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How to Spot the Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Friendship

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“If you’re my friend, you should…”

“I’m asking you to do this as a friend!”

“We’re friends so I know you won’t mind helping me with…”

These are all phrases that might be signs of an emotionally abusive friendship, a connection that takes advantage of your relationship in ways that only benefit one person. Unfortunately, friendships that cross this very fine line are rampant and it’s important that we all know how to spot the warning signs before things go too far.

Articles and reports on this type of friendship are on the rise in the last few years and most are targeted at women. Military-connected women are at a big risk to experience abusive friendships, too.

Now, you might think, military culture is all about give-and-take, helping each other and community support. You’re not wrong, but also it is exactly this type of environment that can allow some to take advantage of the system.

Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with offering or asking for help when you need it. Frankly, we all could use a little help sometimes! But there is a clear difference between occasionally swapping babysitting duties on date nights or asking a friend to pick up a forgotten ingredient during their commissary trip and the types of friendship abuse we are talking about here.

Let's talk about the signposts of emotionally unhealthy friendships. #friendship #friends

Toxic vs. Abusive Friendship

An article featured on The Lily, an online media outlet owned by The Washington Post, pointed out that there are two types of friendships that cross lines: toxic and abusive.

Toxic friends are people who drain you, emotionally and mentally. This is a person who is pushy or demanding, they want to be with you all the time. When you see their name pop up on your phone alerts, you might make a face or cringe. It’s the person you avoid interacting with as often as possible.

Abusive friendships are a little different. According to The Lily, friendship abuse can often mirror spousal or intimate partner abuse. An abusive friend might consistently insult you or isolate you from your friends. They might make frequent demands on your time, guilting you into agreeing because, after all, “you’re friends.” It’s easier to get you to comply and go along with their requests because of the isolation (you feel like you have no other friends) and the insults (your self-esteem and self-worth are destroyed).

Military Life Can Cause Major Friendship Dramas

Military life can be isolating. You’re moving every one to three years, on average, and often to a place where you don’t have connections. So when someone connects with you, ready to be friends and show you the local ropes, you jump at the chance.

Soon you’re hanging out all the time, everything is done together. And because you have this person, you might not feel as motivated to branch out and make more social connections.

Slowly, the insults and demeaning comments start. It’s sneaky, perhaps backhanded compliments that hit your biggest insecurities. How do they know exactly where and how to hurt you? Because you’ve told them. After all, you are friends and friends share personal details with each other.

Or maybe something that started as a way to be helpful has morphed into regular unpaid labor. You agreed to watch their kids for a date night one Friday, and now they’re expecting you to be there every Friday.

That exact type of situation is what originally sparked this post, actually. Like many military spouses, I’m involved in a wide variety of social media groups. In one group, a person shared their story and wondered if they were being the jerk.

The poster had offered to watch a friend’s children, unpaid, so that the friend could run an errand solo. No big deal, right? Except that an occasional babysitting gig turned into a very regular “job.” And when the poster decided to seek paid employment, the friend was insulted. They demanded answers and extra babysitting time – all for exactly $0 – which the person declined

Now, the social media group rallied round the poster. They assured the person that they were, in fact, not the jerk. Being someone’s friend doesn’t mean being at their beck and call or providing unpaid labor. That is not a friendship – it is abuse.

And yet, there is often this unspoken expectation that military spouses will be on-call, on-demand helpful just because.

Abusive Behaviors Beyond Friendships

Because the military is a community-based environment, there is often an expectation that services and goods be provided for free or way below fair market value.

Check out this other “am I the jerk” scenario:

Friend A has a spouse who is deployed. Friend B’s spouse is home, but they only have one car. Friend B requests that Friend A loan her the deployed spouse’s vehicle because they’re “not using it.” When that request was denied, Friend B then asks Friend A to act as an unpaid personal shuttle or taxi service, taking the friend plus three kids to appointments, stores and outings. When asked why they thought this was an acceptable request: “Because we’re military and we help each other.”

Hard pass, friends, hard pass.

Remember, you are not under any obligations to provide goods or services to another military spouse just because “military community.” That’s not a thing.

Sure, it’s wonderful if you offer to help a friend get somewhere or watch their kids so they can take a break. But requesting or demanding support – without offering to provide compensation – is a sure sign of a toxic friendship.

These over-the-top requests aren’t limited to close friendships. Sometimes requests come from folks you might only know tangentially.

Take for example, my own experience:

Prior to a homecoming, my spouse reached out to see if I might be able to provide support to a colleague’s wife. She and their child were coming into town for homecoming and needed some help. I was thinking: stocking a hotel room, offering to watch the little one while she hit the salon, meeting for dinner. Nope. The actual request was to, on the day of homecoming after a 12-month deployment, pick up the other person’s family (with a kiddo in a car seat) from the hotel, take them to homecoming, bring that whole family back to the hotel and then go back to my own house. Keep in mind, I drove a small 4-door sedan with comfortable seating for four adults. Not four adults plus a car seat plus two service member’s worth of deployment gear.

When I declined (because, duh, homecoming after 12 months apart), my spouse was shocked. But I set my boundary very clearly and shared unit-based resources to help the family with their own logistics. It all worked out. Eventually, my spouse realized the request was out of line– especially when he saw that just his gear filled our tiny car to the brim.

Getting Out of the Abusive Friendship

Leaving an abusive friendship is all about boundaries: setting them clearly and holding them consistently.

Start by calling out the behavior that isn’t acceptable to you. This might be insults or when they don’t take your opinions seriously.

“I don’t like it when (toxic behavior). Next time you (toxic behavior), I will leave.”

And then leave when they do it again.

Verbalizing this boundary, and following through, is an act of self-care. And it’s the first step in leaving this abusive cycle.

Next, say no to requests that cross your boundaries or that you’re not interested in doing. This can be anything: dinner together, babysitting, an event invite or providing unpaid taxi services.

It’s okay to decline things that you’re not interested in – it’s another act of self-care. Bonus: you don’t need to provide a reason why you’re saying no. Just say it and sit in that powerful position. You have the right to say no to anything at any time.

If they do ask, just say you’re not doing it because you’re not. Leave it there and walk away.

Keep on saying no. It puts some healthy distance between you and your toxic friend. With more space and time to reflect on the relationship, you might notice additional negative patterns of behavior. And your mental health might improve now that you’re not surrounded by a cloud of demands or negativity. Plus, you’ll have more time to reconnect with other friends or meet new people.

How Do You Know It’s Time to Go?

Okay, so, hard truth: if you are reading this and wondering if you should pull back from a friend, then it’s time to follow through on your gut instinct.

Other signs you might need to create some space:

  • you cringe, tense, or have a strong negative reaction when your friend texts, calls, or tags you online
  • you actively avoid events your friend might be
  • you find yourself cancelling plans with this friend regularly
  • you feel worse about yourself after being with this friend
  • your friend control your joint activities
  • you are afraid to voice a conflicting opinion or make an alternate suggestion
  • your friend insults you regularly about known areas of insecurity
  • conversations are all about your friend, with little input from you
  • your friend consistently requests that you “help” them with babysitting, driving them places, yard work, etc.
  • your friend rarely offers to help you in turn
  • you find yourself paying for your friend but do not get paid back
  • you find that you haven’t been in contact with other friends, spending all your social time with the toxic person

Keep reading…

Meg Flanagan is a teacher, blogger and military spouse. She owns Meg Flanagan Education Solutions, an education advocacy service dedicated to serving families on the K-12 journey. You can find Meg on Facebook. Meg is also available as a freelance writer and personal education advocate!


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