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More than 80 percent of women surveyed admitted that they have stayed in friendships with a ‘frenemy,’ mostly because it felt too tough to end it.
TODAY contributor
updated 8/22/2011 9:29:39 AM ET 2011-08-22T13:29:39

They belittle and backbite and drive us batty with their soul-sucking behavior. Who are these hideous people? Our ... um ... friends, according to a joint survey conducted by TODAY.com and SELF magazine.

We asked our readers to come clean about these prickly — and at times, poisonous — relationships and got an earful from 18,000 women and 4,000 men.

In fact, 84 percent of women — and 75 percent of men — said they'd had a toxic friend at some point, with 1 in 3 survey takers fessing up to a toxic BFF.

Just how bad are our so-called friends? Sixty-five percent of you have been stuck with a self-absorbed sidekick (easily recognized by their fondness for the words "I, me, mine") while 59 percent have been buds with one of those draining emotional vampire types.

"I recommended a woman I knew for a job and she'd come in and you'd say hello and she'd sigh and grunt and tell you she had a headache or a back ache," says Lucia Patritto, a 53-year-old educator from Ironwood, Mich. "We're a positive bunch at work, but she was like this emotional wet blanket. She wasn't just a pill; she was a suppository. You could practically hear the Debbie Downer music."

Overly critical chums were next on the toxic friend hit list, with 55 percent of people having to suffer through their self-righteous stinkeyes or critical tirades.

Friends who undermined with insults or backhanded compliments came in at No. 4, with 45 percent admitting they were buds with a backstabber.

"My friend -- who I've known since high school -- would always make these snide remarks about my weight or my house or even my daughter," says Kerri LaFond, a 39-year-old executive assistant from Chicago. "It was always followed up by 'Oh, I'm just kidding. Come on.' I started wondering if I was blowing it out of proportion. But she would say things I would never say to my friends."

Finally, flakes ranked fifth on the toxic turnoff list, with 37 percent owning up to an unreliable chum.

Toxic offenders
Still, in all, we're a loyal bunch, with 83 percent of survey takers confessing they'd held onto a friendship longer than was healthy simply because it was hard to break up with a buddy.

Discuss on Facebook: Share your toxic friend tales! And ask the editor questions about this survey!

Vote: Have you hung onto a toxic friend longer than was healthy?

"The reason it's hard to dump a toxic friend is the same reason people stay in all kinds of dysfunctional relationships," says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and a TODAY show contributor. "There's something in it that you find compelling or familiar. Depending on the nature of what's going on in the relationship, you may feel guilty [about breaking things off]. Or it could be that the person has implied you need them in some way — that you would be a bad person to walk away."

It's not that we have no standards at all. One in three readers say they'd call it quits with a friend who wasn't trustworthy.

"My friend wasn't just spilling secrets, she was making stuff up," says Brenda Della Casa, a 32-year-old managing editor from Manhattan. "I had a very serious health scare and was having cocktails with people I didn't know very well and she blurted out my health scare. But she made it much worse than it was — to strangers."

Della Casa says her friend of 10 years also regularly spilled the beans about her past relationships to potential suitors.

"We could be thoughtful and sweet but there was nothing she provided that I don't get from 20 other friends," says Della Casa. "There was something she provided that I don't get from them, though, and that was disloyalty and disrespect."

How to deal with a toxic friend
While 37 percent of those surveyed said they hid friends on Facebook when they were upset or sick of them, others dealt with toxic friends in a variety of direct and indirect ways.

Fifty-four percent of people said they took time to cool off after a toxic tussle while 53 percent of people made a conscious decision to downgrade their toxic friend to acquaintance status.

David Hochman, a 43-year-old journalist from Los Angeles with thousands of Facebook, Twitter, professional and real-life friends, says he's encountered self-absorption, mean-spiritedness and "emotional black holes" on a number of occasions.

"You either cut them out of your life completely or face the demon," he says. "There's always some reason that they're doing that behavior. If you can understand that behavior, you can defuse it."

When compassion and understanding fail, though, he's opted for the downgrade.

"I've downgraded from the inner circle to the outer circle," he says. "I'll see them twice a year instead of once a month." 

Gender differences
According to the survey data (the majority of which came from women), 80 percent of people have had a toxic female friend (48 percent men, 87 percent women), while 22 percent have had a toxic male friend (57 percent men, 14 percent women).

In other words, men tend to be more toxic to men and women tend to be more toxic towards women.

"Women's friendships tend to be more about intimacy and exchanging feelings," says David Frederick, visiting assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "The downside is that leaves them more open to attack from toxic friends. Men's friendships tend to be centered around work and activities like basketball as opposed to exchanging feelings. They're not as vulnerable to undermining toxic attacks."

The benefits of besties
According to Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University's School of Medicine and creator of The Friendship Blog, friendships can be both draining and sustaining.

"A number of studies have shown that close friendships reduce stress, lessen the risk of depression, improve health outcomes and even enhance longevity," she says. "Not only do we get practical advice and logistical support from friends, but the benefits of feeling understood and supported are immeasurable."

Detox your friendships

That doesn't mean we shouldn't periodically assess our friendships, though, particularly if we've fallen into a bad pattern with a toxic pal.

"People say over and over when they've extricated themselves from a bad situation that despite their fears they've found new friends and found better friends and they're happier," she says. "It's never to late to make new friends."

