Friends With (No) Benefits

You know the ones; they’re the people who leave you feeling exhausted and drained. Who are the vampire friends in your life and how do you deal with them?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
You know the ones; they’re the people who leave you feeling exhausted and drained. Who are the vampire friends in your life and how do you deal with them?
Corbis/Click Photos
Corbis/Click Photos

You tell each other everything and you can’t imagine not having her there. So why do you feel the emotional strain that accompanies this friendship? Is your so-called bestie the kind of demanding, energy-sucking, confidencesapping friend – almost vampiric in how he or she drains you dry? “My friend and I became really close in a short period of time,” says Jane*.“However, I soon realised that she would play mind games by making me feel as if I was someone really important, yet she never truly needed me. I felt as if I was just a puppet, but I could never bring myself to leave as I still believed she was a genuine person.” Sound like a familiar conundrum?

Warning signs

A VFF (Vampire Friend Forever) doesn’t always criticise you to your face, but that’s only because she has much subtler, more insidious ways of getting the job done. “Exploitative friendships are friendships in which you are constantly being taken advantage of or even being put down all the time,” explains Andrea Chan, Manager of Centre For Effective Living. The key to identifying a VFF, says Jo Lamble, clinical psychologist and author of Detox Your Relationship, is gauging how each interaction makes you feel. “If you walk away feeling just that little bit less confident, and you’re also questioning yourself and doubting your choices, that’s a really major sign,” she explains. “If the friendship is not helping you grow, or you are constantly having to deny your needs to evaluate someone else’s, it would be best to distance yourself.”

But the main problem with these “vampire friends” is that at the beginning, they often make you feel amazing, special and needed. “Intensity at the start of any relationship should raise alarm bells because a healthy friendship develops slowly,” Lamble says. “If you’re always required to share your most intimate and deeply rooted secrets about a partner or your family, and if you come away feeling vulnerable and exposed, there’s a real problem there.” If this is a budding friendship, these are the first red flags. But long-standing relationships are also just as susceptible to this kind of imbalance, especially if your patterns of interaction were set way back when you were a people-pleasing teenager.

No debts to be paid

“I met this friend in school and we became both friends and workmates. Through her, I met a lot of other great friends who became my second family,” says Claudia*. “Before meeting her, I wasn’t happy as I didn’t have many friends, so I feel that I owe these friendships to her. However, she started liking the guy I was dating, and did things like ask him out to the club without me, or boast about them hanging out together. It was like she was playing mind games.”

When there’s a shared history and happy memories, it’s never easy to face up to the reality that the friendship has taken a new form. Claudia explains why she couldn’t let go of the friendship, even though it hurt her: “I was disappointed – even though she knew how much I liked him, it didn’t stop her from doing this to me. However, I still felt that we were best friends, and when things don’t concern him, she still took care of me like a sister.”

So what do you do when you’re stuck in a toxic friendship? Can the relationship be saved or should you cut your losses? “Over the long term, exploitative relationships will erode your selfesteem, your sense of right and wrong, and can lead to disillusionment and depression,” says Dr Adrian Wang, Psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital. “Taking a step back is crucial. You have to learn to think with your head and your heart.” So as much as you would like to remember your friend for all the good things, it’s important to understand that people and relationship dynamics change over time. Regardless of how much this friend has helped you in the past, you do not need a friendship that drains you emotionally and mentally. If the present is what’s bothering you, then that’s what you need to work on.

Fight or flight?

So you’ve acknowledged how this friendship makes you feel. Now what? There’s no hard-and-fast rule in determining exactly what to do in – after all, no two friendships are the same. “You should explain your position clearly and try to be as nonconfrontational as possible. If the other person doesn’t get it and insists on justifying his or her behaviour, then it’s time to walk away,” advises Dr Wang. Psychologist Louise Adams of Sydney’s Treat Yourself Well clinic shares a similar view: “If you’re in a relationship with a life-sucker, he or she is unlikely to change. All you can do is change how you respond. For some people, that will mean pulling back a little, but for others, it will mean cutting off the friendship.”

Before you start laying down new boundaries, it’s also a good idea to reconnect with other friends whom you might have neglected or hurt because your vampire friend’s taken up everything you’ve got. This means you’ll have a support network to fall back on when the going gets tough – which it will. In fact, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But the good news is, it does get better.

“Once you’ve done the dirty work, it can be like coming out of an abusive relationship,” Adams elaborates. “There will be a period of grieving, but then you’ll blossom. You’ll start seeing qualities in yourself that you’d forgotten were there.” In the same way, Claudia remembers how she felt after the relationship with her VFF had ended: while she was upset at the start, “eventually, I felt liberated after some reflection. I used to always go out of the way to make her happy, but once I had more time, I started focusing on myself.”

You do not need a friendship that drains you emotionally and mentally.

Calling into Question

Struggling to find a place to start? Andrea Chan advises asking yourself these three questions:

1. Would this person go the extra mile for you?

2. Do you trust this person to care about your needs?

3. What are you getting out of this friendship – and what is the other person getting out of this friendship?