As a young woman, I assumed that friendships mellowed and improved over time, much like cheese and wine, growing richer and more precious through some mysterious, organic process. It was a great comfort to assume that, by the time I reached middle-age, I would be surrounded by only the strongest, most gratifying inner circle-bonds.

But things didn’t really turn out that way.

Instead, I discovered that relationships require care, attention and sometimes a brutally honest look at whether or not they still work. Unhealthy, dysfunctional friendships—whether casual, work-based or those that began in childhood—can sap our life force and lead to a toxic mix of misery and resentment. Addressing the problem can be a formidable task, one that most of us would sooner avoid than embrace. But digging in can be well worth the effort.

The science of strong friendship

According to the Mayo Clinic, friends “play a significant role in promoting your overall health. Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). Studies have even found that older adults with a rich social life are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections.” A 2014 research paper published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports: “Friends may promote our financial success, health, and even survival. Social exclusion and the loss of social partners result in feelings akin to physical pain, and deficits in the ability or motivation to form and maintain friendly relationships are a symptom of pathologies like autism and depression.”

Why do friendships deteriorate? Here are a few reasons:

  • Lopsided Listening: Not every visit with a friend can be perfectly balanced (nor should it be), but if you’re listening to endless complaints and problems without any reciprocal attempt by your friend to engage you, it could lead to an unhappy dynamic.
  • Toxic Topics: If a friend seems more interested in gossiping about others than engaging with you, try a gentle redirect. If that doesn’t work, you might want to set clear boundaries. Catching up on goings-on about town is one thing, but rumor mongering is another. Besides being a poor use of your time together, it generates negative energy (not to mention that they may be doing the same thing with others—possibly at your expense).
  • The Drag Factor: Friendships should nurture and lift you, not drag you down. If you feel worse after every get-together and find yourself dreading the next one, it’s possible the friendship is doing more harm than good.
  • The No-Show: If you’re consistently disappointed by a friend who fails to follow through on plans or cancels at the last minute, resentment is sure to follow.
  • To Grow or Not to Grow? If you’re friends with someone long enough, chances are you will face one or more life challenges that could spark a personal growth spurt and/or spiritual enlightenment. If your friend doesn’t embrace these changes or, worse, makes it clear they preferred the “old you,” consider it a red flag. Validation and respect are vital components to any healthy relationship.

What do you do when friendships go wrong?

  • Talk about it: There’s nothing to be gained by avoidance. Having an open and honest discussion with a friend provides an opportunity to deepen your connection. If they resist or shut you down, take it as a sign that you may have outgrown the relationship. People sometimes equate speaking up with creating drama and conflict –but addressing an issue openly with kindness and compassion is the most respectful path. Refusing to answer calls, emails or texts, on the other hand, is hurtful and leaves the other person unsure of what they did wrong.
  • There are ways to say things: Talking through a bump in the road is about speaking truth and taking up space, not about inciting hostility and vitriol. It’s best to start such a conversation on a positive note, emphasizing that you care deeply about the connection, but then make yourself heard by sharing your feelings in a measured but firm way.
  • Know when to say when: Don’t let fear of confrontation keep you in a toxic friendship. If you feel like it’s time to part ways, listen to your intuition. A little space and time can create an opportunity for reconciliation down the road (or not). In the meantime, self-care is key to keeping yourself grounded.

Relationships that whittle away your sense of self will most likely unwind over time, either by choice or circumstance. When this happens, you may be left with a profound sense of loss but may also breathe a huge sigh of relief. Give yourself the permission and freedom to gravitate toward people that feed you.

It’s a win-win.