Red Flags Are Not Just For Romantic Relationships — Your Friendships Can Have Them, Too
Here are some key signs of a toxic pal.
While we often hear about red flags in romantic relationships, according to experts, they can also pop up in other relationships, including friendships, new and old. Ignoring these signs of disfunction may help avoid conflict in the short term, but licensed clinical psychologist Chelsea Sarai, PsyD, points out that it can lead to more significant issues down the road. "Friendships that are built on unhealthy dynamics can have a negative impact on your mental and emotional well-being," she says. "Over time, the relationship may become toxic, and it may be difficult to repair." She adds that ignoring friendship red flags also means you miss opportunities to meet new friends and form better connections.
Red flags, however, are often subtle and difficult to detect, especially in longer-term, established bonds. But when you know what to look for, Dr. Sarai says it makes it easier to spot them, avoid toxic friendships, and learn how to create healthier relationships. Furthermore, Miami-based therapist Maria Sosa, MFT, notes that paying attention to these signs, rather than ignoring them, can also serve as a compass guiding you toward individual and relational growth. In other words, addressing friendship red flags benefits you, your friend, and your future relationships. To help with this, Dr. Sarai and Sosa share six key indicators of a dysfunctional friendship to look out for, plus tips on how to deal with them.
If a friend is constantly negative, Dr. Sarai and Sosa say that should set off alarms. Whether negativity shows up as constant complaining, criticizing, or gossiping about others, this behavior can feel draining and bring you down. "If you find yourself dreading talking to them or constantly feeling negative after conversations, it may be time to re-evaluate the friendship," Dr. Sarai says.
For healer Millana Snow, this is one big red flag she now looks for in new friendships. "I wish I knew that if someone shares all the tea and details of their life, breakups, and breakdowns on their podcast or Instagram, it's likely they will subtweet and air out my business when I'd rather be more private,” she says of what she wishes she knew about friendships in her twenties. “Now, I make it really clear that I keep my private life private and ask new friends to not include me, or get my consent, when sharing me on social media or in media in general. There are a lot of people who are using the drama of their lives for content and I find this a big red flag for healthy and sustainable relationships of any kind."
Lack Of Reciprocity
“Healthy friendships are built on mutual respect, trust, and support,” Dr. Sarai says. “If you're always the one reaching out, making plans, and putting in effort, while the other person seems disinterested or uninvolved, it may be a sign of a one-sided friendship." Sosa adds that hijacking most conversations and not being curious about your life is also a sign there isn't reciprocity in the friendship.
"Genuine friendships uplift and are happy for each other when something good happens," Sosa says, which is why she recommends watching out for competitive dynamics. This behavior can manifest as not celebrating your wins, constantly trying to one-up you, or making themselves the center of attention. Jealousy is another way competitive energy can show up in a friendship, Dr. Sarai says.
For instance, Mishi McDuff, founder and CEO of House of Blueberry, had a friend who started a business around the same time as she did and every time she launched a new product, her friend would release almost a carbon copy of it. “On top of that, she would be kind and congratulatory to my face, but then say negative and hurtful things behind my back,” she recalls. “I felt like I always had to walk on eggshells around her and could never mention anything exciting about my business.”
Dr. Sarai warns of friends who may try to control or manipulate you by doing things their way. "If you feel like your friend is constantly trying to steer you in a certain direction, it may be time to take a step back and reflect," she says.
On the other hand, Sosa says a friendship green flag is when a friend considers you and checks in to ask about your preferences, feedback, and input before making unilateral decisions. "They respect your boundaries instead of constantly trying to overstep them," she adds. "They're not trying to push their agenda on you, or put you in a space that makes you uncomfortable or goes against what you value."
A friend is someone you can rely on but if you find that they frequently cancel or reschedule at the last minute, Sosa says this can be a friendship red flag. "If we are often noticing that the friendship is an afterthought, don't ignore this or make excuses for it as it often leads to resentment and relationship breakdown," she says.
In her early twenties, Jordan Harper, founder and CEO of Barefaced, focused her friendships around having a good time, but that changed as she got older and experienced friendship red flags first-hand. “It’s a red flag if I feel drained after leaving a conversation or time spent with a friend,” shares Harper. “I find it draining to focus on the negative rather than the possible solutions, to talk about people rather than ideas, and to be around people who complain rather than focus on being the change in their situation.”
Sosa seconds this friendship red flag. "Friendships are a source of nourishment," she says. "If that's not what you're getting from the bond maybe it's time to consider what keeps you tethered to them." For Harper, she now seeks friendships where there is an understanding of each other’s priorities and leaving one another feeling like a more fulfilled version of themselves. So paying attention to how you feel before, during, and after being around a friend is crucial.
How To Deal With Friendship Red Flags
So how do you deal with red flags in friendships if you spot them? First, Dr. Sarai advises having an honest conversation with your friend about the dynamics you're noticing. "Honest and open communication is key to a strong friendship," Dr. Sarai says. "The relationship will thrive when both parties are comfortable talking about their thoughts and feelings."
Although the conversation may be difficult and uncomfortable, Sosa says it's the only way to resolve the issue and repair the friendship. Her advice: "Be curious instead of defensive. Make observations instead of accusations." That means to speak from the "I" point of view, as in "I feel..." rather than saying "you always" or "you never." You can look for solutions and ways to move forward from there. Ultimately, Dr. Sarai says these vulnerable conversations can help build a stronger friendship and help both of you grow as a result.
However, if the situation doesn't improve after you've brought up the issue, limiting contact with your friend is the next step. "This could mean setting boundaries, spending less time together, or ultimately ending the friendship," Dr. Sarai says. This was the case for McDuff who shares that after several conversations with her friend about her behavior, her friend would admit to it and apologize but then go to repeat the behavior. “We were extremely close, so it wasn’t easy to cut her out of my life, but that’s ultimately what I had to do,” she says.
Sosa emphasizes the importance of being picky with who you allow into your life. "Ask yourself: Is this someone that adds value to my life? Do they feel like expansion or contraction?," she says. Harper agrees and adds that her philosophy is “less but better” when it comes to friendships. “I am not trying to have the most friends, but a handful of the best friends who want to live life mindfully and with intention,” she says. And if needed, Dr. Sarai suggests reaching out for support when dealing with friendship red flags, whether it's a family member, therapist, or someone else you trust.