By Maggie Swofford, Marketing & Editorial Assistant
While we had some fun musing about our uplifting, healthy friendships in my last blog post about Michele Howe’s book Navigating the Friendship Maze, now it’s time to delve into the hard stuff: how to deal with friends who are bringing us down, who are corrupting our good natures, and whose relationship with us is on the rocks.
It’s hard enough to maintain good friendships as it is, let alone to do the hard work of analyzing whether or not your friendship is truly what it could or should be. While facing the difficult reality of friendships that are going poorly or are near destruction can feel incredibly isolating—who wants to cut off someone who used to be a source of joy and love in our lives!—Howe moves through this sensitive subject dexterously and with much intentionality. Here’s a peek into four of my thoughts on her wise advice about friendships to avoid or relieve yourself of.
Facing Your Bad Friends
1. Recognizing when you are being positively and negatively affected by your friends
I really appreciated the level of honesty that Howe put into her chapter “We Become Like Those We Associate with Most.” In it, she shares a story about a friendship she had in high school that really affected her negatively and hindered her personal growth. She says,
I realized I was changing in ways I didn’t like. Looking back, I know it was the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit cautioning me, teaching me, and challenging me to make a change. I started considering other ways this girl was negatively influencing me by mere association. I don’t remember ever making conscious choices to use a curse word or talk about others critically or take on such a pessimistic attitude toward life in general before she entered my life. But eventually I did. Soon after graduation, I began to distance myself from this friend until one day I realized we weren’t (and never had been) true friends.
A few phrases that jarred me in particular from this passage are when she says, “I was changing in ways I didn’t like” and “we weren’t (and never had been) true friends.” I really admire her courage to recognize and declare these things that are typically very difficult to admit. In her regret at not having been able to see these negative influences earlier, I think she is gifting us with a kick-in-the-butt reminder not to let the same thing happen to us. As much as we may enjoy a friend’s presence at the time, we need to stay strong and identify when their influence is really hurting us or diverting us away from our best selves.
When you step back to consider your friendships with fresh eyes, are there any that are influencing you negatively? Are there any ways you can stop this from occurring, or is this a friendship you may need to distance yourself from?
2. Being aware of how your friends treat others, because their actions represent how they will treat you
While I am not optimistic with many things, I am unashamedly optimistic with people. Even if my friends say, “Be careful; she isn’t a very nice person,” I usually just shake off their words. I tend to think the best of people from the get-go. It’s easy for me to brush off the red flags when I feel like the friendship is blooming well. This has gotten me in some trouble with my friendships, though. What Howe warns of is that none of us are ever the exception to Paul Tripp’s words: “People will tell you who they are. You just have to pay attention.”
In this grain, Howe encourages us to observe
the overall relational patterns in a friend’s life. Do they make friends and keep them? Or do they make friends and lose them just as quickly? Do they evidence genuine care and concern for others, or do they seem consumed with caring only about what benefits them? How do they handle conflict? Do they stick around long enough to work it out, or do they bolt? When there is an issue between themselves and others, do they verbally crucify the other person or give them grace?
Answering these questions honestly can give you a pretty clear idea of which of your friends are true lifelong friends who care about your relationship and are willing to put in the time and effort required to uphold it.
When you look at these questions and answer them as plainly and bluntly as possible, what do you discover about your friends? Are there any patterns in their lives that might point to potential issues in your friendships with them down the road?
3. Knowing when to let a friendship go
I think that Howe’s previous point begs an interesting follow up idea: that it is perfectly normal and important for us to occasionally step back to assess our friendships, their health, how/if we can improve them, and, if they are diseased and holding us back from our best selves, whether we need to cut them out. This is something that, up until reading this book, I had never really considered as being a valid option. I usually just succumb to my noxious friendships, accepting that they are what they are and that I can just do my best to try and fix them myself. As Howe wisely asserts, though, sometimes our own willingness to put work into a relationship is not a good enough excuse to keep the person around. She writes, “Better to face the worst head-on and start the healing process than let it simmer in the backdrop of your life, always ready to erupt whenever you are reminded of the injury you felt.” In the end, if your “friend” is unwilling to put effort into sustaining a joyful, thriving relationship, why waste your energy on that person? We are only given a short amount of time on this earth, so we should use that precious time to build into those friends who are good influences and who nourish us emotionally and spiritually.
Another tough question: which relationships or friendships have you kept hold of in your life that haven’t been reciprocating your care and concern or may even be making your life harder? Are there steps you can take to distance yourself from those friendships?
4. Making friends who handle conflict well
In the vein of finding friends who are ready and willing to put effort into your relationship, Howe highlights the specific quality of conflict management and resolution. Howe writes, “Be alert to the ways your friends choose to handle disagreements, disturbances, misunderstandings, and other ‘messy’ relational elements. Although messiness is a part of all relationships that go the distance, conflicts between friends should never end the relationship. Rather, they should strengthen it.” I believe that there comes a time in nearly every friendship where you come to a place where there’s a gap in between both friends, and you need to decide if and how you should cross the gap.
This happened to a good friend of mine a few years back. We were going through a period where we were more distant from one another, despite our close physical proximity. For better or for worse, we were losing touch with one another. After a lengthy period of this, we eventually scheduled a time when we sat down and expressed how we were feeling about our friendship. It was hard, but I think we both appreciated one another’s honesty and vulnerability. Following this conversation was a tense period of time where we both were pondering how to move forward. While we could have easily and smoothly transitioned out of our friendship, we both decided to continue investing in our friendship. Both of us put in extra energy to make it work and made visible efforts to resolve our issues. Seeing the mutuality of our effort warmed us back up to each other and further proved that we were truly good friends.
Unfortunately, our positive outcome isn’t necessarily normal. If I’m speaking honestly, approaching some of my friends in this manner would basically be feeding our friendship to the wolves. However, this reality merely highlights the vital quality of handling conflict maturely and marks a friend that should be treasured.
Of course, I think it’s worth it to also say that conflict shouldn’t be pursued solely in the hopes of further refining a friendship. Rather, it is when conflict naturally arises and is addressed appropriately that we can be assured of a healthy friendship and that our investment in that person is time and effort well spent.
Are there any friendships that you think may be benefited by sitting down and discussing some issues that you both have been brushing under the rug? How do you think that friend would respond to a confrontation or a scheduled sit-down discussion? Is your friendship worth the risk?
Thanks for taking the time to consider your friendships with me these last two weeks. It can be extremely scary and exhausting to confront your friendships, both good and bad ones, to see what needs to be changed in order to improve everyone’s experience in them. Luckily for you, I’d say that your concern and curiosity that drew you to these blog posts just proves that you yourself are a thoughtful and engaged friend who truly wants all your relationships to be healthy ones. If you’re willing to seek out advice, then you’re well on your way to gathering all the tools you need to build strong friendships. Cheers to you!
If you missed last week’s post about maintaining healthy friendships, now might be a good time to read that for a bit of a pick-me-up, or for a happy re-read.
If you enjoyed what you read here, I’d strongly suggest you check out Navigating the Friendship Maze on our website. This is merely the tip of the iceberg of all the amazing advice that Howe thoughtfully explicates in the rest of the book!
Maggie Swofford is a marketing and editorial assistant at Hendrickson Publishers. She graduated summa cum laude with honors from Gordon College with a BA in English Language & Literature. She can often be seen ogling Impressionist and Renaissance art and scribbling bits and pieces of poetry and memoir in her writer’s notebook.