What if there’s no such thing as a ‘toxic friendship’ after all?

Written by Claire Cohen

Journalist Claire Cohen reflects on a toxic friendship from her past, and considers if she has in fact been thinking about the situation all wrong… 

It all seemed straightforward. As I sat down at my laptop one morning last year to write about my toxic friendship, the story was clear in my mind. My university housemates – a group of girls with whom I had lived in my second year – had made my life hell. It was a tale of good vs evil, and they were the baddies.

At the time, I was finishing my book about female friendship – busting myths around every woman needing a BFF, new friends being too tricky to make as an adult and friendship break-ups being a source of shame – yet I still hadn’t grasped the whole truth about so-called ‘toxic friendships’ until I was forced to confront my own. What I discovered left me wondering whether calling someone a toxic friend is too simplistic. Is one person always to blame or did I have to take responsibility too?

The three girls who lived opposite me in our first year student halls were undoubtedly a clique – the sort of perfect girl squad we often see in Hollywood films and on social media. I had struggled to make friends, so when they asked me if I wanted to share a house with them in our second year, I was not only keen but desperately grateful.

Suddenly I was their new BFF. They wanted to lend me clothes and cuddle up to watch films under duvets. I was love bombed – showered with over-the-top affection and attention – and, having been lonely for months, it felt good. So good that when they suggested that we play a devious game to make sure our fifth housemate – another girl from halls – had the box room in our new second year house, I went along with it for fear of rejection. 

The Great Bedroom Swindle involved the rest of us picking numbers one to four from a pint glass and then choosing which bedroom we wanted (number one getting first dibs on the huge attic). Then, once we had already decided who was sleeping where, we would do the draw again, including our fifth housemate – pretending that we hadn’t already done so. This time all the pieces of paper in the pint glass would have the number five written on them to guarantee that she got the box room. “I’ve got number one!” the victor would shout, having already swiped the king-sized room and hiding her slip with the number five on it.

I cringe with shame now, but at the time it felt like a taste of control where, having struggled with female friendship, I’d had none. And going through the painful process of dredging it up for my book made me realise that it was the start of a poisonous pattern of behaviour that would last that entire year.

They were small things: the three of them making a big show of inviting me on shopping trips and then leaving without me. Stopping talking when I walked into a room. Making snide remarks when I stayed at my boyfriend’s house, when it was fine for them to do the same. Behaviours that, individually, seem petty but which accumulate to make you feel as though you’re walking on eggshells most of the time.

But not all. Because a toxic friendship isn’t toxic all the time – that’s too simplistic. Sometimes it’s fun and the other person is a charming friend whose company makes you feel good. It’s why so many of us struggle to decide whether a friendship is good for us or not, or even realise what might be going on. Psychologist and author of Platonic, Marisa G Franco tells me that we are also too quick to use it – that the word toxic might now be toxic itself. “It has become diluted and some people use it at any sign of conflict,” she explains. You only have to look at the hashtag #toxicfriendship on TikTok, which has had 149.8m views, to see that. 

Claire Cohen is the author of BFF?: The Truth about Female Friendship

And it is complicated – one person’s friendship red flag might see someone else shrugging their shoulders. What it comes down to for me, and what the experts I spoke to when researching my book agreed, is an imbalance in power. For instance, if you always do what your friend wants to do, while your suggestions are dismissed. If you regularly feel nervous about seeing them. If they always seem to make barbed jokes at your expense or betray your confidence to score points with other people. If they act possessive or hurt when you meet up with different friends. If they never seem to pay any attention to your life, but expect you to share in all their dramas.

As a friend of mine puts it, at the most basic level, when you meet up with them do you come away feeling like a minus two (they made you feel bad or drained), a zero (it was just fine) or a plus two (they buoyed you up)? It’s a simple way to start identifying behavioural patterns with a friend – both their role and yours – and whether the friendship dynamic needs to change, or be left behind.

I use the word dynamic deliberately thanks to friendship coach Shasta Nelson, who helped me to think about toxicity differently: as a dynamic that a friendship can drift into, rather than one person being inherently evil.

“I had a friendship that I would have been tempted to use that word [toxic] about, but other people loved her,” Nelson explained. “So I don’t think that person is toxic, I think that the pattern that she and I developed had become toxic.” 

Franco says that my experience may fit into this idea of a friendship not being inherently toxic, but rather the dynamics becoming problematic. “At first, they make it seem like they’re very devoted to you. They’re all charm and likeability, but it’s a false front to gain validation,” she says. “Once they’ve got you hooked, they start to show their toxic traits – whether saying things behind your back, being malicious, expecting things from you that they never give to you. That one-sidedness comes out over time. So it’s very normal for you to feel like someone is toxic and for other people to be like, no, no, no.”

A toxic dynamic that seems unique to your friendship means that you also have to interrogate your own role within it, says Emma Gleadhill, who goes into schools to talk to girls about toxic friendship.

“It’s never one-sided. It’s also about what you bring to the party,” she explains. “If you haven’t articulated any boundaries – if you expect people who are close to you to be mind-readers, because they should just know how you feel – you’re letting the drip-drip effect of someone’s friendship habits with you go unchecked.”

That was my own toxic friendship lightbulb moment. Reliving the events of that year meant that I was forced to confront my own less-than-ideal behaviour, and my failure to set boundaries. I was so relieved to have a ready-made girl squad that I didn’t stop to ask whether they were good for me. In going along with the Great Bedroom Swindle, I failed to establish any red lines, allowing their behaviour to escalate unchallenged. Did they even know what they were doing? I certainly never told them. It means there’s a good chance my former friends may not even recognise themselves in this story. 

“Toxic people do tend to bring out our own toxicity, because you can’t really relate to them in a reasonable way and have them listen,” says Franco, reassuringly. “It can be a mix – sometimes it’s the dynamic, other times it’s that you’ve stumbled upon a narcissist.”

She has some questions for anyone who feels they might be in a toxic friendship. “If we say someone’s toxic, what are the behaviours that indicate that? Is there any evidence? Or is it just an assumption that I’m making from my personal experience? Also ask: Do I stand up for myself? Have I asked for things? And if the answer is yes – you’ve voiced your discomfort and it’s still happening – that’s a sign maybe the other person is being toxic.”

The big question, of course, is whether you want to do anything about it. If you’re keen to see whether the friendship dynamic can change, Gleadhill advises talking to your friend, carefully, to assess how willing they are to engage.

“How we frame this difficult conversation is so important,” she says. “If we do it in a way that is accusatory – that it’s not just what’s been happening in our friendship, it’s you – we’ll get a defensive response. Try asking, ‘When you did this, it made me feel this. Can we talk about it?’ That’s an invitation to connect. But we can’t make anyone, even our closest friends, any nicer than they are. There are people who are offensive and who are probably not going to change, but you will only find that out by testing the water. Ultimately, you need to take care of yourself.” 

Which is what I did, by moving out and not speaking to my former friends again. Not even when, two years after we’d graduated, one of them got in touch to ask whether we might repair our friendship. At the time, I thought she wanted me to validate her guilt but, in hindsight, I wonder whether she simply had no idea how damaging I had found her friendship and how deeply our toxic dynamic had impacted me. I’d never told her, after all. 

Claire Cohen is the author of BFF? The Truth About Female Friendship (£16.99, Transworld)

Images: Getty; Amit Lennon. 

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