The case for ghosting on a bad friendship

Sometimes cutting off all ties is a difficult, necessary choice
By Julie Tremaine    Published on 10/30/2018 at 11:58 AM EDT
Ian Schneider/Unsplash

I’m going to tell you something I’m not proud of: I’ve ghosted on a toxic friendship.

But I will tell you something else, too: It was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Because when I reached the point that I ended this toxic friendship, I had finally learned how to set personal boundaries.

The simple truth is that for a long time, I didn’t know how to put up limits. I didn’t even learn what an emotional boundary was until I was in my 30s, and I certainly had never thought of relationships in those terms. You just do everything you can for the people you love, right? But “everything you can” isn’t “run yourself ragged and forget about yourself.” 

It took me a long time to see relationships through the lens of what’s healthy and what isn’t, especially when it came to telling the difference between a real friendship and a toxic one. They never start out toxic—that’s the sneaky part. You bond over whatever it is you bond over. You have fun for a long time. Then one person starts asking for favors, and one person starts giving them. You can probably guess who’s who in that scenario. Then the favors become more frequent, and harder to fulfill. And all of a sudden what was a friendship doesn’t feel like a friendship anymore.

No woman reading this needs to be told that female friendships, in particular, can be fraught. We can enter platonic friend relationships as deeply as we do romantic ones. But we’re also conditioned not only to ignore toxicity, but to accept it.

By the time in my life when I ghosted this friend, I had been through plenty of friendships that weren’t exactly healthy, but had run their course and fallen away naturally. With this friend, though, it was different. It had been months of me feeling like things were out of balance and not knowing how to say anything. (Or knowing if I should say anything, if the feeling in my gut was even right, or whether I was just being selfish.) But, I was reading Brene Brown and Harriet Lerner, and doing good work on seeing these patterns in my life, and I was ready to make a change. “I’m not feeling good about the state of our friendship right now,” I said to her. “I need some time before I can talk.”

Psychology Today says that signs of a toxic friendship include the friend only being present when she wants something, and other people noticing their poor treatment of you in a way that you feel you need to defend. I would add this: When you say you need time to think, and you get about 100 texts back, each one pushing harder than the last. That’s the thing about putting up boundaries—it only works when the other person understands the generally accepted framework of mutual respect, especially when you tell her what you need.

I didn’t want to ghost that friendship. I wanted space to sort out my head, to find a path forward that felt balanced and healthy to me. I was also upset, not just with her, but with myself for letting things progress this far. I finally saw my own toxic pattern: I gave more than I was comfortable with—especially to people who were all too willing to accept—and then got angry and resentful when people took what I was offering. I was the only person who could find my own balance between giving and still keeping something for myself.

Eventually I did answer her, but just once. I sent her a text, saying that I knew we had both gotten our friendship to that place, and I wasn’t sure what to say yet. I didn’t feel immune from backsliding into bad habits, and wasn’t sure who needed to give what apology. Should I apologize to her for not voicing my concerns a long time ago? Did I want her to feel sorry for doing things that made me feel used? Could she even see herself in that way?

The answer was no. At least for me, in that instance, to get out of that situation. “I’m concerned for your mental health,” she replied to me. Concerned for my mental health. When I was doing positive work (with a therapist, I might add) and she was inundating me with communication—several times a day—that felt increasingly narcissistic and manipulative. It was gaslighting 101. I realized there was no rescuing that friendship. Repairing things wasn’t about the two of us. It was about what she wanted from me, and how she wanted to feel about herself. I couldn’t get her to hear what I was saying, and I didn’t see any positives in continuing to try. So I stopped talking. Radio silence from there on out. Because, I realized, this person was not a healthy person to have in my life—and any more communication from me would just pull me back in further.

It was months more of uncomfortable messages from her, trying to push me to open back up, sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes with humor, always with the undercurrent that it was driving her crazy that she couldn’t control the situation. Every message pushed me further away, until they finally stopped. (Unless she sees this essay, in which case, I will finally block her, which is a line in my life I hope I don’t have to cross.)

Cutting someone out of your life is an incredibly hard decision, and one that I made by inches every day, when I would think of reaching out, then get another text and retreat even more. It felt terrible. My response to her treating me badly was equally bad treatment, in a different way. But I also think I’m not alone in making the choice I made. Call it cowardly or sociopathic—depending on the Google click you’ll get one or both descriptions—but I don’t think you’re a bad person if you’ve had to make a hard choice for your own self-preservation. You can still be a good person, and a good friend. You’ve just learned how the hard way.

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