friendships grow and contract, evolve and stagnate. But for some, it’s extremely difficult to step away from a friendship, even if it becomes unhealthy, toxic, or just unsatisfying. But why? Why do we stay in friendships when they clearly stop working for us?

1. You share lots of history.

The mantra “best friends forever” permeates the culture, with shared necklaces, secret handshakes, and children's movies all pointing to the importance and durability of childhood friendships.

While the nostalgia and ethos around childhood friendships can lead to closeness that endures and grows over time, it can also hinder the separation process when that friendship stops feeling mutual, starts feeling empty, or loses its luster. Childhood friends may stay friends because they feel guilty for violating the sacred bond of a long friendship. Even the ability to say “we’ve been friends for 20 years” can make exiting a friendship more difficult. The bonds of history thus present a considerable obstacle to shifting a friendship that no longer works for the participants involved.

2. The friend helped you through a difficult time.

When a friend helps you move through a difficult event or season of life, you may feel that you owe that friend loyalty. And like the bonds of history, loyalty can deepen a friendship. But sometimes, it becomes the final thread that holds together an otherwise faltering relationship. When the friendship stops feeling mutual, it might be time to ask yourself:

  • What do I owe this friend and for how long?
  • Does their support mean that nothing can ever change between us?
  • Can I feel grateful for their previous help and honor where the relationship is now?

3. You feel linked to a friend through a network.

Sometimes extricating yourself from a friendship is particularly difficult if the friendship operates largely in the context of a group. In this scenario, a person may struggle to distance from one friend without disconnecting from a larger social network. As a result, a person may put up with a frustrating or unhappy friendship or mitigate the impact of that one individual in the name of staying part of the collective.

4. It feels easier to maintain a depleting friendship than to set new boundaries.

For those that struggle with boundary-setting or confrontation, remaining in an unhappy friendship may feel preferable to the discomfort of shifting it. The phenomenon of ghosting speaks to the unease caused by having open, honest conversations within struggling relationships. But for those unwilling to or unable to exit silently, an often resentful, unhappy relationship remains in place of a mutual one.

5. Nobody taught you how to break up with a friend.

Despite shelves of books about ending unhealthy romantic relationships and books on separating from toxic family members, few speak about the difficulties of ending an unhealthy friendship. There simply isn’t the same cultural conversation that family and romantic relationships benefit from, leaving many scrambling for the language and methods to separate in healthy ways from an unhappy friendship.

Leaving is hard. It is painful. It requires sitting with uncomfortable truths that can upend routines, traditions, and bonds. But sometimes, it is best for everybody involved. The courage to leave makes room for the people who belong in our lives and help us grow into the people we are supposed to be.

Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

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