9 ways to deal with an emotionally draining friendship

Read time: 10 min

There’s a reason we love our friends so much. Friendships aren’t just about having a fun crew to hang out with on the weekends; they’re a hugely important part of our health and well-being.

“Healthy friendships are important at every age,” says Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a board-certified pediatrician in adolescent medicine in Minnesota. Why? Your mental, emotional, and physical health are all related, she explains. “Strong friendships lead to positive mental and emotional health, providing acceptance, mutual affection, trust, respect, and fun.”

But as powerful as a healthy friendship can be, the flip side is also true: Certain friendships can be mentally and emotionally draining if they become too much. For example, the friend who gets weirdly jealous or possessive when you spend time with another friend, or the roommate who constantly wants to confide in you but never listens when you need to vent about something. These overbearing friendships can take a toll on your happiness and emotional health.

We all need people

There’s no question that investing time and energy into friendships is a good thing. “Friendships are there to enhance your life to help you feel a sense of connectedness,” says Dr. Ellen Jacobs, a psychologist in New York who works with young adults.

Making friends with people in groups you identify with—your women in STEM club, fraternity or sorority, or first-generation student group, for example—can help you deepen those experiences and get that sense of belonging that makes you feel comfortable and confident. “Making friends who have other interests is also important—it can broaden your world views, open new doors, and increase [appreciation and respect for others],” says Dr. Hogan.

There’s scientific research to back up the health benefits of having close personal relationships. A large systematic review on the importance of social friendships found that people with friendships that are low in quality or quantity are more likely to die early or develop serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even cancer. On the other hand, healthy social ties appear to boost the immune system, improve mental health, and lower stress. Consider this as one of your motivations for scheduling regular friend dates.

Good friendships gone bad

Clearly, relationships are important, but what can we do when they go awry? Nearly 75 percent of students who responded to a recent CampusWell survey said they’ve experienced an overbearing or unhealthy friendship.

Students in our survey shared stories about what made their friendships turn sour, for example, “friends” who:

  • Made the relationship all about themselves
  • Acted jealous of other friendships the person had
  • Were too nosy about things the person didn’t want to share (i.e., didn’t respect their boundaries)
  • Refused to take responsibility for wrongdoings
  • Drained their emotional energy or acted controlling

If you’re wondering whether you might be dealing with an overbearing or unhealthy friendship, “the first thing you should ask is how do you feel when you’re with this friend?” says Dr. Jacobs. If the answer is anything negative—stressed, anxious, annoyed, guilty, exhausted, not good enough, stupid, ugly, ashamed—that’s a red flag. And if the friendship is making you feel unsafe, it’s important to reach out to a school counselor or healthcare professional to share your concerns.

Here are some specific questions to help you assess whether or not your friendship is healthy:

  1. Does my friend get angry if I don’t call/text back right away?
  2. Does my friend make me feel guilty if I don’t include them in every activity?
  3. Does my friend make negative comments about my busy schedule?
  4. Does my friend make their schedule around when I’m free?
  5. Do I worry about this friend to the point of distraction?
  6. Do I find myself developing excuses to avoid my friend?
  7. Do I lie to my friend about what I’m doing?
  8. Is my friend jealous of other people/things in my life?
  9. Do I get annoyed whenever this person contacts me?
  10. Do I dread running into this person?
  11. Am I overwhelmed as soon as I see this person?
  12. Does this friendship leave me feeling exhausted or drained?
  13. Does it feel like a one-way relationship where I’m giving all the support or putting in all the effort?
  14. Does it feel like my friend is always in control?

If you answered yes to some of these questions, it doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is doomed. Below are some recommendations for dealing with a friendship that’s become dysfunctional.

Talk it out

The first step is to have a conversation—that’s what 59 percent of students did when dealing with an overbearing friend, according to the CampusWell survey. “When you don’t tell people how upset you are with their behavior, you can internalize it—you end up taking all these feelings out on yourself,” says Dr. Jacobs. Talking it out can be easier said than done, but if you care about saving the friendship, it’s worth it, she says. When you don’t talk about what’s bothering you, “it ends up damaging the relationship more and can really erode the friendship.”

“Sometimes your friend may not even realize that their actions are toxic,” says Isra A., a fourth-year student at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.

If you’re struggling to understand one another, get a mutual friend to act as a mediator—someone who knows both of you well and can bring some clarity to the situation.

