It might sound dramatic, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the most painful heartbreaks of my life have been those involving female best friends. Forget teenage crushes, university boyfriends and long-term loves, the incidents that left me ashamed, confused and feeling as though I wasn’t good enough? When those supposed BFFs — best friends forever — didn’t work out.
There was Quinn, aged nine, who broke up with me in the playground. Maddy, at 12, who froze me out in class with no explanation. Ana, who ditched me at 16. Each left a scar on my heart that has taken years to heal, if it ever has.
I blame the BFF myth. It’s something girls are spoon-fed from the moment we start school and our parents ask: so who’s your best friend? It’s in the books we read, Hollywood films and the TV we watch. There’s merch: those broken heart necklaces that are a public show of best friendship and declare the wearers to be two halves of one whole. Joined at the hip. Soulmates.
It is, we’re told, the ultimate prize in female friendship: to have one special person who knows all your secrets and with whom you never fall out. We fantasise about getting boyfriends at the same time (who are also best friends or, even better, twins), going to the same university and sharing our first rented flat together. It’s the sort of best friendship portrayed in the current BBC adaptation of Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, which has done a seriously good thing in putting female friendship love to the top of the conversation. But I can’t help but think some women will be watching and wondering why they don’t have a forever friend themselves.
Even a girl squad: the other brand of female friendship we so often see on screen and, in particular, social media. Remember Taylor Swift’s #girlsquad who were all over Instagram a few years ago, having sleepovers and beach parties? Even Sex and the City promoted a living-in-each-other’s-pockets model of friendship that I found wonderful to watch but which ultimately left me feeling a bit left out. Why didn’t I have a close group of friends like that? What was wrong with me?
We don’t all buy into these myths, of course, but so many of us do. Maybe you haven’t even realised that you have. What it means is that we are set up, from the earliest age, to have unrealistic expectations. To strive for a version of female friendship that doesn’t — for the majority of us — exist.
As one mother of a teenage girl put it to me recently, “she is struggling so much to achieve the ‘perfect’ BFF relationship and has been left lonely and depressed”.That really hit home. I grew up craving a best friend and believing it was the only ‘right’ way to do female friendship — a sense I carried right through into adulthood. When I didn’t have a BFF, I felt ashamed and alone. When I did, I felt terrified that I would do something to put her off. For me, a best friendship has always come hand-in-hand with insecurity and anxiety: does she really like me? Might she prefer someone else instead? What if we change and grow apart?
The BFF break-up that hit the hardest was when my school friend Ana shattered my heart into tiny pieces. We had been BFFs for three years and spent every spare moment together — passing notes in class, shopping for yin yang earrings at weekends, trundling up and down the River Thames on motor boats during the summer holidays. I had never been happier — and thought she was, too. So when she told me, down the phone, that she no longer wanted to be best friends? It would set in motion a chain reaction which gave me a deep-seated mistrust of female friendship and would take me years to recover from.
It doesn’t matter whether your best friendship ended at 16 or 60, if it’s ever happened to you, you’ll know the feeling — as though your entire world has collapsed. The fear of life without your closest female confidante by your side, the worry that others will think you must have done something wrong and be a terrible person.My reaction was to become a beta friend, someone desperate to please and not put a foot wrong in the pursuit of a new BFF. I felt as though I had to change myself to fit in with a supposed ideal of what female friendship ought to look like — and that meant diminishing my own emotional needs in order to win and keep friends.It’s only looking back now that I realise how damaging that was to my self-esteem and how many years I spent living in fear. Not to mention the nights spent crying myself to sleep and feeling so wretched and useless. I truly believe that if I hadn’t bought into the BFF myth in those earliest school days, if perfect depictions of female friends hadn’t been shoved down my throat endlessly, it might have been different.
As women we are under so much pressure to have the perfect job, partner, home, children, wardrobe, body. The BFF myth adds to that the pressure to have the perfect female friendship. And it sets us up for disappointment. Because no one friend can fulfil all your emotional needs, just as no one romantic partner ever will. It’s too much to put all your eggs in one platonic basket; under that sort of pressure any one of us would crack.
It’s why many women I interviewed for my new book on female friendship told me that they had walked away if things had got ‘too hard’ with a close pal. Because we think female best friendship should be conflict-free, they simply didn’t know what else to do.
Women are socialised to pacify and smooth things over, after all, so it stands to reason that we’d do that with each other. But isn’t it just a little patronising that we’ve been conditioned not to experience the full range of emotions with our female friends, as we do our romantic partners? To think that any bumps in the road are a death sentence, rather than something to work through? It’s all part of a narrative designed to keep female friendship as one of the most underrated bonds in society, and reinforce the idea that a romantic happy-ever-after should be the pinnacle of womanhood.
I chased the best friend myth to the detriment of the friendships that I did have — always seeking something ‘better’ and failing to understand that there were already brilliant women in my life, each of whom brought out a different side of me.
Because of the myth, I overlooked my oldest friend Izzy when I started a new school in my teens, believing that a best friend had to be quite literally by my side. For three decades, I sought a BFF when what actually makes me happiest is a wide group of female friends, a portfolio, rather than a cosy cult of two.
But it was only after meeting a group of women in my thirties, who showed me a more relaxed and open version of female friendship, that my outlook began to change and I started to appreciate the value of a group dynamic over a twosome. Yet what if we had never crossed paths? Would I still be desperately seeking a BFF, constantly failing and trapped in an unhealthy friendship cycle?
It merits saying that some women do still have a BFF and I think that’s wonderful. Fashion designer Justine Tabak told me about her best friend of 57 years, who she’s known since they were babies. But I also realised that there’s a best friend double bind: the women I spoke to who had an adult best friendship were almost ashamed to admit it (“I find it cringey,” said one), while we can also feel shame — as I did — if we don’t have one.
Perhaps we should accept that we’re all searching for a one-size-fits-all standard that doesn’t exist for every woman. Because I have a feeling that if we ditch the BFF myth, we might find the sort of honest and rounded female friendship love that should really be the stuff of Hollywood.