I need a drink. But I can’t go to the bar, because three of my friends are staring at me. They are willing me to agree to a plan which, in hindsight, should have sent me running—but which I am about to go along with.
It’s my first year of university and, having lived cheek-by-jowl with 600 other students for little more than a few weeks in halls, we are suddenly being asked to subdivide into clusters of future housemates. After several painful female friendship heartbreaks at school—with the “best friends” on whom we pin every hope and dream turning out to not be forever after all—my confidence has taken a nose-dive and I’m convinced that I will be rejected. The pity pick. Someone has to live with her… you do it… no, you.
What this feeling means is that I am desperate to make friends with anyone who will have me. So instead of taking my time and seeing whom I might connect with, or joining societies, I latch on to the nearest set of girls with whom I have little in common but a corridor.
The four of us are sitting on my lumpy single bed when it happens.
“Claire, do you want to live with us next year?” says Naomi, in a sing-song voice.
My heart almost bursts out of my chest.
“It’ll be so fun,” cries Leonie. “We can go out all the time and everything.”
What “everything” means, I’m not sure, but I want to find out. Perhaps this is my entry to the secret club of BFFs at last. Maybe I am finally finding my “tribe”.
The reality turns out to be far more complicated. It’s no secret that many of us struggle with friendship at university – living away from home for the first time, with all the expectation of forming close bonds for life and few responsibilities other than making that happen. It’s a high-pressure environment that is bound to boil over for some.
Until now, I had buried a lot of what went on during my second year. Dredging it up has been pretty upsetting. At times, I’ve had to confront my own less-than-ideal behaviour, and I’ve been forced to understand that my former friends may not even recognise themselves in this story. They will no doubt have their own perspectives on everything I’m about to tell you. But by sharing mine, I hope that anyone experiencing a similar situation might begin to recognise toxic traits in a friendship and step away, saving themselves heartbreak down the line.
If I’d been able to, I might never have taken part in the Great Bedroom Swindle.
The plan is this: we are picking numbers to decide who will sleep where in our new five-bedroom house. Naomi is the self- appointed leader: pretty, quick-witted and self-deprecating—but not without taking you down with her: “You’ve got such lovely eyebrows, even though they meet in the middle.”
Leonie and Poppy are her numbers two and three. Crucially, all three already know each other and have mutual friends. Looking back now, that should have been a red flag: university is not where you go to meet a girl clique and try to insert yourself into it. But at the time, it seemed to me like the pinnacle of female friendship.
Malia, the last housemate, is another girl from our halls—someone who doesn’t seem to have a ready-made squad either and seems happy to fill the space.
Our new house-to-be has a master bedroom with a king-sized bed, two comfy medium-sized rooms, along with one much smaller rabbit hutch that can barely hold a single bed, and one bedroom downstairs, with a window that faces the street, at which the clientele of the nearby chippy enjoy hurling their empty cartons.
The three girls now staring at me want to make sure none of them is lumped with the hutch. What they are suggesting is that we pre-pick the numbers one to four at random, choose which bedrooms we want (one being the first to select), then when Malia arrives at the pub, we go again, pretending that we haven’t already done so. This time all the pieces of paper in the draw will have the number five written on them to guarantee that she is the resident rabbit.
“I’ve got number one!” the victor will exclaim, having already swiped the king-sized room and swiftly hiding her slip with the number five on it.
Carefully, I weigh up my options:
- Go along with this devious plan, say nothing and find my BFFs.
- Tell them that I want no part of it and be forced to live by myself in the new-build student flats unaffectionately known as the “loser block”.
- Drop out.
“Who’s going first?” I ask, forcing a smile. I burn with shame to recall this now. Such is my longing to be accepted that, instead of standing up against what I know to be wrong, I rummage in my handbag to find a receipt on which we can write the numbers with my Collection 2000 eyeliner.
I’ve long asked myself two things about that day. First: what had Malia done to deserve it? Answer: I think the other three had simply identified her as someone who wouldn’t kick up a fuss at paying for a bedroom so tiny that the chances of her ever being able to invite someone back were non-existent. Equal rent for unequal sex.
Second: did they swindle me, too? I pick number four from that sticky pint glass—which has, until moments earlier, contained a snakebite—lumbering me with the freezing downstairs bedroom next to the front door. Naomi picks number one, Leonie and Poppy get two and three. But in the moment, I don’t care—I have been included and am euphoric. So this is what it feels like to be part of a girl squad. This is what it feels like to be in control.
That’s the thing about false friends: they don’t immediately reveal themselves to be fool’s gold. They dazzle you with their generosity (“You must borrow my new boots”) and attention (“Claire, can I sit next to you at the cinema?”) to make you feel somehow indebted to them. Then they subtly put you down, in ways so small you hardly notice. Worse, they might not even know they’re doing it.
After all, a “toxic friendship” isn’t toxic all the time. It’s often fun and appealing enough to keep you coming back, and to make excuses for the bad moments. It’s why terms like “frenemy” exist. The painful parts hurt all the more because five minutes ago you seemed like BFFs.
