Frenemy Territory

At the beginning of the month, “This American Life” reran their episode about Frenemies. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

During the episode’s prologue, Ira Glass speaks to psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who estimates that approximately 50% of all friendships are of the frenemy variety. That is, they are with “people we care a lot about, we feel positive towards, but we also have real conflicts and negative feelings about as well.”

The ambivalence we feel when we see frenemies is actually so stressful that they cause a higher spike in blood pressure than do the people we actively dislike, Ira tells us. Frenemies are worse for our health than enemies.

Another fascinating finding? Most women stay in these toxic relationships for self-imposed reasons. “I’m not the kind of person who just gives up on somebody, I stay friends,” we’ll tell ourselves. Or we’ll say the good times ultimately outweigh the bad. Whatever it is, we keep coming back for more.

So let’s discuss this in two parts. First, half of our friends are actually frenemies?!? That’s just plain crazy. I can think of exactly two girls in college who were frenemies in the classic sense. I’ve upgraded to calling them my nemeses, but in our school days we’d probably exchange a hug while we badmouthed each other through gritted teeth. The relationships came to a natural (and necessary) end after graduation as we each moved on to new—and separate—cities.

Holt-Luntad’s definition of frenemy is pretty inclusive—it’s about having negative feelings, not necessarily trash talking—but 50% seems awfully high. Maybe I came close to that in my teen years, when every relationship came with a side dish of jealousy and competition. But as an adult in a new city, I’ve got a clean slate, and taking on new frenemies seems more trouble than it’s worth. (I imagine I’ll discover one in Mommy & Me one day—“Oh your one-year-old daughter doesn’t read yet? That’s so cute. Walter just got too smart too fast, we didn’t know what to do!” Punch.)

Now, part two. Why are we staying in bad friendships? I held onto my college frenemies because I felt I had no choice. The stress of breaking up with a friend didn’t seem worth it. And I wasn’t ok with failing at a relationship. I could be pals with anyone! Plus, we knew the same people. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.

These are all self-imposed reasons, as Holt-Lunstad suggests. But there was one other factor definitely going through my head, though perhaps not consciously: If you’re to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, you should keep your frenemies closest. Should things take a wrong turn, they have too much ammo.

Are 50% of your friendships people you have “conflict with and negative feelings about”? Does this broad definition make you reconsider who’s a frenemy (I know it does for me. I may have more frenemies than I thought?) And why do you hold on to a frenemy instead of breaking up with her altogether?

15 Comments

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15 responses to “Frenemy Territory

  1. Christina

    50%? That seems unhealthy. That’s a large number to have negative feelings towards. Who has time to invest in frenemies? I’m not so sure about the definition of frenemy. If going by that definition, then I have exactly one. And I’m trying to figure out how to “break up” with this friend because I’ve actually said that it does cause me great stress (I can feel my blood pressure rising every time we talk!). Your Mommy & Me scenario is akin to my situation sans children -I don’t have children, she does- “Oh, you wouldn’t understand, you don’t have children.” Not to be outdone by: “When are you going to start eating meat? I’ve gone ahead and ordered a meat appetizer for you, eat it.” I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 14 years old…over twenty years now. No thank you.

    You’re absolutely right, though; it’s been a year since I’ve thought that I needed to distance myself from this toxic relationship, but it’s difficult after twenty years of friendship. Just thinking about ending it elicits feelings of stress. I made the decision to devote time and energy to those relationships that bring me joy, however it’s only natural to have negative emotions about someone we care about at some point in every relationship: that’s just a part of life. If we can work through it, great. Accepting flaws allows us to learn patience, be less judgmental, and grow closer. But when is it a growing pain versus a time to get going pain? Sometimes it’s nebulous. I guess I’d rather make a decision than have frenemies in my life.

    The definition provided by dictionary.com seems to make more sense: “a person who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy; a rival with which one maintains friendly relations.” Perhaps certain co-workers might fall into this category.

  2. Natalie

    Maybe this is why I do not have a BFF. I don’t like the grumpiness or rudeness that people display toward others and tend to stay away from people when they are under one of these spells for too long. I don’t want it to rub off on me.

    Why do I stay in these friendships? I like to be social and hope that my positive attitude will rub off and guide them how to deal with others.
    I am not saying that I never get mad at the retail clerk who was snippity with me, but I won’t be rude in response to their attitude. It just makes things worse.

    There is one. At one time in my life, my ex was my friend but I have distanced myself from him in my social world (except that we have kids, so it is impossible to avoid him altogether). Staying in that relationship probably would have lead to heart and mental health problems. He socialized in the wrong type of way.

  3. Elise

    I haven’t even read your post yet, but I couldn’t wait to comment! That is my ALL TIME FAVORITE episode of TAL – the reality TV act was incredibly interesting (and enormously entertaining – the montage of “I’m not here to make friends!” clips was awesome).

  4. San

    In all honesty, it’s all a matter of definition… I do think that with most friends, even our best friends, we might have differences or there are things that we don’t like about each other or a habit that drives us up the wall.
    This is – in my opinion – not a frenemy definition.

    Frenemy means that I “pretend” to be friends with somebody that I can actually not stand or like to be around, correct?

    I do think those kind of people existed (for most of us) in highschool, but I’d like to think that as adults we make smarter choices.

