How To Handle Toxic Friendships: What to Accept, How To Forgive and When to Move on

Last night at dinner I had a conversation with a good friend about loving and leading people. “It just requires tough skin and a soft heart,” I said. She replied with this great quote from Breñe Brown.

“Strong back, soft front, wild heart.”

People are the source of so much joy and inspiration for me. I don’t burn bridges with old friends, and I really enjoy making new ones. I love when my friendship worlds collide, and I get to introduce one set of friends to another set of friends.
God made us for relationship. He created us for connection–connecting to Him and building community with one other. I truly believe friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts to His kids—that’s US. But for as much as friendships HELP us, they also have the ability to hurt us as well. Relationships can be messy. And the occasional relationship mess can leave us wanting to wipe our hands of them altogether.
I think that’s why the statement from my friend over dinner brought so much clarity for me. We often walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our fear of rejection or conceal our lack of confidence. But if we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open.
I had a friend I loved wholeheartedly. We shared a lot of good times. I called her a “Refrigerator friend.” You know… the kind of friend drops by unannounced and just helps herself to whatever’s in the fridge? That kind of girl.

We had a lot of heart to hearts about God. We talked ministry and family. We shared about serious stuff, like the pains of our pasts and the big dreams for the future. Sometimes, we laughed ‘til we cried. Sometimes we’d cry until we laughed. We did life, over good food and fun fashion. She became the friend that I didn’t second guess my words with, or feel the need to filter my responses. I could call her for anything at anytime. She was my ‘go-to’ girl. Until one day she just wasn’t. The bonds that had held us so close were now broken. And now, so was my heart.

I let her in so close. I trusted her. I risked by being vulnerable with her. I had thought that I was seen, but then unexpectedly, I was rejected. The bridge I never thought would burn was now on fire.
When she cut me off and walked away, I didn’t know how to respond. It was though the wind got knocked out of me. I was just gasping to catch my breath. As is my tendency, my temptation was to toughen up. To harden my heart and build a wall, so that no one could ever hurt me like that again.
But I had a decision to make. A relationship door has closed, will I become CLOSED OFF?
Everything I am is built on relationship. My purpose is all about connecting others to God and each other. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t numb and ignore, I couldn’t over work to power through it. All this would do is lead me to a life of NO. No to rich relationship. No to new friends. And no to the ones who remained.
How do you move forward with life-giving relationships when a relationship that has brought such life to you has died?
Jesus on the cross—spoken to those who crucified Him no less: “Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Father, extend forgiveness to them. They didn’t mean it.
And the light bulb went on. They “didn’t mean it.” SHE didn’t mean it. And it changed the conversation I’d been having inside my head. And the person who benefited the most was ME.
And so I got good with accepting an apology I never received. I’m not saying it was quick or simple. I grieved the loss, and that process took time. It was much more than just a one and done. I had to say YES to grief. I mourned the loss of someone I had come to love dearly. I grieved losing the friend I believed would never abandon me. I grieved the loss of a friend who understood me and let me be myself—until she didn’t. I grieved the void of early morning coffees and jogs through our neighborhood. I mourned the missing the space and time she filled in my life.
I didn’t do it for her. I did it for me. And for the future girlfriends that would enter my life, and even the ones that remained. This forgiveness was not powered by emotion. It was an act of will.

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander as well as all types of evil behavior. INSTEAD, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”

Through Christ, God forgave me. I invited Him in. I couldn’t do it on my own. As I summoned Him to this messy and hurtful part of my story, and told him all the deepest parts of my pain, Jesus began to fill my heart again. I slowly began to release the power pain had lorded over me and I was able to freely forgive, just like Jesus.
Without forgiveness I’m afraid I would have puffed up in fear. I don’t know if I would have been able to open my heart to the possibilities of new friendship in my life. But just because someone hurt us in our past doesn’t mean we have to keep letting them hurt us in our future. Forgiveness hits the reset button. Forgiveness is wonderful, friend.
I don’t know your story. I haven’t felt your heartbreak. I’m only familiar with mine. But I do know these betrayals and rejections can feel like periods in our story. Making it so difficult to turn the page. Disloyalty, abandonment and rejection have pierced my soul so sharply it has tempted me to quit on friendships here and there. I have been so discouraged I wanted to give up. But these moments, this forgiveness enables me to strengthen my back so I can soften my front and keep moving forward wild at heart.