Here's Why It's Hard To Let Go Of A Toxic Friendship, According To Science

It's not a comfortable or easy situation to be in when you have a friend who, to put it delicately, has a less than positive impact on your life. You've been there, right? You stay besties with someone long past the friendship's expiration date, despite the fact that the friend in question constantly treats you like crap. But listen, before you get too hard on yourself, you should know there's a pretty logical reason why you're doing this to yourself. According to a new study, the reason why it's hard to let go of a toxic friendship actually speaks to our capacity as human beings to see the good in people — which is a pretty rad quality, no? Still, it does mean we have to work that much harder to learn when to exit situations that don't serve us anymore.

For the study, which has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers from Yale, the University of Oxford, the University College London, and the International School for Advanced Studies wanted to learn why people stay in bad relationships and how we tend to forgive people who've wronged us. Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, senior author of the study, said in a statement,

The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness. Because people sometimes behave badly by accident, we need to be able to update bad impressions that turn out to be mistaken. Otherwise, we might end relationships prematurely and miss out on the many benefits of social connection.
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So here's how the study was done: According to ScienceDaily, the researchers conducted a series of experiments with more than 1,500 total volunteers, in which the participants observed the choices of two fake "strangers" who were facing a "moral dilemma" of sorts. Basically, the strangers were told to inflict painful electric shocks on someone (also an imaginary person) in exchange for money. While one stranger, considered to be the "good" one, would, for the most part, not shock another person for money, the "bad" stranger continued to administer the shock in order to get that cash money.

After observing the strangers' actions, the volunteers were then asked to describe their impressions of these "good" and "bad" strangers, as well as how confident they were that these impressions were correct. While the volunteers immediately had stable and positive impressions of the "good" stranger, they were less confident that the "bad" stranger was truly amoral in their behavior. Basically, the volunteers seemed to believe that the "bad" stranger could change their ways, as they didn't always shock the person; from time to time they would spare the imaginary person the electric shock, and as a result, the volunteers' impressions of the "bad" stranger grew more positive — that is, until the stranger chose to administer the shock again.

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According to the researchers, these experiments shed light on why some of us tend to stick it out in bad relationships or friendships, even when we know they're hurting us, or even when we know they're consistently hurting other people. Crockett explained,

We think our findings reveal a basic predisposition towards giving others, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt. The human mind is built for maintaining social relationships, even when partners sometimes behave badly.

Jenifer Siegel, an Oxford doctoral student and lead author of the research, added,

The ability to accurately form impressions of others' character is crucial for the development and maintenance of healthy relationships. We have developed new tools for measuring impression formation, which could help improve our understanding of relational dysfunction.

In other words, the idea here is, the more you know about how and why you form certain opinions of and attachments to people, the better you'll be at navigating these relationships, and the easier it'll be for you to let go of toxic people — theoretically, at least.

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But how can you put that theory to the test IRL? How do you actually learn to let go of relationships that are clearly toxic for you?

Again, it really does circle back to understanding why you're having a hard time letting this friend go in the first place. Of course, as A.N. Gibson, a mental health advocate, author, and founder of the blog Horribly Human, tells Elite Daily over email, there are a lot of reasons why you might let them stick around. "Sometimes we believe that it's unkind to let go; other times we struggle to see the devastating effects they have on mental health," Gibson explains, adding that, even in her own life, she sometimes struggles "with an overabundance of compassion, which often results in making excuses for toxic behavior instead of addressing them." #Relatable.

And as for how to actually exit a toxic friendship, therapist and relationship expert David Bennett says the best way to start the process is to determine what issues, specifically, are causing the toxicity, and what boundaries you need to create. "Maybe the issue is that your friend always shares your secrets to other friends," Bennett tells Elite Daily over email, "or perhaps they scream at you while they are drunk. You have to first decide that these are areas that matter to you, and that you aren’t going to accept this interaction."

Then, after determining your boundaries, Bennett explains, you have to enforce them. For example, this might mean refusing to tell your friend anything confidential, or politely leaving the conversation when they start yelling at you. Either way, you have to put your foot down with this person, no matter how long you've been friends with them or what you've been through together. Your well-being comes first, and if they're a true friend, they'll see where you're coming from, and they'll be willing to work things out in a mature, effective way.