The 'Obligation Friendship' Can Be Quite Toxic - Here's How To Handle It

The ideal friendship is one that's lasted for years — or at least that's what pop culture leads us to believe. Just look at Rory and Lane from "Gilmore Girls," Serena and Blair from "Gossip Girl," or the foursome on "Sex and the City" (in the original series, that is). What's better than a friendship with someone who's known you through your toughest times, weirdest fashion phases, and at least one embarrassing relationship you've both vowed to never speak of again?

However, sometimes these long-term friendships continue only out of obligation. If you scan your messages and social media contacts, chances are you'll find at least a few "obligation friendships" that you maintain only because of the history behind them. Even if you and a friend were never super close, you may feel obligated to keep the relationship going, such as with an old college roommate you can't bring yourself to ghost or the family friend you don't know how to distance yourself from.

Keeping some obligation friendships around may not seem so bad on the surface, but they can become toxic, especially when they steal time and energy from the relationships you really care about. If you're still hanging out with a friend because you feel like you have to, the first step is to identify which friendships are obligation friendships and then set some clear boundaries to protect your space and energy.

Check in with yourself

You might have a friend (or a few) who isn't high on your list of priorities but you continue to keep in touch with them anyway. So how do you know if these friendships are obligation friendships and, more importantly, how do you know if these friendships are toxic and need to end? One way is to gauge how you feel when interacting with them. Obligation friendships tend to come with a hefty load of guilt. Even if you want to ignore your friend's text or say no to their party invite, you know you'd feel too guilty, so you keep the friendship alive anyway.

Take note of how you feel after chatting or hanging out together, too. No friendship is worth maintaining if you feel worse after your interactions, no matter how long you've known each other or what commonalities initially brought you together. As clinical psychologist specializing in women's relationships Dr. Roxy Zarrabi explains on Psychology Today, feeling like you have no energy left after hanging out with your friend is a red flag that the friendship may no longer be serving you. As a rule of thumb, it's best to leave any friendship that makes you feel bad about yourself or that feels competitive, rather than supportive.

Evaluate how you change yourself to relate to your friend

Ideally, the relationships you maintain in your life offer new opportunities for growth and expansion. But if you examine your obligation friendships, you'll likely notice that they limit you or encourage you to act in not-so-authentic ways.

Think about it: If you're still in touch with a friend from your past with whom you have little in common now, it makes sense to feel like strangers more than besties. As a result, you might not share new facets of your life and personality. You may even revert back to an old, less mature version of yourself to relate to your friend the way you used to. Or maybe you met your obligatory friend at work, for instance, and all you talk about is your career, even though you really want to get to know each other on a more personal level.

Even if you used to enjoy spending time together, an obligation friendship can form when you're no longer growing in the same direction. "You and a perfectly nice friend can just drift apart," licensed marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney shared with Insider. "You may have been close at one point in your lives, but now your paths have diverged so much that when you get together, it's awkward." When that awkwardness becomes stifling, it's time to make a change.

Change how you show up in the friendship

You've identified an energy-sucking obligation friendship in your life. Now what? Start by changing how available you make yourself to your obligatory friend. They may not be a bad person or someone you need to ditch for good, especially if the main issue is that you don't have much in common. Still, if you're giving them precious time in your schedule — and not feeling fulfilled in return — you might want to cut back on how often you hang out. You may even discover that a little time apart gives you more to bond over the next time you do catch up.

Another way to deal with an obligation friendship is by setting stronger boundaries. If guilt is the only thing keeping you in the relationship, learn to start honoring your needs and wants by saying no. Dreading hanging out? Decline your friend's offer to meet. Not in the mood to talk? Gently let them know you're not available right now.

In some cases, your obligation friendship may have sprouted from other obligations. For example, your friend might've pressured you into helping them every time they're in trouble, or maybe they've cornered you into a group or club role you no longer feel like taking on. According to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, these obligations can strain relationships. The fix? Set boundaries that reflect what you're willing to offer, even if it goes against your friend's wishes.

How to let go of an obligation friendship

If distancing yourself and setting boundaries still leaves you feeling unsatisfied, know that it's totally okay to let go of a friendship that's become a chore to maintain. Besides freeing yourself from an unfulfilling situation, you're also freeing your friend from a relationship that, probably unbeknownst to them, has grown one-sided. If they realized that they were an obligatory friend in your circle, chances are they'd prefer to part ways, too.

Nevertheless, ending the friendship may be hard on both of you, and if you've been friends for ages, the friendship breakup can hurt worse than a romantic one. Even if you've drifted apart, don't be surprised if you experience some grief after ending things.

And just so you know, ghosting isn't your only option. If your friend continues reaching out to talk or meet up in person, psychotherapist and author of "Friending: Creating Meaningful, Lasting Adult Friendships" Gina Handley Schmitt told WebMD that it's a good idea to clearly, though kindly, communicate your intentions moving forward. Keep in mind that you could rekindle the friendship in the future, if you and your friend choose to. "Not all friend breakups are permanent," Schmitt explained. "Sometimes, friends find their way back to each other in a different season of their lives ... The important thing is to remain committed to finding and keeping friendships that are healthy."