Breaking toxic friendships and paving the way for new friendships in Adulthood

By the time we are 21-24 years of age, we believe we’ve established categories of friendships across different spheres such as college friends, peers at work, mutual friends etc. We’re inclined to think that we’ve grown up with our “set” of friends for years and that we understand each other so well that there is no room for toxicity, unfortunately that’s not true. Familiarity and sharing an unhealthy dynamic with people we believe are long-term friends can make it even more difficult for us to recognise unhealthy relationships! 

Here is a non-exhaustive list of what Toxic friendships can sound like 

  • They only call when they want something 
  • The conversation is never equal 
  • They put you down or make fun of you in front of others 
  • They are aggressively competitive 
  • They are not happy for you when good things happen- they usually fight or give you the silent treatment 
  • They bring exhausting drama into your life 
  • The relationship may feel like it is based on conditionality 
  • They use your secrets against you and share them

Unfortunately, long-term friendships are not easy to walk away from because of various reasons, one could be the very fact that some toxic traits form the crux of our friendship, another reason could be the fact that knowing a friend from a long time, also means families know each other, (specifically within the Indian context), and if we are not ready for a conversation with family, then “walking away” can feel incredibly difficult. However, the key to such complicated relationships sometimes could remain safer and a little healthier with the right boundaries and balance.

So how can we set boundaries with toxic friends?

  • Establish a mutual interest as the core of your relationship and try sticking to that
  • Rehearse and practice before confronting 
  • Take breaks to evaluate if you miss their company and understand what the friendship means to you 
  • Feel safe enough to call it quits 
  • Set rules for yourself based on your triggers and do your best to stick to them assertively. 

Yet, please note that these tips may not work all the time since, friendships (or any relationship, for that matter) are complex in nature and sometimes walking away from a friendship is everything we probably need at a given moment and yet that can feel like one of the toughest decisions you’ll ever take because the possibility of remaining lonely can plague us. Walking away from toxic friendships can be relatively easy if we have the confidence of making new and healthy friendships. 

However, initiating friendships as adults can feel daunting and unnatural since we are conditioned to believe friendships made in childhood end up remaining healthy and sustainable. But what happens when we grow out of relationships, move to different places across the globe and cultivate different interests that may significantly impact the time we spend with our friends? We may start finding the need to make newer relationships and friendships that attempt to encapsulate our growing interests, a space within a relationship that allows us to share what we think we can because of similar outlooks that we have about the world. 

Here are a few tips on making new friends as during adulthood –

  • Deepen your casual connections 
  • Use friendship apps seriously 
  • Familiarise yourself with conversation starters which you believe can ignite a friendship 
  • Listen and seek similarity. Don’t try to be interesting; be interested 
  • Don’t be a stranger, try checking in every two weeks or so, and try to make easy plans 
  • Join a class based on your hobbies 
  • Ask for help, research has shown that when two people connect to solve a problem, it can leave a lasting and impactful connection.
  • Use social media to find like-minded people- online groups or forums 
  • Think beyond your age, deviate from your typical friend group and approach younger and older friend groups 

Resources to help you learn more about adult friendships 

The article ‘An Adult’s Guide to Social Skills, for Those Who Were Never Taught’ (2020) by Eric Ravenscraft: this article from The New York Times details the social skills that help us connect, and integrates research alongside advice from experts.

The podcast Call Your Girlfriend: in their ‘Summer of Friendship’ series, the hosts (and best friends) Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow discuss friendship and bring in experts on the topic.

The episode ‘Accept the Awkwardness: How to Make Friends (and Keep Them)’ on the NPR podcast Life Kit: this episode explores how to make and keep new friends.

The book All About Love: New Visions (2018) is a fabulous deep dive into what love truly means, written by the Black intellectual bell hooks.

The collection The Psychology of Friendship (2016) edited by the psychologists Mahzad Hojjat and Anne Moyer provides a comprehensive summary of the academic research on friendship.

The book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World (2020) by the former US surgeon general Vivek H Murthy explores how loneliness affects us, and how we can overcome it and connect.

The guidebook We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships (2020) by Kat Vellos is an easily digestible handbook to building friendships, peppered with useful information, comics and practical activities.


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Archana Raghavan is a trainee psychotherapist and researcher, pursuing her masters at TISS, Mumbai. She enjoys reading and writing on mental health, therapy, identity and culture.
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