Friends without benefits: why is it that some of our closest friends often become our worst enemies?

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Our female friendships are arguably the most precious (and complex) relationships we have. So what do we do when those bonds turn corrosive? Author Camilla Way investigates…

Last year, an email landed in my inbox that left me reeling. As I stared back at the familiar name I felt something close to panic. It was a message from Rachel*, my ex best friend – someone I’d known since childhood but who, for nearly a decade, I’d hoped never to see again. The cheerful, breezy message – when I finally opened it – suggested we meet up. “It’s been too long,” she wrote, “be so nice to see you.” And though my first, rather childish reaction was, “Chuh. No chance”, something made me hesitate.

I was aware of the irony considering the novel I was writing, Watching Edie: a psychological thriller centring around the mother of all toxic friendships between two women, Heather and Edie, which has terrifying repercussions. While Rachel and my problems were thankfully not quite so dramatic, the reason for our fallout could also be traced back to our adolescence – and that age-old chestnut of a stolen boyfriend. Although, on the surface at least, our friendship recovered for a while, there remained throughout our 20s an underlying resentment manifesting itself in juvenile one-upmanship and tit for tat bitchiness that was entirely absent from any of my other friendships. It was claustrophobic and exhausting; we needed to break free of each other, and after a huge fight one night in our early 30s over something innocuous, that’s exactly what we did.

Yet, a decade on I realised I had missed her. For over 20 years we’d each been the person the other could call at 2am when the sh*t hit the fan, and there had been many, many highs to the lows. Plus I was itching with curiosity: that intervening decade had been seismic for me; a series of life changing events – leaving my job as a magazine production editor, writing three novels, becoming a mother of twins – that had altered me considerably. Had she changed too? Or would meeting up again suck us back into the negative power play of the past? Staring at my inbox, my finger hovered between Reply and Delete.

Forever friends?

Lena Dunham once said, “I think of my best friendship as like a great romance of my young life,” and from Ab Fab’s Patsy and Edina to Taylor Swift’s ‘squad’, popular culture isn’t short of reminders of the joy our girlfriends can bring. A study by Relate concluded that our friendships act as shock absorbers when times are hard while several scientific reports have found having friends helps you fight illness, slows ageing and prolongs life. Yet when a friendship goes wrong (as 84% of women revealed they’ve experienced**) it can have huge repercussions, affecting our mental and physical health, leaving us feeling isolated and anxious. But what qualifies as a negative friendship, why do they happen, and what can we do when we find we’re in the grip of one?

A friendship that has turned corrosive is one that makes us feel uncomfortable, stressed, drained, depressed, hurt and angry – pretty much the opposite of how a friendship is supposed to be. According to psychologist Emma Kenny, the reason they turn poisonous can be down to how the friendship begins. “They’re often formed more through proximity and less through similarity,” she says. “It’s whom you happen to share halls with at uni, or who you meet at work. This means that while initially you have a honeymoon period, where getting to know each other is fun, over time the true nature of friendships develop and they can prove to be very destructive. Very often it’s feelings of competition that turn relationships into a toxic climate.”

Chloe Jennings, systems analyst, 28, remembers a friend from university. “We met in freshers’ week because we were on the same course. I think we were drawn to each other because in many ways we were similar. But after a while I noticed she was always trying to go one better than me – if I flirted with a guy, she had to get his number, if I tried to make new friends, she’d put me down in front of them. It was always jokey, but it knocked my confidence. It wasn’t until I graduated that I felt able to break free.”

According to Kenny, this technique of undermining is typical of the power play of the embittered friend whose tactics will often include belittling successes, making acerbic ‘jokes’ about dress sense or choice of boyfriend. “The toxic party will aim to make their friend less powerful than them,” she says.

Mean girls

Men have difficult friendships too, of course, but is there something in the female psyche that makes it more likely to happen between women? Irene S Levine, psychologist, author and creator of The Friendship Blog, believes the nature of female friendships makes them particularly destructive when they fail. “Relationships between women often tend to be more intimate than those between men. We share our deepest emotions with our female friends and often ascribe to the belief that friendship will never end,” she says. “In general, male friendships are more likely to revolve around shared activities and interests than shared feelings. Some anthropologists have even described women’s friendships as ‘face-to-face’ and male friendships as ‘side-to-side’.”

When it comes to our friendships, the rise of social media can be a double-edged sword. While it’s a great way to stay in touch and organise meet ups, it’s also the ideal way for the poisonous party to fuel paranoia and exacerbate insecurity by using exclusion tactics – often on purpose. Who hasn’t at one time looked at friends’ Facebook pictures of an ‘amazing night with all the gang’ and had that sinking realisation that they hadn’t been invited? “This demonstrates power play and offers a passive aggressive message to the excluded party,” says Kenny.

Loretta Hayes, a teacher, 31, says, “I was part of a WhatsApp group of old college friends. It was one friend’s birthday so the rest of us created a new group to organise a present. But when it came to the party, it turned out there was a separate messaging group I didn’t know about. When I pulled them up on it I was told, ‘Oh, we just assumed you’d be too busy with your husband and baby.’ I was the first to start a family, and it was clear they now found me too dull to hang out with. I would have loved to have gone. I was so upset.”

Apart from hurt feelings, friendship breakdowns can have quite a serious impact on our health and wellbeing. “When friends turn on us they make us question our relationship choices and cause ourselves self doubt. We feel anxious, and that means our body is being flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone,” Kenny says. “Aside from the physiological symptoms, feeling that our friends are rejecting, criticising or harming us is unsettling. We want our friendships to be safe havens and when they turn toxic they become the very opposite of this.”

So how are these debilitating relationships avoided? It’s probably worth remembering the famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As Kenny says, “People will only be able to treat you in the way you allow them to treat you. Stick to clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour and if a friend crosses the line tell her you’re unwilling to accept such treatment.” Levine adds, “When a friendship feels out of kilter, it’s important to communicate and try to resolve problems. If this isn’t possible, it may be prudent to ‘dilute’ the relationship by seeing each other less often, or in a group. Sometimes these differences can’t be resolved and you may have to accept the friendship is no longer working. Friendships are voluntary relationships that should be mutually satisfying.”

In the end curiosity got the better of me and I replied to Rachel’s email. I’m so glad I did. The time apart meant we were now able to interact as the women we’d become, rather than the teenagers we once were. We both apologised and agreed to draw a line under the past. By letting go of our baggage the many brilliant aspects of our friendship came to the fore. I’d forgotten what a joy it is to spend time with someone with whom you share so much history, who knows you inside and out – and who can randomly text you a picture of a dumpster that makes you cry with laughter on a packed bus (you had to be there). It’s these positives that friendship should be about. So let go of anything less.

Watching Edie by Camilla Way (£10, HarperCollins) is out now