“If I split up with Dan, can I move in with you?”
At that moment, I knew I’d won. Actually, scratch that. I started to suspect I might have been winning a couple of months previously when my best friend, lets call her Hannah (for that is her name), told me, quietly and hurriedly, when we were the first two people to arrive for a dinner reservation, that she was starting to have doubts about her boyfriend of four years. That she was, for the first time, starting to consider the possibility that he might not be the right man for her.
I nodded sympathetically, listened to what she had to say, and told her to think about what she wanted and not to make any rash decisions. Basically, the standard best friend response when your mate tells you she’s got doubts about her partner. Mainly I was relieved – I’d been having doubts about her relationship for two years, at least we were on the same page now.
I’ve known Hannah for more than a decade. There were only five girls in our year on our course at university. I think we got talking when we discovered we’d both been to the same festival. We walked down the Strand together to look round the National Gallery and get a McDonalds for lunch. And so a friendship based almost exclusively on a mutual love of junk food was born.
In the ensuing decade-and-a-bit, we’ve seen more than our fair share of drama, from student flats (one flat, which we shared, with a hole in the roof), and more bad boyfriends than I’d care to mention, to fantastic holidays and jobs, and then careers. Next thing I knew, I was buying a flat and she was shacking up with a nice teacher she’d met on holiday when she was 15 and tracked down on Facebook ten years later.
He seemed nice – actually he was nice. Nice, nice nice. He was polite, charming, courteous and just the right combination of adoring and teasing around Hannah. He was a little straight, but maybe this was no bad thing? They moved in together fairly quickly, and seemed happy. Not perfect, but happy.
Although he never admitted it, it became clear that he got depressed, and as a natural people pleaser, Hannah did everything she could to make this better. Staying in with him when he didn’t want to go out (which he increasingly didn’t), clearing up after him, trying to manage his ever erratic moods as best as she could. But she was just being a supportive girlfriend right? She’d made up her mind that she was in it for the long-haul, so she was just doing what she needed to do to make it work.
Hannah is my best friend, and it goes without saying that I’ll always take her side in an argument with a boyfriend – that’s my job. But I also know that no-one’s relationship is perfect, and that, by nature, she’s always going to be The Fixer in any set up.
Also, we were grown-ups now. She was in a proper relationship – just because I was refusing to behave like an adult, didn’t mean she had to.
Then, eventually, the alarm bells started to ring. Softly at first – I barely heard them, but they got steadily louder.
First Hannah started to lose weight. She’s always been tiny, but as a PE teacher and exercise obsessive, Dan was concerned that she wasn’t ‘healthy’ enough. So out with the pizza and in with the superfood salads.
When someone’s five foot two and a size eight, there’s very little weight to lose, soon she was a size six, and mutual friends were asking me, in hushed tones, if she had an eating disorder.
Then she stopped answering her phone or replying to texts when she was at home. If you wanted to speak to her, it had to be when she was at work.
Then she stopped coming out. And if she did come out, she hardly drank. Or left the second her phone rang calling her home. Or she got absolutely hammered on three drinks, cried and was sick. Presumably because she was hardly eating, hardly drinking and was unable to ever really relax.
When the latter occurred, she’d be in trouble when she got home for getting so drunk. The fact that she’d had half as much as everyone else didn’t seem to matter. She inexplicably developed two-day hangovers where she couldn’t move as well. He became increasingly convinced that she was an alcoholic, and told her she’d have to sort her life out if she wanted him to stick around.
Money was another sore point – when it became clear that she had quite the shopping habit, he began to monitor her spending – ostensibly to help her get back on track and sort her finances out. But like everything, what started out as him being the supportive boyfriend, helping her out, became an obsessive need for him to control another aspect of her life.
So, over four years, my best friend, who I’d once seen stab a boyfriend in the arm with a stiletto heel because he was annoying (it was only a little stab, and she was drunk, and he was being very annoying), who always stood up for herself when it mattered, became a shadow of herself.
She was constantly on edge when we were out, always trying to smooth things over and keep him happy. But you know what? As painful as it was to watch, we always made an effort with him – all of her friends. The happier he was, the happier she was, so we didn’t rock the boat.
Even when one of our friends saw him stop Hannah from eating a chocolate croissant at a service station because ‘she didn’t need it,’ (she was a size six at this point, make of that what you will).
Even when she disappeared off the radar completely – she later told me she had ‘good friends’ he liked her spending time with and ‘bad friends,’ guess which category I fell under?*
Even when it became clear that he sort of hated women.
First he told our friend Charlotte that ‘all women are after one thing from men’ (that one thing was presumably money). Then he called me a slut, which was nice.
We were having dinner in a restaurant just before Christmas. There were five of us, Hannah, Dan, myself and two of our closest friends. Dan wasn’t meant to come, but he announced, that day, that he had nothing else to do and wanted to. I’m not sure if he’d been invited. We had to change the reservation and eat at ten, but hey, whatever keeps the peace, right?
I was sitting next to the Little Prince, and he asked me about a guy I was seeing at the time. Actually, seeing was too strong a word, we’d slept together a couple of times, and it was my intention that we would do again, but I certainly didn’t want to go out with him (he was nice to look at, but not all that bright).
When I told Dan this (I couched it as delicately as I could), he was horrified – he clearly had no idea how to react, or what to say to me. So he called me a slut instead. It was all very jokey, laddy banter, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he meant it.
If I’d had less to drink I might have ignored it – keeping the peace, etc. Instead I gave as good as I got. I joined in with the boisterous, laddy banter – except I was cruder, louder and more awful than he could ever be. It worked, in that he didn’t say another word to me that night.
I found out later than he didn’t speak to Hannah for a week after that dinner.
So, yes, when Hannah announced that she was thinking of leaving, and would like to occupy my spare room, I was pleased, and relieved, and I was also really looking forward to living with my best friend again.
I thought she might change her mind a few times, but she didn’t. The fact that she made up her mind, and stuck to it proved that the old Hannah wasn’t gone entirely.
She didn’t leave in a mad flurry after one huge showdown. She planned it, hired a van, arranged for her parents to come down and help her when he was on holiday, and then told him one night she was going.
I didn’t really believe she’d do it until she rang to say she was on her way to mine with an overnight bag. She was braver than I remembered she could be.
When she told him she was leaving, he said ‘I’m not going to try and talk you out of it, you've always known your own mind.’
She laughed when she told me this, ‘it just shows how little he knows, I haven’t known my own mind in a long time.’
That was six months ago, and it’s only now I see her looking so happy, and like herself again that I realise quite how much he’d worn her down. I wish I’d done less to keep the peace, I wish I’d told him to sod off more, and I wish I’d followed my own instincts.
She hasn’t had much contact with Dan since she left. He deleted us all from Facebook, which is understandable – I’m sure he blames her ‘bad friends’ for making her leave him.
He did write to say that he’d taken her off the beneficiaries of his pension scheme, and asking her to think a bit more carefully about the other person’s feelings next time she’s in a relationship. I can’t remember if he asked her how she was.
*FYI, as far as boyfriends are concerned, I'm always the bad friend. All the time.