‘Toxic Friend’ Is a Toxic Label
Are we too quick to throw away difficult relationships?
Not long ago, I had a small confrontation with a friend. Or at least, it started small: I was annoyed that she kept canceling plans, and I’d finally reached a breaking point. When I told her it bothered me, she rattled off some things I did that bothered her, too. Quickly, the exchange morphed from me getting something off my chest to me getting into a fight.
It was stressful, but none of it was particularly earth-shattering. Friends fight sometimes. We made up and moved on. So when I told another friend about it later, I was taken aback by their advice. I should consider ending things, they told me, adding: “She sounds toxic.”
Until that moment, I’d never thought to describe anyone in my life as “toxic,” even though it’s a label I’ve heard tossed around quite a bit. I’ve had fraught relationships, sure. Like anyone, I’ve struggled with feeling overburdened and underappreciated by people in my life. But “toxic,” at least the way we use it now, implies a certain grave finality: You spot the toxic person, and then you cut them out.
But while we may understand that sequence of events as clear-cut, the word “toxic” itself is anything but. “‘Toxic’ is really just an easy shorthand to describe a situation, relationship, or person that is bad for you,” says the human-development researcher Suzanne Degges-White, who chairs the Counseling and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University.
“From toxic work environments, toxic families, and toxic friendships, the term captures the sense of negative influence these can have on a person,” Degges-White says, but relationships can feel negative without being toxic. Conflict is unpleasant. Working through it requires honesty, directness, and vulnerability. It’s draining. It’s also a necessary part of making relationships better.
Don’t use “toxic” as an easy out
Kathy McCoy, an Arizona-based psychologist and the author of several books on family…