How to Recognize an Unhealthy Friendship

Kyler Shumway, MA

Kyler is the author of The Friendship Formula, a book dedicated to helping kids and adults learn how to make new connections and build lasting friendships.  He speaks at conferences all over the United States on topics related to friendship, autism, and bullying.  To learn more about Kyler, check out his website at

They say that if you weren’t bullied growing up, you were probably the bully. 

I disagree.

I believe that people can be both.  I know that people can be both.

When I was in 5th grade, I went to a high school football game with my dad.  He and some of his friends joined the rest of the crowd in the bleachers, while I went off to join the herd of kids playing catch and watching the game in the field nearby.  I wasn’t that interested in watching the game.  The crisp autumn night was perfect for running around and having fun. 

After a few hours of playing tag, one of the older kids said we should head over to the practice field to play some “real football.”  Most of the kids followed, and so I did too.  The game was incredibly rough.  People were tackling each other at full speed, with no protective equipment, causing bloody noses and plenty of bruises.  One by one, most of the kids my age left and drifted back to watch the game. 

But I was tough, and I wanted to prove it. 

I lined up once again with the other kids.  Most of them were teenagers.  My team was on defense.  On a lucky play, I broke through their offense and tackled their quarterback.  As I rose to my feet with a proud grin on my face, one of the guys on the other team grabbed me by my shirt and threw me on the ground.

“You think that was cool, you worthless turd?” 

My smile went away.  I shakily got up, dazed and afraid.  “I was just trying to play.”

“What, are you going to cry?” the shirt-grabber cackled as stepped up and stared me down with a malicious grin. 

My mind raced, my heart panicked, and my eyes responded with tears. 

“Shut up,” laughed the quarterback, “you are actually crying.  No way, he barely touched you.”

He then swung a fist deep into my gut, “Now THAT is something worth crying over.” 

They laughed as one of them shoved me to the ground, and they left me there in the dirt. 

That terrible night changed me.  I never talked about what happened to anyone, and I made a promise that I would never be so vulnerable again. 

I became obsessed with physical strength.  I asked my dad to teach me how to lift weights and get stronger so that I could play college football.  I began powerlifting at age ten and ate like a horse.  My body responded in turn, and I quickly became one of the strongest athletes in the state.  Weightlifting became my identity, and I was all too happy to share my latest feats. 

Fast forward to my senior year of high school.  I was a top recruit at some of the most prestigious schools in the nation for my athleticism, and I had earned it.  I would spend hours outside of practice in the gym, lifting and slamming protein shakes.  The first time I squatted over six-hundred pounds, I felt invincible. 

I was standing in the football locker room after practice.  One of my teammates, we’ll call him Brian, had a habit of being a bit socially inappropriate.  I thought Brian was just odd, but actually he was diagnosed with Asperger’s and had trouble reading social cues.  His locker was right next to mine.  After practice one day, he began asking me a string of questions about the colleges that were recruiting me.

“Are you going to sign with Duke?”

“How many pounds can you deadlift?”

 “What do you think of Coach K?”

“Is your family going to miss you if you move to North Carolina?”

“Why do you spend so much time by yourself in the weight room?”

The questions went on and on.  Brian was not clearly not getting the message that I wasn’t in the talking mood.  I found myself getting angry.  I was stressed about school and picking the right college, and Brian was making it worse.

I grabbed him by the front of his jersey and lifted him easily off the floor.  I stared right into his scared eyes and screamed, “BRIAN!  SHUT.  UP.  NOW.  YOU ARE SO ANNOYING.”

I unceremoniously dropped him, and he fell to the ground.  My other teammates crowded around, laughing.  “Ha!  Brian, you got what was coming to you” they jeered.  Brian had always been an easy target, but I had made him an acceptable one. 

I watched the tears brim in Brian’s eyes, and I saw my 5th grade self.

I could not write a book on friendship without writing about the toxicity of bullying. 

My friends, I cannot begin to express the pain in my heart that bullying brings me.  As a mental health professional, I feel twice as guilty for the behavior of my youth.  When I began this book, I could not help but think of Brian and the suffering I caused him. 

You see, bullying is not just about being a bully or being bullied. 

It is about power. 

When we assert power in our relationships, we deny the survival of equality. 

