French teenagers on a boat in the Seine river, Paris, 1988. Photo by David Alan Harvey/Magnum
Even the best of friends can fill you with tension and make you sick. Why does friendship so readily turn toxic?
Think of a time when you sat across from a friend and felt truly understood. Deeply known. Maybe you sensed how she was bringing out your ‘best self’, your cleverest observations and wittiest jokes. She encouraged you. She listened, articulated one of your patterns, and then gently suggested how you might shift it for the better. The two of you gossiped about your mutual friends, skipped between shared memories, and delved into cherished subjects in a seamlessly scripted exchange full of shorthand and punctuated with knowing expressions. Perhaps you felt a warm swell of admiration for her, and a simultaneous sense of pride in your similarity to her. You felt deep satisfaction to be valued by someone you held in such high regard: happy, nourished and energised through it all.
These are the friendships that fill our souls, and bolster and shape our identities and life paths. They have also been squeezed into social science labs enough times for us to know that they keep us mentally and physically healthy: good friends improve immunity, spark creativity, drop our blood pressure, ward off dementia among the elderly, and even decrease our chances of dying at any given time. If you feel you can’t live without your friends, you’re not being melodramatic.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
One explanation for imbalance is that many friendships are aspirational: a study of teens shows that people want to be friends with popular people, but those higher up the social hierarchy have their pick (and skew the average). A corroborating piece of evidence, which was highlighted by Steven Strogatz in a 2012 article in The New York Times, is the finding that your Facebook ‘friends’ always have, on average, more ‘friends’ than you do. So much for friendship being an oasis from our status-obsessed world.
‘Ambivalent’ relationships, in social science parlance, are characterised by interdependence and conflict. You have many positive and negative feelings toward these people. You might think twice about picking up when they call. These relationships turn out to be common, too. Close to half of one’s important social network members are identified as ambivalent. Granted, more of those are family members (whom we’re stuck with) than friends, but still, for friendship, it’s another push off the pedestal.
Friends who are loyal, reliable, interesting companions – good! – can also be bad for you, should they have other qualities that are less desirable. We know through social network research that depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll smoke and drink more.
Other ‘good’ friends might have, or start to have, goals, values or habits that misalign with your current or emerging ones. They certainly haven’t ‘done’ anything to you. But they aren’t a group that validates who you are, or that will effortlessly lift you up toward your aims over time. Stay with them, and you’ll be walking against the wind.
In addition to annoying us, these mixed-bag friendships harm our health. A 2003 study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University and Bert Uchino from the University of Utah asked people to wear blood-pressure monitors and write down interactions with various people. Blood pressure was higher with ambivalent relationships than it was with friends or outright enemies. This is probably due to the unpredictability of these relationships, which leads us to be vigilant: Will Jen ruin Christmas this year? Ambivalent relationships have also been associated with increased cardiovascular reactivity, greater cellular ageing, lowered resistance to stress, and a decreased sense of wellbeing.
One research team, though, found that ambivalent friendships might have benefits in the workplace. They showed that in these pairings workers are more likely to put themselves in the other’s shoes, in part because they are trying to figure out what the relationship means and what it is. Also, because ambivalent friendships make you feel uncertain about where you stand, they can push you to work harder to establish your position.
‘Frenemies’ are perhaps a separate variety in that they are neatly multi-layered – friendliness atop rivalry or dislike – as opposed to the ambivalent relationship’s admixture of love, hate, annoyance, pity, devotion and tenderness. Plenty of people have attested to the motivating force of a frenemy at work, as well as in the realms of romance and parenting…