04/26/2012 02:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2012

Toxic Friendships: How To End An Unhealthy Relationship

By Brenda Salinas

As survivors of Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts and summer camp, teenagers know that BFFs aren’t always forever. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make consciously distancing yourself from a friend any less awkward. When you decide an actor in the movie of your life should be downgraded to a minor role, it can be difficult for everyone involved. Many of us will put off breaking up with a friend because we don’t want to hurt their feelings, but we should not invest our energy into relationships that aren’t healthy. Here are some steps that can facilitate parting ways with a former friend.

Assess why you want to dissolve the friendship

There are as many reasons for ending a friendship as there are for starting one. Think about how you feel when you are around this person. Do you feel pressured to pursue unhealthy behaviors? Do they put you down? Do they annoy you? Assess clearly why you no longer want this person in your life and be firm in your decision. What about their behavior is bothering you?

If you are dumping a friend because they are flaky, the easiest solution is to gradually cut them out of your life. If he or she never makes time for you then they probably won’t notice that you are not making time for them either. Over the years, I have had a couple of friends who never pick up their phone or constantly bail on our plans. Even though they always apologized, it still really hurt. In both cases I ended up gradually distancing myself from these unhealthy relationships, and it was for the best. Being constantly rejected by a friend can take a serious emotional toll. People who don’t value your time do not value you; leave them out of your life.

If you have decided that you want to dump a friend because you don’t want to partake in their lifestyle, then you need to make yourself very clear. You need to set clear boundaries. Can you still be study buddies? Are you still going to go out with them once in a while? When talking to them, you can follow a neutral-sounding script like “I am trying to pursue new things in my life and I don’t see how this activity fits in anymore.”

If the person has committed some unforgivable transgression, you also need to speak up. You need to clearly explain that whatever they did was unacceptable and you cannot pretend that it did not happen. You need to tell them that this was not OK and the friendships can no longer move on: “Karen, I will never forgive you for laughing at me that time I got diarrhea at Barnes & Nobles and for telling everyone about it and also for repeating it just now. I do not think I can ever be close to you again.”

It might be tempting to give someone the silent treatment, but remember that everything that seems self-evident to you is not always equally obvious to others. The other person might not even know that they hurt your feelings! If someone’s behavior is really bothering you and they are more than a casual acquaintance, you should carefully but surely speak up.

Is it something that can be fixed?

Is your friend constantly doing something that hurts your feelings? If you believe that they values your friendship enough to make a change, then you should definitely say something. Be careful not to spring something up suddenly. Text or call your friend inviting them for a coffee, and tell them that you want to talk. If you think they want to be in your life enough to change their behavior, you should give them the opportunity to do so.

Would you get something out of a confrontation?

I strongly believe that you should not confront someone for the mere satisfaction of calling them out. If you are no longer interested in pursuing a relationship with this person, a confrontation might not be the best way to start. Think carefully about what you want to get out of a confrontation, and if it is nothing tangible, then skip it. Examples of tangible outcomes can range from “Lisa, I would feel more valued if we spent more time together” to “John, please stop talking about me to other people.” If the only thing you have to say is “Casey, you are a terrible, selfish excuse for a person,” keep your mouth shut and move on. If you are going to confront someone, do it in person, in a neutral setting like a coffee shop and set strict time boundaries (“I have a class in 35 minutes”). Say what you need to say, listen to the other person and be respectful. Make sure to hold your ground. If the situation is getting unnecessarily aggressive, say, “I feel like this conversation is getting very heated. I do not want to hurt your feelings; I just want to explain why I think we should spend less time together.”