There’s a reason we love our friends so much. Friendships aren’t just about happy hours or someone to visit 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 housemate 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.
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 club athletic team, parent’s group, or student organization, 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 tolerance,” says Dr. Hogan.
There’s scientific research to back up the health benefits of having a bestie. A 2010 review of studies found that those who have few friends or low-quality friendships 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 your excuse for scheduling regular friend dates.
Good friendships gone bad
Clearly, relationships are important, but what can we do when they go awry? More than half of students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they’ve experienced an overbearing or unhealthy friendship.
Students in our survey shared stories about what made their friendships turn sour (e.g., friends who made the relationship all about them, acted jealous of other friend groups, were too nosy about things they didn’t want to share, refused to take responsibility, drained their emotional energy, or acted controlling).
If you’re wondering whether you might be dealing with an overbearing or unhealthy friendship, think about how you feel when you’re with this person. “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.
Here are some specific questions to consider:
- Does my friend get angry if I don’t call/text back right away?
- Does my friend make me feel guilty if I don’t include them in every activity?
- Does my friend make negative comments about my busy schedule?
- Does my friend make their schedule around when I’m free?
- Do I worry about this friend to the point of distraction?
- Do I find myself developing excuses to avoid my friend?
- Do I lie to my friend about what I’m doing?
- Is my friend jealous of other people/things in my life?
- Do I get annoyed whenever this person contacts me?
- Do I dread running into this person?
- Am I overwhelmed as soon as I see this person?
- Does this friendship leave me feeling exhausted or drained?
- Does it feel like a one-way relationship where I’m giving all the support or putting in all the effort?
- 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.
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 Student Health 101 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 so toxic,” says Isra A., a fourth-year undergraduate at Texas Woman’s University.
Once 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?”
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 kind, 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.
Course 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, a sports psychologist in Boston. “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. “It’s amazing how often the conflict or disagreement means less when the friendship means more,” says Dr. Connole.
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.
When the person you live with is super overbearing, handling the situation can be extra tricky. Be clear and let your housemate know you need a bit of breathing room or that your apartment is becoming a high-stress zone for you. Draw up a list of guidelines that leave you both feeling respected in your space.
In the worst-case scenario, take yourself out of the stress zone and seek solace in an open park, a favorite café, or a coffee shop when you need a little peace.
Sometimes it can be helpful to talk things over with someone outside the situation, such as counselor or mentor. You’d be surprised how many students meet with someone professional to talk about friendship and housemate 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.
“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.
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 the latter case, you can—and should—distance yourself in favor of healthier relationships that align with your values.
Here’s an example: “I love how much fun we have together—you’re my favorite person to hang out with on the weekends. These last couple months have been so crazy for me though, and I don’t really have time to hang out on weeknights too. Let’s book some Saturday nights for each other in our calendars, OK?”
Your school’s counseling center is also a great resource for support and guidance.
Ian Connole, sport psychology consultant, Waynesburg University, Pennsylvania.
Marjorie Hogan, MD, pediatrician, University of Minnesota.
Ellen Jacobs, PhD, adolescent and adult psychologist, New York, New York.
Teresa Wallace, director of counseling and psychoeducational services, Casper College, Wyoming.
Hefner, J., & Eisenberg, D. (2009). Social support and mental health among college students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(4), 491–499.
Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, S54–S66. doi: 10.1177/0022146510383501