— They belittle and backbite and drive us batty with their soul-sucking behavior. Who are these hideous people? Our ... um ... friends, according to a joint survey conducted by TODAY.com and SELF magazine.
We asked our readers to come clean about these prickly — and at times, poisonous — relationships and got an earful from 18,000 women and 4,000 men.
In fact, 84 percent of women — and 75 percent of men — said they'd had a toxic friend at some point, with 1 in 3 survey takers fessing up to a toxic BFF.
Just how bad are our so-called friends? Sixty-five percent of you have been stuck with a self-absorbed sidekick (easily recognized by their fondness for the words "I, me, mine") while 59 percent have been buds with one of those draining emotional vampire types.
"I recommended a woman I knew for a job and she'd come in and you'd say hello and she'd sigh and grunt and tell you she had a headache or a back ache," says Lucia Patritto, a 53-year-old educator from Ironwood, Mich. "We're a positive bunch at work, but she was like this emotional wet blanket. She wasn't just a pill; she was a suppository. You could practically hear the Debbie Downer music."
Overly critical chums were next on the toxic friend hit list, with 55 percent of people having to suffer through their self-righteous stinkeyes or critical tirades.
Friends who undermined with insults or backhanded compliments came in at No. 4, with 45 percent admitting they were buds with a backstabber.
"My friend -- who I've known since high school -- would always make these snide remarks about my weight or my house or even my daughter," says Kerri LaFond, a 39-year-old executive assistant from Chicago. "It was always followed up by 'Oh, I'm just kidding. Come on.' I started wondering if I was blowing it out of proportion. But she would say things I would never say to my friends."
Finally, flakes ranked fifth on the toxic turnoff list, with 37 percent owning up to an unreliable chum.
Still, in all, we're a loyal bunch, with 83 percent of survey takers confessing they'd held onto a friendship longer than was healthy simply because it was hard to break up with a buddy.
"The reason it's hard to dump a toxic friend is the same reason people stay in all kinds of dysfunctional relationships," says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and a TODAY show contributor. "There's something in it that you find compelling or familiar. Depending on the nature of what's going on in the relationship, you may feel guilty [about breaking things off]. Or it could be that the person has implied you need them in some way — that you would be a bad person to walk away."
It's not that we have no standards at all. One in three readers say they'd call it quits with a friend who wasn't trustworthy.
"My friend wasn't just spilling secrets, she was making stuff up," says Brenda Della Casa, a 32-year-old managing editor from Manhattan. "I had a very serious health scare and was having cocktails with people I didn't know very well and she blurted out my health scare. But she made it much worse than it was — to strangers."
Della Casa says her friend of 10 years also regularly spilled the beans about her past relationships to potential suitors.
"We could be thoughtful and sweet but there was nothing she provided that I don't get from 20 other friends," says Della Casa. "There was something she provided that I don't get from them, though, and that was disloyalty and disrespect."
How to deal with a toxic friend
While 37 percent of those surveyed said they hid friends on Facebook when they were upset or sick of them, others dealt with toxic friends in a variety of direct and indirect ways.
Fifty-four percent of people said they took time to cool off after a toxic tussle while 53 percent of people made a conscious decision to downgrade their toxic friend to acquaintance status.
David Hochman, a 43-year-old journalist from Los Angeles with thousands of Facebook, Twitter, professional and real-life friends, says he's encountered self-absorption, mean-spiritedness and "emotional black holes" on a number of occasions.
"You either cut them out of your life completely or face the demon," he says. "There's always some reason that they're doing that behavior. If you can understand that behavior, you can defuse it."
When compassion and understanding fail, though, he's opted for the downgrade.
"I've downgraded from the inner circle to the outer circle," he says. "I'll see them twice a year instead of once a month."
According to the survey data (the majority of which came from women), 80 percent of people have had a toxic female friend (48 percent men, 87 percent women), while 22 percent have had a toxic male friend (57 percent men, 14 percent women).
In other words, men tend to be more toxic to men and women tend to be more toxic towards women.
"Women's friendships tend to be more about intimacy and exchanging feelings," says David Frederick, visiting assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "The downside is that leaves them more open to attack from toxic friends. Men's friendships tend to be centered around work and activities like basketball as opposed to exchanging feelings. They're not as vulnerable to undermining toxic attacks."
The benefits of besties
According to Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University's School of Medicine and creator of The Friendship Blog, friendships can be both draining and sustaining.
"A number of studies have shown that close friendships reduce stress, lessen the risk of depression, improve health outcomes and even enhance longevity," she says. "Not only do we get practical advice and logistical support from friends, but the benefits of feeling understood and supported are immeasurable."
That doesn't mean we shouldn't periodically assess our friendships, though, particularly if we've fallen into a bad pattern with a toxic pal.
"People say over and over when they've extricated themselves from a bad situation that despite their fears they've found new friends and found better friends and they're happier," she says. "It's never to late to make new friends."
"I felt a huge sense of relief when I ended my toxic friendship," says LaFond, whose long-time friend regularly insulted her, her family, her home and practically the horse she rode in on. "I think it was best for me and I hope it gave her a little bit of insight."
Hochman, on the other hand, has made a challenge out of trying to turn toxic friends into true friends — and it's working.
"I had a friend who was constantly annoying — cutting me down, being narcissistic — so I looked at the relationship and realized when we did activities together, we were at our best," he says. "I stopped focusing on the toxic part of the relationship and started focusing on what's good. Now we just play tennis together and it's working.