Since the dawn of upright humans, we have sought power over one another.  The strongest among us were given food, safety, and respect. 

Today, we continue to treat each other not as equals, but as opponents in the great human race.  Romances turn abusive, coworkers create subterfuge and gossip, and moronic drivers change lanes without using their signal lights.  In the pursuit of healthy and meaningful relationships, we must learn to reject the selfish allure of power.

Friendship, like any relationship, is vulnerable to imbalances of power.  The perfect friendship is perfectly balanced, as all things should be.  This chapter is all about learning to notice and address imbalances in your friendship.

Most power imbalances in relationships cause problems.  The severity of those problems falls on a spectrum, ranging from assertive and passive to abusive and victimization.  Although most friendships do not turn into bullying, many relationship dynamics can become problematic.

Let’s break these power dynamics down into three main categories, in order from best to worst: Egalitarian, Lessor and Greater, and Bullying and Bullied

The Healthiest Relationship: Egalitarian

Ideally, all friend relationships would be equal in power and respect.  Egalitarian friendships are easily sustainable because both parties are invested and active in the relationship.  A good example of egalitarian friendship can be seen among the heroes of The Avengers, where each hero is equally valued and involved.  This is the dynamic all of us should strive to achieve. 

Egalitarian friends see each other as peers, different but equal, and worthy of the relationship.  Friends who enjoy egalitarian relationships feel that they both contribute to the relationship in comparable ways, which allows each to feel respected and valuable.  

Here are some signs that your friendship is egalitarian:

  • Able to support one another.  The hallmark of all egalitarian friendships is high reciprocity; the process of giving one another equal shares of time, energy, and love.  For example, if one friend experiences the death of a loved one, the other friend is available to comfort them and provide any needed support, and vice versa.
  • Trust in one another.  If one friend forgets their wallet while out on a lunch date, the other friend happily covers the cost of the meal knowing the favor will be returned.  Or, when one friend hears a rumor about the other, they are more likely to side with their friend than believe what others say.  This indicates vulnerability and closeness in the relationship. 
  • Everyone’s opinions matter.  If the friends must make a decision together, even something as small as what movie to watch, both are willing to consider one another’s ideas.  This indicates respect for the relationship.
  • Willingness to repair.  When rupture happens, both friends are willing to engage in a healing conversation to make amends and solve the problem.  This demonstrates love, care, and desire to keep the relationship intact. 

If your friendships are fairly egalitarian, congrats!  Remember that no relationship is perfect, and you can always grow together as friends.  Find ways to avoid stagnation by building and strengthening your bond, and enjoy the ride. 

The Imbalanced Relationship:  The Lesser and the Greater

A lesser and greater friendship can feel great but is ultimately not sustainable.  A positive example of this would be more like the hero and sidekick, like Batman and Robin; although, many look more like Dr. Frankenstein and Igor, where one friend is clearly dependent on or subservient to the other.  Many of our relationships are naturally designed this way, such as that of a parent and a child.

Friendships between the lesser and the greater have a clear hierarchy.  One friend is the cool one, the smart one, the rich one, and the other is their tag-along.  The greater friend gets to feel superior or helpful, and the lesser friend gets to reap the benefits of relying on the other.  Over time, imbalanced friendships like these can lead to problems, such as devaluation, power struggles, and loss of investment.

Here are a few signs that your friendship is imbalanced:

  • One friend is the support, the other is supported.  For example, one friend may be a constant source of emotional soothing, stabilization, and security for the other.  Or, one may be overly needy and frequently seeking resources from their friends.  This indicates that the relationship lacks reciprocity.
  • Mono-directional trust.  In other words, one is able to trust the other, but the other has little faith or trust in their friend.  The trust only goes one way.  You might be willing to let your friend drive your car, but they might not trust you to drive theirs. Although one friend might merely have trust issues, this can indicate a lack of willingness to be vulnerable or rely on one another.
  • One friend’s opinion matters more.  If you want to watch Star Wars and they want to go to the beach, but your opinion matters more, then you probably aren’t going to the beach.  Or, one friend might always be “right” and the other is always “wrong.”  This can be a clear indication of who has the most power in the relationship. 
  • Responsibility for rupture repair is not shared.  The power imbalance means that one friend needs the relationship more than the other.  The lesser friend is often tasked with attempting the repair because they need the relationship.  Imagine how stressful this can be for the lesser friend, particularly when they rely on the relationship for emotional or financial support.