Build a sandwich

Sandwich icon | unhealthy friendshipOnce you’ve decided to bring up the issue, how you present it to your friend matters. The experts recommend “building a sandwich”—sliding an issue such as needing more space between two positive comments. This can help reduce the chance of your friend getting defensive or feeling hurt.

Here’s an example: “I love how much fun we have together—you’re my favorite person to hang out with on the weekends. This semester is so crazy for me though, and I don’t really have time to hang out on weeknights too. Let’s book Saturday nights for each other in our calendars, OK?”

Be honest and respectful

If the issue is deeper—for example, addressing a friend who has been putting you down or being manipulative—it’s best to be direct but respectful, says Dr. Jacobs. “Say, ‘I feel this way when you do X,’ rather than say, ‘You are X.’” People are more likely to be receptive when you talk about how an action is making you feel vs. getting defensive if they feel accused of something.

Listen up

Ear icon | unhealthy friendshipCourse correcting a friendship involves sharing your perspective and listening to theirs. “Put your phone on silent and go for a walk [or] grab lunch,” says Dr. Ian Connole, senior associate athletics director for Peak Performance at Dartmouth College. “Listen twice as much as you talk—really give your friend the gift of your time and full attention.” You might get some insight into why your friend has become so overbearing or passive-aggressive lately—and be able to empathize with it.

Expand your social circle

You can distance yourself amicably without totally cutting ties, says Dr. Jacobs. “Get busy and start getting involved with other people,” she says. In doing this, you don’t necessarily have to tell your friend why you’re spending more time on other things if you feel it would be unhelpful or hurtful to do so, she adds.

Instead, encourage your friend to get more involved in other activities too. You can even introduce them to some new people—with more options, your friend won’t be as dependent on the time spent solely with you.

6. If the person is your roommate, schedule a check-in

When the person you live with fails to respect your boundaries, handling the situation can be extra tricky. Be clear and let your roommate know you need a bit of breathing room or that your apartment/dorm is becoming a high-stress zone for you. Draw up a list of roommate rules that leave you both feeling respected in your space. If you live in on-campus housing, you can also reach out to your resident advisor for help to mediate the conversation.

In the worst-case scenario, take yourself out of the stress zone and seek solace in an open lounge, the library, or a favorite café or coffee shop when you need a little peace.

Get an outside ear

Sometimes it can be helpful to talk things over with someone outside the situation, such as a parent or mentor. If you live on campus, your resident advisor can help, and the campus counseling center can also offer an unbiased ear. You’d be surprised how many students meet with someone professional to talk about friendship and roommate stress—nearly a third of our survey respondents say they dealt with their overbearing friend this way. By assessing the things that are challenging and communicating sensitively, you can move forward with more energy to devote to all of your other pursuits.

Take a look in the mirror

Mirror icon | unhealthy friendship“Friends are really good opportunities to learn about yourself,” says Dr. Jacobs. “Whenever you’re having difficulty with a friend, it’s always good to take a look at what you’re bringing to the equation.” If the dynamic in your friendship has changed for the worse, ask yourself if there’s anything you may have contributed to that. For example, have you started hanging out with someone new who isn’t very inclusive of your older friends and might be sparking some jealousy? “It’s important to also take responsibility for your role in the dynamic, if possible,” Dr. Jacobs says.

Walk away if you need to

Some friendships shouldn’t be saved. Ask yourself if your healthy dynamic has turned sour or if you’ve maybe just realized that there are certain personality traits in this person you don’t like or that don’t bring out the best in you. In either case, consider distancing  yourself in favor of healthier relationships that align with your values.

“Don’t ever feel guilty or bad about doing this. There’s no shame in taking care of yourself and walking away from a bad friendship. You owe it to yourself and to the important people in your life to be in a better place,” says Tiffany K., a fifth-year student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

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Have you seen at least one thing on that you will apply to everyday life?
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Article sources

Ian Connole, PhD, senior associate athletics director for Peak Performance at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Marjorie Hogan, MD, pediatrician, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Ellen Jacobs, PhD, adolescent and adult psychologist, New York, New York.

Kent de Grey, R. G., & Uchino, B. N. (2020). The health correlates and consequences of friendship. In L.M. Cohen (ed.), The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology (pp. 239-245). John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 

Hefner, J., & Eisenberg, D. (2009). Social support and mental health among college students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(4), 491–499. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016918

Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, S54–S66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501