The Rise of Toxic Friendships in Literature ‹ CrimeReads
I met a friend for coffee last week who opened our conversation by telling me that she had had a “cleansing” from her friends. She went on to tell me how she even used a Venn diagram to sift through what made her happy in her friendships that didn’t meet that criteria. She had realized that she spent too much time on people who didn’t make her feel better and not enough on those who did. And even though I didn’t have the same need to do it myself, I praised her for realizing there were people in her life who didn’t deserve a spot.
It’s interesting how easily many of us can talk about relationships with partners that aren’t working or aren’t doing us any good, and often, but not always, we do something about breaking up with them. And yet how many people can say they’ve done the same with friends? We can call off arrangements or make excuses to see them in hopes that the intensity of the friendship will fade over time, but I bet it’s highly likely that most people never said to a friend that they were breaking up with him and told him why. Why.
Which means we often cling to friendships that we don’t actually want in our lives, and some of them can be quite toxic. The person you walk away from after drinking or having coffee and who feels worse than before you started.
Toxic friendships can evoke a myriad of emotions, and none of them are good. They can make you doubt yourself, feel depressed, and they often sneak up on you when you don’t notice. Potentially no one else sees it either, which makes you wonder if you’re really right about this friend. You may be wrong: it is a perfect example of a gas lighter.
Perhaps it’s this complicity that makes a toxic friendship such a good relationship to explore in literature. Because it can be a problem we don’t expect or refuse to see, and often don’t feel like we have the tools to deal with it.
It’s a phenomenon that has appeared in novels like Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel cat eye where best friends turn against one of the band members, a story of childhood torment that only closes in adulthood. And in stories of male obsession like Patricia Highsmith’s The talented Mr Ripley and even Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited.
It makes you wonder what causes such toxicity and if it is something other than an innate sense of competition that leads to an obsession with wanting what they have. A willingness for your “friend” to fail because you believe you can only be happy when his life isn’t as good as yours.
While literature has always explored themes of toxic friendships, I believe there has recently been another shift in its direction, particularly with regard to adult female friendships – a relationship I have explored in The whispers.
Take sex and the city as the first example. Launched on our screens in 1998, at the heart of this popular show was a story of friendships. Four women whose love for each other seemed to supersede everything important in their lives, including husbands and careers. It was a true Best Friends Forever story and a story that everyone craved for themselves.
At the same time, the tastes 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 idea that you couldn’t abandon your friends and that there might even be something wrong with you if you couldn’t maintain friendships.
But in 2021 SATC: And just like that was back, and the break in the group is clear from the start. Samantha is out. She wasn’t killed as many might have expected, instead she’s in London refusing to speak to one of her best friends because Carrie dumped her as an agent. from public relations, alluding to the fact that Samantha was always jealous of her and not a true friend after all…
It makes you wonder what could have happened to the Friends gang if we had the pleasure of watching then grow old together, move house and have more babies? We can only hope they would still be the best friends they ever were!
But in the literature, we also saw a change in the portrayal of toxic friendships. In my brilliant friendElena Ferrante explores a friendship that lasts forever and yet digs beneath its surface and that of jealousy and sometimes cruelty on one side and on the other, a reluctance to address it for fear of losing a friend.
Tara Isabella Burton writes on similar themes in her brilliant, social creature. The story of a woman who has everything and is willing to share it openly with her friend, Louise, but Louise wants this life for herself and she’s willing to do what she has to get it. Burton demonstrates the fluctuating power play in friendships and how deadly they can be.
In turn, Elizabeth Kay explores toxicity in Seven Lies. It’s the story of an intense friendship that lasted through childhood, college and into adulthood, but it’s a story woven with fine threads of jealousy and obsession.
The truth is, playground friendships carry over into adulthood, and as the literature has shown us, they make for very compelling reading. Female friendships can be so much more lasting and damaging than other relationships and never more so than today with the effects of social media and the blessed hashtag to create jealousies. And what about friends whose contrasting opinions have been heightened by the pandemic?
Friendships can be dark and layered and often difficult to extract, and sometimes they can go very wrong. And that’s why I wanted to write The whispers and I must say that I had a lot of fun doing it!