There’s so much writing out there these days about narcissism and toxicity. But a lot of it point to signs and signals that are actually quite extreme — obvious behaviours, when the reality of toxic relationships tends to be far more insidious. I’ve reflected on this a lot lately, as part of my Ethical Living Project. Not only do I want to really consider what it means to live well, but also what makes my relationships valuable and how I can be a valuable friend to others.
Self-awareness is linked to empathy, and we can all be guilty of bad behaviour at times. But shining the light and taking the time to reflect can make us all better people — and help us realise who isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, as a friend, lover, whatever (Note: I’m going to refer to the person in question as ‘friend’ going forward, for ease). Here are my observations of what makes a relationship turn sour:
They don’t listen to what you say
This is really toxic behaviour 101. A person who can’t listen is going to struggle to be much of a friend, and it’s pretty clear when this happens. It’s not the same as being forgetful — which happens. We’re human! We don’t have perfect memories. But there’s a scale of how important something is to you and how important it is that someone else remembers it.
A lot of this boils down to whether they seemed to be listening in the first place. Are they making eye contact? Are they responding? Do they ask any follow up questions? Does it feel like they care? Or are they eager to start talking themselves, interrupt or cut you off? If they’re doing everything right, they could just be forgetful. But if they’re showing signs of disinterest from the start, it’s a red flag.
I’ve had a friend who would ask me a genuine question with all the positive signs, but I could feel her impatience for it to be ‘her turn’ to talk. This meant that I often rushed through what I wanted to say at top speed, eager to be able to finish a thought without interruption. When I realised I did this, I deliberately slowed down. Sure enough, she’d interrupt, take over the conversation, and never ask me to finish. And so I didn’t, and she didn’t notice. I finally realised that what I had to say didn’t matter much to her — better late than never.
They don’t have your back and often make excuses about this
This is about values. If you value something — a hobby, activity, job, person, whatever — you naturally want a friend to care a little about that important thing. You don’t have to love scuba diving the way they do — you don’t have to get into the sea with them. But it’s a good-friend-thing to ask and show support, even in a small sense.
Support is about offering interest, feedback and encouragement — even a critique can be a show of support, if it’s done in the interests of helping your friend out. You’ll discover the toxic person, because they’ll be the first to come up with an excuse as to why they can’t/won’t support you. And there’s always a reason — a slightly lame excuse why doing you a kindness was just impossible for them.
Toxic people will make a lot of excuses and get very defensive about bad behaviour, if and when you notice it. If you tell them honestly that something they did made you uncomfortable, they will immediately come up with ten ways in which it wasn’t their fault — there was another mysterious factor in play, and you are totally wrong to have any feelings about the matter. Chances are it has nothing to do with what was possible, and everything to do with the fact that they don’t want to feel responsible towards you. Not as your friend, not in any sense.
They are always in competition with you
If your friend is indeed a good one, they’re as excited for you to succeed as you are for them. You want to see each other do well. You want happiness for your friend, as they do for you. But there’s often that one person who can’t put jealousy aside for any of that — the person who is secretly (or not so secretly) in competition with you. I certainly have had friends who, also being writers, seemed to feel they were in direct competition with me, rather than wanting to work together to improve.
If something’s gone well and you’re excited to share, watch out for the person who immediately finds a way to belittle your achievement — looking for a loophole, a way to dust the sheen from your mood, who uses negativity, or suggests they did something way more impressive. The other big one is passive aggression — what looks like it could be a genuine question, compliment, or comment, actually comes with a backhand. Toxic.
They wait for you to do the work
It can’t always be you who does the ‘friendship work’. It can be hard to tell when this one happens — maybe you just naturally reach out. But after a while it can become clear when the other party is simply not trying. I’ve had friends who seemed amazingly engaged in our relationship when we were together, but who seemed to routinely disappear into the woodwork — until another personal crisis came along. We all want to reach out when we’re in need, but that shouldn’t be the only time we do so.
There are other ways this can manifest, too. I had a friend with whom it was nearly impossible to schedule a meeting. The only way I could see them is if I travelled literally to them, at their convenience, which often changed last minute. While this seems like a petty detail, after a while it gets a little tiring. You can’t be relied on to do it all —to use the cliche, it takes two to tango — and if someone is incapable of meeting halfway (literally or metaphorically), the friendship work starts to get a little one-sided.
They’re highly reactive at all times — it’s all too easy to make a wrong move
I’ve been guilty of being highly reactive when I’m under stress. As a consequence, I try my best to separate someone who’s just under pressure from someone who is constantly prickly. And you will, soon enough, tell the difference. That person who — rain, hail or shine — seems to turn to displeasure at the drop of a hat. Someone who is impossible to please, whose standards ensure you will always fall short, or who is always looking for a reason to correct you, berate you or argue with you.
I’ve had a friend who disappeared because they didn’t like something I said in a text. I carried on texting as normal, never receiving a response, and wondering why I could see them ‘read’ my texts without replying. When I clarified what I’d done to displease them later, they made it clear they thought it better to ‘punish’ me by ghosting me, rather than address the situation. From there onwards, I was always on eggshells, waiting for what other (to me) innocuous thing would cause them to ‘punish’ me again. And there was always something — avoiding the mines got pretty tough.
This is deliberate, a manipulation tactic designed to throw you off and make it hard for you to defend yourself, because they are always the victim. Someone who ensures that anything you say is a cause for antipathy is terribly hard work, and incredibly toxic. It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that you’ll never please them. It might well be better not to try.
Letting go is hard, but you’ll thank yourself later
Nobody likes to lose a connection, especially as you get into those post-university years, as you move jobs or cities, or just get into that adult age category where new friendships feel impossible. It can be hard to accept that, despite all the work you did, a connection simply isn’t working out. But if you observe these behaviours in someone routinely, it might well be time to face the music. What are they adding to your life? How much are they there for you as a friend, versus the amount of time they are causing you pain?
It’s not impossible to make new friends. Certainly, it isn’t easy. But your city will have community courses, craft groups, sports teams, community centres, church groups. I particularly like Obby and Meetup. You have neighbours, work colleagues, and you can always start with the friends who you do already have and cherish. Encourage the people around you to get together — introduce your friends to each other. It’s a great way to get started.
For every narcissist you encounter, there are loads of decent, respectful, interesting and cool people. It’s time to make the people you value the kind of people you can admire, rely on, support, trust, be open with and cherish.