"I felt a huge sense of relief when I ended my toxic friendship," says LaFond, whose long-time friend regularly insulted her, her family, her home and practically the horse she rode in on. "I think it was best for me and I hope it gave her a little bit of insight."

Hochman, on the other hand, has made a challenge out of trying to turn toxic friends into true friends — and it's working.

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"I had a friend who was constantly annoying — cutting me down, being narcissistic — so I looked at the relationship and realized when we did activities together, we were at our best," he says. "I stopped focusing on the toxic part of the relationship and started focusing on what's good. Now we just play tennis together and it's working.

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Video: Why do women put up with toxic friends?

  1. Transcript of: Why do women put up with toxic friends?

    CARL QUINTANILLA, co-host: Back at 8:21. This morning on TODAY'S RELATIONSHIPS , toxic friendships. According to a TODAY and self.com poll, a whopping 84 percent of women say they have at least one friend who makes life difficult. So what should you do about it? Lucy Danziger is editor-in-chief of Self and Robi Ludwig is a psychotherapist and today.com contributor. Good morning to you both, ladies.

    Dr. ROBI LUDWIG (Psychotherapist): Good morning.

    Ms. LUCY DANZIGER (Editor-in-chief, Self Magazine): Thanks for having us.

    QUINTANILLA: This is a fascinating topic. And Lucy , I'm wondering why is it important for women, especially, to determine if there is an influence like this in their lives?

    Ms. DANZIGER: Well, it's a shocking number that 84 percent of us have either a toxic or a poisonous friendship. It's the kind of stress that we sometimes think should be done in high school . Yet, if stress is existing, whether it's work stress or relationship stress or friendship stress, it's going to have a negative impact on your health and well being. So we're saying to women, take this seriously and don't think that it's a teenager syndrome. It's your whole life can be affected by your friendships.

    QUINTANILLA: And Robi , I think it's funny because people -- you expect drama from your family...

    Dr. LUDWIG: Yes.

    QUINTANILLA: ...you expect drama from your co-workers, but friends are sort of supposed to be where you find your escape from all of that.

    Dr. LUDWIG: These are the people that you choose and so we don't tend to think of breaking up with a friend.

    Ms. DANZIGER: Right.

    Dr. LUDWIG: We think of ourselves as choosing friends who enhance our lives. And when you think about it , the beauty of life is having a friend that makes your world just that much brighter. But on the flip side is if you have a negative friend, it can make your life really that much worse and be negative for your psyche and psychologically as well.

    QUINTANILLA: Why do women take so long to sort of confront this?

    Ms. DANZIGER: Well, it's a really good question. Obviously, if it festers it gets worse. And typically, a man will say, when a friend is bugging him and a woman will try to negate it, because she wants to be a good friend. And 33 percent of women said it was their best friend , and sometimes it's a work friend. So there's collateral damage. You've got relationships and history and work and career.

    Dr. LUDWIG: And the awkwardness of, you know, what if you are in the same world and you have to interact with this person?

    Ms. DANZIGER: Right.

    Dr. LUDWIG: So I think women tend to be caretakers...

    Ms. DANZIGER: Right.

    Dr. LUDWIG: ...and in some cases they don't give themselves permission to break up with a friend or to remove themselves.

    QUINTANILLA: Right. I think...

    Dr. LUDWIG: And it's really important to be able to do that if you need to.

    QUINTANILLA: Also, too, there's the -- there's the knowledge that this is going to get talked about in your circle of friends, too.

    Ms. DANZIGER: Right, right.

    Dr. LUDWIG: Right.

    Ms. DANZIGER: Well, one of the things that we did at self.com was advise you how to either ditch or patch. And when you -- you know, when you make that big decision, first you have to go through and decide, is it a phase? Maybe she's going through a tough time and you just have to say to her, 'I feel bad when you cancel on me or flake.'

    Dr. LUDWIG: Mm-hmm.


    Ms. DANZIGER: There's narcissists and downers and critics and flakes, all these different kinds of friends. So when you go online, you can figure out what the problem is and how to solve it .

    QUINTANILLA: I was going to say, here's the top five types. The narcissist, you mentioned, the critic, the downer, the underminer, and the flake. But the narcissist, being the worst offender, how? What do they do?

    Ms. DANZIGER: Well, obviously it's all about her, so if she's a narcissist, a great way to approach it is to say, 'I need your advice.' Because you're going to build her up, you need her. 'I need to talk to you about something that's going on in my life.' That can be a really great opener.

    Dr. LUDWIG: If -- basically, and I think, too, people don't know how to define toxic friendships. But if there's not a balance, and if you walk away feeling badly about yourself in the presence of this other person, then you need to say to yourself, I'm not in a healthy situation. And we have slightly different philosophies. Your philosophy is tell the person, I'm not going to be friends with you anymore.

    Ms. DANZIGER: Well, no, I think that you have to tell them as something bad has happened.

    Dr. LUDWIG: We agree on that. But I think, too, what makes it hard to walk away is people say, 'How am I going to break up with this person?' And I 'm saying, you know what, you can pull away. Life is so busy, that if you don't want to be with somebody, you don't have to.

    Ms. DANZIGER: Right.

    Dr. LUDWIG: You can take the high road , you don't need to put it on Facebook . Just get really busy and don't include them in your life.

    QUINTANILLA: OK. Fascinating stuff. Lucy , Robi , thank you guys. Lucy Danziger and Robi Ludwig .

Vote: Have you ever hung onto a toxic friend longer than was healthy?

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