“For many women, female friendships are the great romances of our lives,” says Claire Cohen. But in her first book, BFF?, the Telegraph’s Women’s Editor bravely admits that it took her three, difficult decades to let her guard down and truly enjoy the company of other women.
She’s not alone. In July 2021 the Onward think tank published results of a survey suggesting that a fifth of adults under 35 say they have only one or no close friends – a figure three times higher than a decade ago. It’s ironic that the TV show Friends is one of the most streamed series among a generation who appear to be significantly lonelier than their parents.
Cohen blames the terrifying “cultification” of the “Best Friend Forever” narrative that girls are sold from the moment they start school. It begins the second we first walk into a classroom, at the age of four or five. While the boys generally form easygoing groups – based largely around the activities that interest them – girls feel under pressure to pair off with “a soulmate to whom you can tell all your secrets and who always has your back”.
The fairy-tale vision of the perfect friend is, of course, as unlikely as the now routinely unpicked myth that we will be swept away by a “knight on white charger”. Books, films and teachers all work hard to teach girls not to wait around in turreted towers for a handsome prince. But they’re often still made to feel like failures if they haven’t found their “one true friend” before they hit double digits.
A small minority of women achieve this Hollywood gal-pal fantasy and remain besties for life, moving from shared sandpits to matching necklaces; toasts at each others’ weddings to godparenting each others’ children, ending up on retirement cruises and co-chairing book clubs. But for most of us, things are much messier. Often brutal. We might spend years as wallflowers at the friendship ball. Or find ourselves dumped, dramatically, by a friend in the middle of the dancefloor.
Cohen wants to get us all talking about the pain of those early break-ups: the lunch queue snubs and the tear-stained diary entries. She writes rawly of her own, excruciating formative experiences, culminating in the appallingly cruel behaviour of a group of girls she fell in with at university. She acknowledges her complicity in some of their “mean girl” cliquery, and her shame over the way she ran away from their shared flat – tripping the fuse to shut down a stereo on her way out – without confronting them honestly.
Cohen has interviewed many high profile women about their struggles with friendship. We learn that 35-year-old podcaster Pandora Sykes thinks “little girls can be bitches” and how 85-year-old bonkbuster novelist Jilly Cooper befriended her husband’s ex-wife. I loved the story of the friendship between Labour MP Jess Phillips and Conservative MP Anne Milton. The pair met during 2017’s “Pestminster” scandal, committed to dealing with male misconduct at the heart of government. They may disagree on many political issues (a fact they handle with direct teasing) but Phillips believes that their commitment to each other on a personal level is solid as an oak.
I loved Cohen’s chapters on women’s ability to make friends later in life. Most of my own closest and most rewarding friendships with women were made from my twenties onward. This should surely be normalised. It’s a rare individual who married their high school sweetheart, so why should we be expected to remain closest to the women we swapped notes with in double maths?
One of my funniest, kindest friends says she was “never invited to anything from the age of 8 to 20,” which is why I think she’s evolved with the most dazzlingly original personality I’ve ever encountered. But she tells me that, given the choice, she’d “rather be duller now, if it meant avoiding the agony of then.”
But we also need to be prepared to be dumped in adult life too. I wasn’t ready for the pain of being abandoned by a group of local friends after my children’s father left me. Coming just when I was most in need of sisterly support, the unexplained abandonment felt unbearable. I obsessed over the photos they posted online of events at which a single mother was no longer welcome. But Cohen reveals that women lose between 10 and 40 per cent of female friends after a relationship breaks down. It’s normal. There are times we have to accept we’re no longer a comfortable fit.
But, like many of Cohen’s interviewees, I also found that the vulnerability I could no longer hide drew the right people to me. Casseroles appeared on my doorstep. One friend offered to do my accounts. Another poured champagne after school runs and made me feel funny and glamorous again. All my female friends began dropping in at random times, so I could no longer maintain illusions of a tidy house or calm mental state. I had no choice but to present the reality which Cohen urges her readers to embrace. She’s right to assert that the truth will set your friendships free. The right other women will love you for answering the door wearing knickers snatched from the washing line as a hairband. As Jilly Cooper wisely says, it’s the laughter that bonds and saves you.
Cohen quotes a psychologist who claims that social media has damaged friendships. But I agree with her conclusion that it’s only competitively used and/or masochistically consumed social media that really has that effect. Tell the truth – within sensible limits – you can use the technology to cruise through periods when you don’t have time to keep up with all your friends.
I loved Cohen’s assertion that a “portfolio” of friends is the best way forward for most of us. We’re all multifaceted and benefit from a range of voices and a range of availabilities. BFF? also inspired me to try to be braver about confronting niggling issues with friends in future. Like Cohen, I’m guilty of letting things ride when perhaps I’d profit from addressing problems directly. Sure, that’s a risk. But a little truth and jeopardy is what keeps the romance alive.
BFF? by Claire Cohen is published by Bantam at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books