My Other Ex: Evolution, Identifying Toxic Friendships, Friendship Splits, and Vajazzling

Monday, September 29, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Evolutionary Psychology

Have you ever lost a friend? 

The pain of friendship breakups is intense, and with good reason. Friendships offer not only material goods, but also physical security and, on an emotional level, a sense of belonging, competence and self worth. As a special form of reciprocal altruism (discussed more here) friends serve as “functional kin”2, extensions of our familial relationships that are far more complex than tit for tat due to our long-term need for the other8

And need one another we do, and not just because our actual families may have members who are less than “functional kin” themselves.

Throughout history, female friendships have sustained species, particularly in mammalian societies where males were expected to go out on their own3. Even the female stress response (but not the male) involves the secretion of oxytocin, a chemical involved in attachment and bonding12. Instead of fleeing during high anxiety, we evolved to seek one another out for wine and cookies. Or maybe for that strength in numbers thing (More on the Tend and Befriend Stress Response here). It should come as no surprise that across mammalian societies, females with the strongest friendship support have less stress, live longer and have higher rates of infant survival3, a phenomenon that extends to our species10.  

These are ties that bind, in ways even stronger than leather restraints in a millionaire’s Red Room. (Or so I’ve heard.)

Unfortunately all ties weren’t made to last.

With the way biology mingles with early modeling and attachment, it is difficult to say how any response will play out in an individual. Nothing is true of everyone, male or female, though today we will focus on the ladies. And because understanding sometimes comes from research in addition to listening to those who have suffered, I have included quotes from My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends. If you’re looking for personal insight into these issues, I highly recommend it.

Connection and Breaking Up 

Just as in romantic relationships, there are a number of things that lead us to stay together (beyond that leather restraint thing). We tend to connect with those who share our interests, who have similar personalities, and interestingly enough, who have similar genetics2,3. In healthy friendships, we also maintain high levels of trust and mutual respect, and we may have some dependence on one another for companionship. And, just as in marriages, friendships face challenges finding ways to stay connected over time, particularly as one moves on to start a family, one moves away, or one starts engaging in things the other is not in tune with, like Pilates or vajazzling. (Especially the vajazzling, ladies, so just say, "No.") Some drift so far apart as to be unrecognizable as the friends they once were.

“Parenthood was the chasm that separated us.” ~ Stephanie Sprenger, My Other Ex6

Sometimes, friendship loss is simply growth; healthy, normal, forward movement. But sometimes the breaks are more severe and deliberate, with gossip, betrayal or other confrontation. And even then, the importance of these bonds, and the ferocity with which we cling to them, makes breakups difficult. As Linda Wolff says in My Other Ex, “Most shocking was the betrayal, which felt completely different from the type of betrayal from a lover. I consider my female friends to be sisters.”6

Women are highly sensitive to any indicator of social exclusion—which includes breaches of trust and gossip—probably because of our cooperative breeding history10 (that whole safety in numbers, working together to rear children thing). And even the gossip itself has evolutionary relevance. Derogatory tactics, such as name-calling and defamation, evolved as a strategic tool related to securing a mate, according to evolutionary psychologist David Buss, author of The Evolution of Desire9. And aside from increasing access to more desirable males, gossip and name calling may also have allowed an ancestral woman more access to female friends provided she did it viciously enough to drive her competitors away. We are especially ruthless during our tumultuous teenage years, just prior to reproduction (more on this here in BFFs Ruthlessness and Vulnerability.)

“Come on over to my cave, Jenny! That bitch ain’t got nothin’ on me. Also, I’ve got wine...” 

No wonder we respond to these slights with self esteem shifts, depression and anxiety. Someone else might be getting our wine, yo!

But some individuals are more susceptible to these relationship losses than others. And much of this has to do with early attachment and mental health. 

Friendship Loss, Mental Health and Attachment

It is common knowledge that a lack of social support is a risk factor for mental health issues, in everything from anxiety to postpartum depression to major depression to increases in addictive behaviors. But this also goes the other way, with depression, drug use and other mental health disturbances sometimes triggering a loss of social support in a vicious cycle. Depending on the severity of the condition, some individuals feel ill equipped to handle these symptoms in those close to them, whether it be symptoms of depression, bulimia, self mutilation or paranoid schizophrenia (though in depression isolation is more often cited as a factor than more overt symptoms such as sadness). 