    • Amanda

      I would agree with this definition more than the one in the post, and I definitely don’t think that 50% of my friends are actually frenemies. There is one person in my life I would consider a frenemy, and what sets her apart from my friends is that I really don’t have many positive feelings toward her. We work in the same place (though our jobs are completely different and we aren’t on any of the same projects, so there’s no professional rivalry), and for the first 6 months or so I thought we were going to be great friends (just what I needed, as I’m on my own BFF quest of sorts). The situation turned into a toxic friendship, and I’m not really sure how to make it clear to her that I don’t want to be friends anymore. I’ve definitely distanced myself, but I still smile and say hi when I see her at work, we still have mutual friends, and she still invites me to do things every once in awhile. I guess maybe the difference between her and the people I consider my friends is that the stress and drama outweigh the good things about her and I really have no desire to resolve our conflicts, whereas I would in my true friendships.

  5. Blair and Serena on Gossip Girl are total frenemies. But would we really wish they would “break up”? Sometimes a little competition is good for you, makes you try harder. That being said, I don’t think I have any frenemies in my life anymore. It’s pretty unavoidable in high school and college I think, groups form and you can’t quite stop being friends with just a few of them. Plus what would high school be without frenemies? Now all of my friendships are drama-free and supportive. Interestingly, there are even a few former frenemies that have become some of my closest and most cherished friends. For me at least, my “frenemies” weren’t toxic or bad people, just girls that were either too much like me, or girls I was probably jealous of. I have always been pretty clear about who my enemies were, even if we were in the same social circle. Interesting!

    • Now, I don’t know. Are they always frenemies, or do they go through stages like some of the folks discussed above? I think that Blair and Serena are definitely competitive, but I think for the most part they are closer friends than they are enemies at this point in their relationship because they’re no longer really competing for anything – they’ve both grown up and grown into their own interests and needs but still have enough in common to stay close friends.

  6. Lorrie Paige

    Frenemies? (Such an oxymoron; it’s like saying a meat-eating vegetarian).

    I don’t get hanging out with these people at all. I would not put up with that crap! I have had some in my life, and they are history!

    Reminds me of people who stay in abusive marital/romantic relationships.

    I’d “divorce” both kinds of relationships–PRONTO.

    I agree with Christina; I do like dictionary.com’s definition–and it sounds so Shakespeare!

  7. Pam

    I tend to think of “frenenemies” as the relationships I had in high school — they were girls that I actively disliked (and who actively disliked ME) but because we had mutual friends we had to sometimes “play nice” with each other while hissing and spitting behind each other’s backs. The way that author described it sounds more like a toxic friendship…

    Why do I stay in a toxic friendship? Well… for me, the problem is that since my divorce I have really found my social circle shrink (my ex was controlling and I lost touch with most of my friends becuase he hated them)… but the one friend that I have left is so terribly TOXIC that I find I can only take her in small doses. Why am I not just breaking it off? Well… she was the only person who stood by me during my marriage and divorce…

    At the same time, she hates children (I have children) and makes horrible comments about parenting, children and relationships which really really hurt me. I choose to have children, I like children, I love my children, and I am involved in a relationship that is heading towards re-marriage, step-children, and hopefully another child, while this friend tells me how horrible a parent I am all the time, and how my boyfriend will leave me, how horrible my children and his children are, and how she doesn’t want to be around someone who parents!

    We went from having a lot of things in common and fun times to her badmouthing everything that I value… and so I have started to cut myself loose from her. After all, I am a parent even when I don’t have my children at my home.

  8. Jess

    Rachel, I just found this blog as a result of the guest-blog post you did for Nathan Bransford, and have been reading through it this evening. Just wanted to say that it’s nice to know that I’m not the only person who hopes to find the kind of BFF you’ve described. (My best friend moved across the country last year.) I admire your bravery, and thanks for sharing your experiences! :)

  9. Kate

    I find most of my frenemy-ships started out as genuine friendships and the jealousy/competition/negative feelings evolved over time. They almost always resulted in the fizzling out or dramatic demise of the friendship, except for one, who’s still one of my truest friends. We moved past it as we became women.

    And, is it just me or do the frenemy dynamics with high school/college buds get exponentially worse as we get older? Everyone wants to see who’s thinner or more successful, who has the best looking or richest husband. Ugh. No wonder people ditch the reunion.

    I’m with you, Rachel. I have no time or patience for frenemies nowadays. I might not cut the person off. After all, sometimes they’re unavoidable. But I definitely don’t try to develop the friendship. As-needed basis only.

  10. I guess I have some frenemies that I am still “friendly” with because I am afraid of the fall out from the “break up”. Some are people at work that I pass in the halls or have to work with. Some are friends that I used to be close with but we still have mutual friends and hang out in the same circle. I don’t want things to be completely uncomfortable when I see the frenemies at work or at parties. I don’t hate these people and I don’t want them to think that I do. I just don’t want to be friends with them anymore.

  11. Marie

    I have had many frenemies in my life. For the most part I do distance myself once I realize they aren’t true friends. Friends that lie, friends that always have to one-up your accomplishments, friends that get jealous of your accomplishments, friends that take but don’t give, and friends you can’t rely on. Frenemies that continue to be my friends are the ones that are part of a group of friends.

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