The Rise of Toxic Friendships in Literature ‹CrimeReads

I met a friend for coffee last week who opened up our conversation by telling me she’d had a ‘clear-out’ of her friends. She’d gone on to tell me how she’d even used a Venn Diagram for the purpose of sifting through what it was that made her happy in her friendships and who did not fill this criteria. She had realized that she spent too much of her time on the people who did not make her feel better and not enough on those who did. And while I did not have the same need to do it myself, I commended her on realizing that there are people in her life who do not deserve a place.

It’s interesting how easily many of us can talk about relationships with partners that are not working or that do not make us feel good, and often, though by no means always, we do something about it by breaking up with them. And yet how many people can say they have done the same things with friends? We may cancel on arrangements or make excuses to see them in the hope that the intensity of the friendship may fade over time, but I bet it’s pretty likely that most people have never told a friend they are breaking up with them and given them the reason why.

Which means we’re often left clinging on to the friendships we do not actually want in our lives, and some of those can be pretty toxic. The person that you walk away from after drinks or a coffee and actually feel worse than you did before you’d started.

Toxic friendships can conjure a myriad of emotions and none of them good. They can make you doubt yourself, be left feeling low, and they often sneak up on you when you do not notice it. Potentially, no one else sees it either, which makes you wonder if you’re actually right about this friend. Maybe you’re the one who has it wrong: they’re a perfect example of a gaslighter.

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Maybe it’s this complicity that makes a toxic friendship such a good relationship to explore in literature. Because it can be one that we do not expect, or refuse to see, and that we do not often feel we have the tools to deal with.

It is a phenomenon that has appeared in novels like Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye where best friends turn on one of the group, a story of childhood torment that only gets closure in adulthood. And in the stories of obsession between men such as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and even Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

It makes you wonder what it is that causes such toxicity and if it is anything other than an innate sense of competition that leads to an obsession in wanting what they have. A willingness for your ‘friend’ to fail because you believe you can only be happy when their life is not as good as yours.

While literature has always explored themes of toxic friendships I believe there has recently been another shift in its direction, especially where adult female friendships are concerned – a relationship I have explored in The Whispers.

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Take Sex and The City as a prime example. Launching onto our screens in 1998, at the heart of this popular show was a tale of friendships. Four women whose love for each other seemed to supersede everything else that was important in their lives, including husbands and careers. It was a true story of Best Friends Forever and one that everyone craved for themselves.

At the same time the likes of Friends, Seinfeld and Bridget Jones were hitting our screens – all with the same memo, that friends were more important than anything else, and they were in your life forever. They brought with them the notion that you could not drop your friends, and that possibly there was even something wrong with you if you could not maintain friendships.

But in 2021 SATC: And Just Like That was back, and the break up in the group is clear from the start. Samantha is out. She has not been killed off, as many might have expected, instead she is in London refusing to speak to any of her best friends because Carrie dropped her as a PR agent, alluding to the fact that Samantha was always jealous of her and not a true friend after all…

It makes you wonder what might have happened to the Friends gang if we had the pleasure of watching then grow older together, move out and have more babies? We can only hope they would still be the best friends they always were!

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But in literature we have also seen a shift in the portrayal of toxic friendships. In My Brilliant FriendElena Ferrante explores a friendship that lasts forever and yet dig under its surface and its one of jealousy and at times cruelty on one side and on the other, a reluctance to address this for fear of losing a friend.

Tara Isabella Burton writes about similar themes in her brilliant, Social Creature. A story of a woman who has it all and is prepared to openly share it with her friend, Louise, but Louise wants this life for herself, and she is prepared to do what she has to get it. Burton demonstrates the fluctuating power play in friendships and how lethal they can be.

In turn Elizabeth Kay explores toxicity in Seven Lies. This is a story of an intense friendship that has lasted through childhood, university and into adulthood, but it’s one that is woven with fine threads of jealousy and obsession.

The truth is that playground friendships extend well into adulthood and as literature has shown us they make for very compelling reading. Female friendships can be so more lasting and damaging than other relationships and never more so than today with the effects of social media and being hashtag blessed to create jealousies. And what about the friends whose contrasting opinions have been heightened through the pandemic?

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Friendships can be dark and layered and often hard to extricate yourself from, and sometimes they can go very very wrong. And this was why I wanted to write The Whispers and I have to say I had a lot of fun doing so!

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