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?