If you find yourself in an imbalanced relationship, there are a few things you can do to even things out.  First, try to identify ways for both friends to contribute equally.  If one friend’s needs are greater than the other, problem-solve to help them have their needs met through other sources.  If one friend seems needless or defensive about relying on the other, have a conversation about how this affects the relationship. 

Next, find opportunities for vulnerability and learned trust.  Remember, friendship takes time to develop.  Some relationships will start off imbalanced and grow to be more equal over time.  Try to find time to learn more about one another, and be curious. 

If time and mutual openness do not seem to help, try to communicate feelings of disrespect and devaluation in the relationship.  Or, express feelings of being drained or feeling unsupported by your friend.  This can sometimes create essential conflict in the relationship, allowing both friends to open up and find renewed understanding.  Much like a bone that heals incorrectly, some issues require some breakage for healing to happen.  Sometimes it can be useful to seek a third party to guide your conversation or to give you helpful advice for navigating the relationship.

Finally, if efforts to rebalance the relationship are unsuccessful, allow yourself permission to set boundaries with the relationship.  Relational boundaries are barriers between you and the other person that you choose to put in place for your own sanity and wellbeing.  Here are a few ideas for setting healthy boundaries:

  • Limiting the amount of time and energy you devote to the relationship
  • Restricting contact from the other person, such as:
    • Blocking them on social media
    • Turning off your cell phone at night
    • Only spend time with them on a particular weeknight
    • Moving out if you are living together
    • Setting a friendship budget and sticking to it
  • Finding new friendships and spending more time with others

The Abusive Relationship:  The Bully and the Bullied

A bully-bullied relationship can be incredibly toxic and is rarely sustainable.  In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, this is Mr. Malfoy and Dobby.  Abusive relationships like these are characterized by control: one partner is in control, the other is controlled. 

Friendships – if I dare call them that – with abusive dynamics are designed to benefit the bully.  The bully is able to feel powerful and safe by coercing the bullied into meeting their needs.  The bullied are then put in a position of survival – better to permit the bully power than to face the consequences. 

Here are some signs that the relationship might be abusive:

  • Control.  Relational terrorism.  The bully is able to control the bullied through physical, emotional, or financial coercion.  They threaten to cause harm or take away support when the bullied does something undesirable.  Only one person in the relationship has power, leaving the other powerless. This demonstrates that this is not a friendship, this is ownership.
  • Lack of trust.  The bully does not trust the bullied, and vice versa.  Rather than embodied by love and intimacy, the relationship is plagued with fear.  The bully may monitor your location, your computer browser history, etc., to ensure their attachment with you is safe. 
  • My way or the highway.  Another form of control, the bully has all authority over what happens in the relationship.  The bullied have no opinion and no voice.   
  • Rupture and deceptive repair.  Surprisingly, attempts at repair may exist in abusive relationships.  The bully may bring apologetic gifts or say kind words after raging at the bullied.  Sadly, these attempts are not true repair.  Remember that repair requires a full understanding, amendment, and preventative problem-solving.  The bully’s apology is a deceptive way to maintain control by soothing strong emotions and maintaining the status quo. 

If you find yourself in a truly abusive relationship, particularly those that are physically or emotionally unsafe, you must seek help.  Although setting boundaries can sometimes be helpful, bullies might experience intense fear when you restrict their ability to monitor or control you.  For free and confidential consultation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.  Make sure to call when you are in a safe place to talk freely and get the help you need. 

You may also recognize that you have become controlling others.  Many of us who engage in bullying behaviors do so because we are afraid, and we know what it is to be hurt.  It doesn’t have to be this way, you are not alone. Connect with a local counselor or psychologist to help you overcome the difficult dynamic of bullying and being bullied.  You have the ability to find safety and normalcy again. 

Every relationship has power.  However, many relationships do not share the power equally.  We find ourselves in relationships that are imbalanced, abusive even, and ultimately our desire for deep and meaningful friendship goes unmet.  Learn to identify destructive dynamics in your relationships, and you can help keep good friendships from turning sour. 

This is a modified excerpt from The Friendship Formula, Kyler Shumway’s book that teaches the art of making friends and deepening connections with others.  To learn more about Kyler, check out his website at