It happens gradually at first. Naomi invites me on shopping trips, then claims there isn’t room in the car or that she never asked me. They all stop talking when I walk into the room. Leonie ruins my new suede Adidas trainers by dropping tuna brine on them. I scrub them for days but can’t get the stench out.
They’re the sort of small behaviours that, when I was living with these girls, quietly ate away at me, making me anxious that I might say or do something to turn them against me.
Inevitably, I do: by breaking up with my boyfriend. Naomi is furious. We have been dating boys from the same friendship group and I have ruined it. She starts to freeze me out for days at a time, the rest of my housemates doing the same. It feels brutal; that I might be heartbroken over the end of my relationship doesn’t even seem to register.
And when a male student in the year above begins to harass me via sinister text messages asking me to meet him on the outskirts of town and constant heavy breathing phone calls at 3am? My housemates dismiss that, too, as though I’m making it up. “He’s such a nice guy,” they gush. “Is that your stalker?” Naomi coos, if my phone pings. “He just likes you,” they say, exchanging glances (almost) behind my back.
It all comes to a head a few months later, the night before an exam, when I am panic-revising in my bedroom while Naomi blasts out pop music directly above. By this time, I am seeing someone new and regularly staying at his house, where I can escape the tense atmosphere of my own.
My increasing absence is interpreted as a direct snub to Naomi. When I walk into the living room after one weekend away, she stands up from the sofa and marches out, practically shoulder-barging me. “Oh, sorry, didn’t realise you were actually living here,” she spits.
Perhaps I should have tried to sit my housemates down and explain to them why I was spending so much time away. But it seemed futile to try to make them understand what to me was obvious—and I felt as though they didn’t want to hear me, even if I could have found the words. Opening up is tricky when the person or people concerned have a question mark over their heads. Can you trust them? Will they reject or betray you? It feels easier to stay quiet and protect yourself.
On that evening before my exam, I creep up the wooden stairs to Naomi’s room on all fours, like a frightened animal, and knock. “Naomi, would you mind turning the music down?” I ask, my voice straining with the effort of sounding congenial.
“It’s just I’m trying to revise…”
The volume doubles.
Something snaps inside me. Hot with rage and shame, I storm back down to my bedroom and deploy the only weapon available to me: the fuse box, which just so happens to be in a small cupboard above my bed. This is my nuclear button and I am not afraid to use it. Satisfaction flows through my body as I flick the “upstairs electricity” switch off and the music dies. I hear Naomi stomping and Leonie complaining that her essay has disappeared. I pack a bag, get on a bus to my new boyfriend’s flat and don’t go back to that house until my dad comes to collect me a few weeks later, at the end of term.
For a long time afterwards, though, I asked myself the same questions: was it all in my head? Were they creating a tighter bond between themselves by singling me out? Some of their actions were probably thoughtless, but there’s surely no way they all could have been. There was some responsibility on my part, too. I was trying to be someone else. I relinquished too much control over my own emotions, in the way many of us might when trying to fit in, or when we go along with a situation because of peer pressure.
In female friendships, these confusing behaviours aren’t always toxic in the most obvious sense. To me, toxicity is anything that makes you feel small, or where the power balance is off. It could be a friend who is always judgemental when you confide in them. They might be possessive, acting hurt if you’ve spent time with other friends. It could be a friend who is so wrapped up in their own dramas that they never listen to yours. Perhaps they make you feel as though you have to walk on eggshells. Maybe it’s a friend who pressures you: “Oh go on, share a bottle of wine with me” – when you’ve already told them you’re not drinking. Or someone who only ever seems to pop up when they need something.
As I came to realise with my housemates, any number of small actions can create a toxic dynamic. And I use the word “dynamic” deliberately because—here’s a painful truth—your toxic friend might not be seen as toxic by everyone. Other friends may sing their praises. It can be the pattern you’ve fallen into that’s poisonous, rather than the person themselves.
It’s not as simple as me being the wronged heroine and my university housemates the bullies. There is every chance that they might never have understood how I was feeling. And just because I began to realise that our situation was toxic, that doesn’t mean that they ever did. After all, it’s not easy to recognise negative friendship behaviours in yourself.
It might sound as though I’m letting her off the hook, but Naomi is no more the monster of this story than I am. University was a formative friendship period for her, too, with all the pressures that brings. I see that now—and she did, I think, come to see it later herself. Two years after we’d graduated, I received a text from a mutual friend.
“Hi Claire, Naomi asked me to pass this on. She feels really bad about how things ended between you and was hoping you might consider being her friend again? Up to you.”
Up to me. That’s the thing about a toxic friendship: eventually, you have to put yourself first. It’s not easy and you’ll probably feel shame, guilt, confusion, regret and loneliness. You might miss your friend—every toxic friendship dynamic has fun bits, too. But if you give it some time, you’ll start to realise that you feel better without them in your life.
Now I was the one with the power, and with great power comes great responsibility—to myself. I deleted it.
BFF? The Truth About Female Friendship by Claire Cohen (Transworld) is published on 23 June.
This story was originally published on British Vogue.