This New Year’s Eve, I spent a great deal of time with a casual acquaintance who insisted on complaining about his friend group situation — because A had done something to B who said something to C who had never forgiven A for this and that but was harboring resentment toward B about D and who the hell gives a shit. As I listened to this person wax on and on about their problems — on a holiday in which we were supposed to be finding people to make out with — I wondered what could possibly possess this person to devote so much time and energy to hashing all of this out or (even worse) dealing with this crap all the time. They say that most people who have lots of personal problems like having them, or are addicted to drama, but this person just seemed addicted to complaining. They never met a friend they couldn’t have a grudge against two days later.
I generally dislike labeling people as “toxic,” and an old roommate of mine came up with a better term. We both knew this girl — who while being charming and incredibly interesting — seemed to suck up all the oxygen in the room with her personal problems. This was the kind of person whose life attracts “grand dramas” — the Ballad of the Boyfriend Who Never Calls, the Operetta of the B- When She Deserved a B, the Rhyme of the Ancient Yeast Infection, the Dirty Limerick of Why Everyone Is Terrible — and when you were around her, you were always so wrapped up in her problems you could never focus on your own. To encapsulate her glory, my roommate called her an “emotional vampire.” She feeds on feelings. Even when you’re not around this type of person, you have a way of talking about them or obsessing about their life. You become the Gretchen Weiners to their Regina.
It’s not that people like this are bad people, bad friends or toxic friends; they just require more work to be friends with than what is emotionally healthy. No one wants to be around a person who finds so little joy in their life, who complains incessantly about their life or everyone around them, who is in the business of misery. When we are with people like this, we become more like them — because we are what we surround ourselves with. We should be surrounded by people who love life as much as we do, feel blessed to be in the company of their friends and are genuinely interested in their problems — rather than steamrolling them or just waiting for their turn to speak. And if you’re friends with someone who isn’t good for you or isn’t compatible, why be friends with them? What’s the point in putting up with someone who bleeds you dry? No one’s forcing you to be friends.
I know it can be difficult to “cut people off” — especially when you have a history together. It’s why people put up with terrible boyfriends for years and why Hollywood keeps making M. Night Shyamalan movies. It’s hard to say no sometimes. Think about those people you know who have been friends with the same group of people since high school, not necessarily because they have that much in common but because they’re too lazy or scared to find new friends. It’s inertia, the path of least friend resistance. Breaking out and seeking friends outside of what you’ve known takes effort, and people hate effort. If people liked effort, Two and a Half Men wouldn’t be so popular. But you can either keep enabling your own circle of emotional death or get to that point where you can’t complain anymore and decide you deserve better. You can stop kvetching and do something about it.
Because I don’t give advice without backing it up, I have empirical proof that this works and friend break-ups can actually be good for everyone. A few years ago, a longtime friend of mine and I were at the point where we were just sick of each other. We spent more time fighting over my schedule or the fact that I “was too busy for my friends” than actually being friends. And after one quarrel too many, I decided to just shoot our ailing, disease-ridden friendship in the head. I put it out of its misery. It wasn’t that I hated this person or found her to be scum sucking rode whore who was ruining my life. We just weren’t making each other happy anymore, and it was time to move on and see other people.
And recently, I ran into this person at a coffee shop, years after the end of our first friendship. It had been so long that I actually couldn’t remember why we broke up in the first place. She asked me about my writing and what I was doing with myself and I asked her about her art, genuinely interested in where her vision had taken her. I remembered going to buy weird art supplies with her and finding materials in package stores — the small moments that made being friends with her worth it. I wasn’t feeling nostalgia, just a reflection of all of the reasons we were friends in the first place. After getting coffee, we exchanged numbers again (although I still had hers, because I never delete things) and met up again a few weeks later for dinner.
At this dinner, I finally met her sister for the first time — despite having heard about her in stories — and she looked so much like my friend that I was taken aback. It was like my friend had been cloned as a college freshman who wore floppy hats. I found it a little creepy, like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but also beautiful — the discovering a new part of someone I’d known forever. This is what friendship was really like. I didn’t even know what I was missing until I found it.