“‘I have to separate myself. I can’t do this,’ I said. What I really wanted to say, though, was Stop. I’m not safe with or without you.” ~Catherine Carson, My Other Ex6

But it isn’t just diagnosable conditions; our ability to form quality friendships has to do with our earliest experiences of relationships. Those with secure attachments to caregivers—who were tended to appropriately as children—tend to have higher self esteem and are better equipped to function in romantic relationships and platonic friendships alike7. The flip side of this coin is that those with insecure attachment styles tend to have pervasive difficulties in their friendships as well as romantic relationships7

“It’s strange not to have anyone to confide in or to joke with. But then again, there is no one that can hurt you. I have built up walls throughout my life to avoid being hurt.” ~Alyson Herzig, My Other Ex6 

But these walls may block some of the necessary ingredients for long-lasting friendships. Evolutionary psychologists say that traits such as vulnerability, sympathy, empathy and mutual sharing have always been critical in fostering emotional attachment to those around us11. Through mutual sharing and vulnerability, we ensured higher levels of attachment because all parties involved had costs should the relationship dissolve11. And indeed, openness has been shown to be a good indicator of friendship quality in middle age5

“I didn’t trust, anyone really, enough to let them in that deeply. I wanted that kind of friendship, without the vulnerability required to have it. I was a serial friend abandoner for this exact reason.” ~ Galit Breen My Other Ex6

When to Leave a Toxic Friendship

Whether you are a friend “abandoner” or the one being left, it hurts. Deeply. And those leaving are often highly conflicted, because “although we don’t always discuss it, women’s friendships are often imbued with complexity and are very rarely black and white.”6 

But we can feel those shades of gray and know whether the relationship is a positive one for us. There are also some overt signs that things are not working. And while some unavailability is expected, particularly as women shift into mother roles, these traits should not exist beyond a certain level (and that level varies based on circumstance so use your best judgment). 

Common Traits in Negative Friendships

Friends who are: 

  • Unsupportive Can you call them if you’re upset and expect compassion and assistance?   
  • Overly critical of your appearance, your family, or your choices in ways that don’t have merit (I include the merit part because if they are telling you to stop smoking crack, it’s probably out of love and not spite. If they say, “Stop smoking crack, Jerk Face,” it might be the spite. Either way, crack is whack.) 
  • Manipulative 
  • Insincere or engage in lying behaviors
  • Selfish, self centered or don’t give back to the relationship
  • Overly demanding of you, emotionally or time wise, leaving you feeling drained
  • Unavailable (Note that those focusing on children will have less time for old friends by default and this is not necessarily toxic though it can feel like rejection.)

All friendships go through ups and downs, but if over time you feel more negatively than positively, it might be time to pull away. This is particularly true if your friend tends to trigger stress or anxiety or make you feel badly about yourself.

But this break-away process doesn’t have to be confrontational. You can seek alternative friendships for support without cutting all ties to soften the blow for everyone. If there are enough positive elements to the relationship, you may choose a varied approach and simply shift the dynamics of the friendship as opposed to leaving it entirely. However, if you are planning to abandon the relationship, don’t lead a friend on. Decide what your intentions are and be clear with yourself and those around you whenever possible. Acknowledging your feelings about the relationship can go a long way in deciding whether it is working for you, in exploring your part in any disturbances, and in discussing your concerns openly with your friend if you feel the relationship is worth salvaging. You might even use some of the tactics discussed here in Using Personal Boundary Styles to Build Better Relationships. 

But you don’t have to stay out of a sense of history.  

Sometimes friends grow apart. We may have been attracted to them initially because they fulfilled us somehow, taught us something. At the time they were our world, our security. But just as we move from the security of our parents to the security of friendships to the security of romantic partnerships and all the places those converge, life is growth and movement. Some have friends they keep all their lives, growing with them, through marriages and children. Friendship is fluid. And though we rarely acknowledge it, friendship, like any relationship, takes work. As Kristin Shaw says in My Other Ex, “friendship is a verb”6

We don’t always want to do this work, and for some it’s downright impossible due to larger alterations in circumstance or personality. Some friendships do not grow as fluidly, as individuals have life paths that take them to different places far from one another. This is not necessarily a bad thing, no matter how negative the relationship or the break up experience was. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, your enemy may be your best teacher. But sometimes the thing they are best at teaching is how to let go.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

My Other Ex: Women's True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends
Real stories of love and friendship loss from the women who have struggled. A must read for insight into the mind of "your other ex".

Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Relationship (Origins of Human Behavior and Culture)
Want to know more about the evolution of friendship? Check this book out. It's more than a shared hatred of Rush Limbaugh.

The Evolution of Desire
Evolutionary psychology and the history of human mating

Boundary Issues
Everything you ever wanted to know about boundaries.

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers