"Honestly, what do you think?"
It’s a question to quake even the strongest friendship, whether it’s a new haircut, a big career move or a new significant other – but especially the last one. Because if the honest answer is anything other than affirmative squealing, things get awkward.
Is it ever acceptable to tell a friend you don’t like the person they’re dating? In those early days, when as little as a wrinkled nose is tantamount to a veto, how do you wield that power responsibly? And if things sour further down the line, when do you pipe up?
I realized while writing my book, What Would The Spice Girls Do? that prioritizing your mates over snogging partners is advice we internalized way back in the days of adidas poppers and inflatable furniture. In fact, it was one of the key pillars of girl power. While our mums’ generation was taught that snaring a mate was priority number one for girls once they left the playground, we were sold quite the opposite message. If you wanna be our lover, you have to get (only platonically, this is very important) with our friends.
Of all the Spice Girls' catchy credos, it’s the one that resonated most deeply with their tween fanbase. Years before dating was anything other than a hazy hypothetical, we knew the code. Friendship is forever, hook-ups come and go, and the former trumps the latter every time.
It’s a message we’ve had reinforced again and again by '90s and '00s pop culture – from Bridget Jones' "urban family" to the friends in Friends, the most zealous advert of all. "Uteruses before duderuses. Ovaries before brovaries"; Leslie Knope’s immortal words in Parks and Recreation are now a tote bag slogan for the ages. And how could anyone hear Mr Big tell the Sex and the City gang "You’re the loves of her life, a guy's just lucky to come in fourth" and not want to clasp their best friends to their bosom like human armour? In an increasingly hostile, high-stakes dating pool, the idea that you can invest your energy in friendship for better returns feels like a blessed relief.
And yet. What sounded like a watertight truth when we were 10 years old doesn’t necessarily always translate two decades later. Or at least, not without a few caveats.
Prioritizing great friendships over a mediocre relationship; that still stands up, even if our faux Buffalo boots from down the market do not. So does building a strong support network to underpin your love life. Back in 1992, researchers found that a female partner's "perceived network support" increased the stability of her relationship. Whether for good reasons or superficial, knowing you have your mates' approval can help you feel more content.
But is it really crucial that everyone you love also loves your partner? And can’t friends sometimes get it wrong?
Yes, according to Louisa, 28, whose best friends took an instant dislike to her new boyfriend. "They never made fun of him directly, but would raise their eyebrows or go ostentatiously quiet whenever I talked about him," she remembers. "He’s shy, and they made no effort to get to know him or enjoy his company. They often said what an odd couple we were. For a while, I really thought I was making a massive mistake."
A few years on, it’s Louisa’s friends who are long gone. "It strained our friendship to the breaking point. I was so hurt that they wouldn't even try to engage with this person I loved," she says. And the boyfriend? She married him.
While letting your friends scare you off a new datemate could mean missing out on the love of your life, the opposite situation – friends who think the sun shines out of your SO's rear end – can present just as many problems. Not least when you start doubting your own instincts.
"Everybody loved Alan," says Rachel, 33. "I loved him too. But over time he became possessive and jealous – quietly and behind closed doors. He'd make snippy comments about what I was wearing, or complain about me going out." Her friends were so firmly Team Alan that they dismissed his behaviour as standard couples' bickering. "When I tried to articulate what was going on, a lot of my friends would be like, 'Ah, that's odd. Is Alan okay?'" she tells me. "This was long before the term gaslighting came into popular lexicon. But that's what it was."
For Daisy and her life-of-the-party ex, the relationship became inseparable from their mutual friendships. "There were things which made him a very fun friend but a terrible boyfriend. I was the one who had to drag him home drunk – they got the fun, I got the aftermath."
"One friend in particular was horrible when we broke up," says Daisy, who stayed in the relationship for longer than she wanted to out of fear of the damage it would do to her social group. "I now keep relationships quite separate from friendships. It's made me think more carefully about why my friends are saying what they're saying."
Still, the idea of keeping your crew and your boo at arm's length might seem like a bleak one. Isn’t the dream, after all, a person you can deposit into the middle of a party with a cheery "Byeeee see you in three hours!" or send to the pub ahead of you, knowing there won’t be so much as an awkward pause?
The trouble is, our mates are so often navigating their own emotional maze – particularly in our 20s and 30s, when it can feel as though every choice people make is a pointed comment on your own – that sometimes it can be hard to know where friendly concern ends and other people's insecurities begin. Is it them your friends dislike, or something they represent? Or a spurious cocktail of personal taste and pet peeves that has basically no bearing on your happiness at all? Hating their views is one thing; hating their shoes is quite another.
And even when you know, deep down, that your friends are right, it doesn’t always make the truth easier to swallow.
Georgie spent five on-off years with a man all her friends openly loathed. "I knew they were completely justified, but I ignored them and it began to cause issues between us. It wasn't that I didn't trust their judgement, it's just that I didn't want to hear it," she says. "It got to the point where I didn't tell them anything about my life with him."
In 2015, U.S. researchers studied the ways young adult women approached "relationship work". They found that discussing romantic problems with the partner in question had the most positive impact on the relationship (funny that), while "turning away from the partner to a friend may only exacerbate relationship problems and contribute to romantic instability." So while honesty feels healthier than trying to pretend that everything’s always moonlight and roses (or candlelight and soul forever), leaning on your friends too heavily for relationship guidance could be counterproductive.
Most of us have probably trodden that delicate line of needing to vent some relationship spleen but not wanting to turn your friends against your other half ("Wonder if Sam still leaves toenail clippings in the bed?" you imagine them thinking at your golden wedding party). Meanwhile, trying too hard to steer a friend out of a relationship can risk them slipping further away from you instead. At least temporarily. "Now I will always listen to my friends and family," says Georgie. "I want them to love the people I love, and I won't ignore the red flags they wave in my face in future."
So the empowering "Wannabe" code wasn’t necessarily wrong – perhaps, like so many tenets of girl power, just a bit oversimplified. When it comes to pitting friends against lovers, we should probably think hard about whose opinion to take on board, and why. Don’t be hasty, give it a try. You know the rest.
But if they really bug you – and you alone – say goodbye.