Richmond Proper: On Frenemies

Frenemies: the final frontier. We all have them, these hybrid friends/enemies, and yet it’s hard to put your finger on why they’re in this category and what to do about them.

“It is wise to apply the oil of refined politeness to the mechanisms of friendship.”
— Collette

Frenemies: the final frontier. We all have them, these hybrid friends/enemies, and yet it’s hard to put your finger on why they’re in this category and what to do about them. For some of us, it’s the coworker we can’t stand but must collaborate with politely. For others, it’s the friend of a friend who rubs us the wrong way, but isn’t worth causing a social rift over. And perhaps most commonly, it’s the former best friend who now alternates outpourings of praise and thinly-veiled insults.

In This American Life episode #389, entitled “Frenemies,” psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad describes these relationships as such: “People talk about friends that are tons of fun but can be really competitive, a friend that is really great when they’re around but are incredibly unreliable or can be really insensitive at times. I recall one person even saying ‘I stick around for those few times that she is good to me and is nice but most of the time it’s not good.'” From this standpoint, the existence of frenemies sounds just a little bit unhealthy.

True, we sometimes have to put on our big-girl pants and hang out with people we’d rather have nothing to do with, but that’s grown-up life. Right? RIGHT?! Actually, there may be more to this malady than just maturity. Holt-Lunstad conducted a related experiment where she “found that friends that we feel ambivalently about raise our blood pressure more — cause more anxiety and stress — than people that we actively dislike,” according to NPR’s Ira Glass. “In other words, frenemies are bad for our health. And they are all around us.”

How can we smooth over this stressful situation? The mission here is both to treat our frenemies better than they deserve, and to relieve some of our anxiety in the process. In the grand left-brained fashion of this column, let’s go ahead and turn that mission into some action items:

Treat frenemies better than they deserve.

  1. Always be polite. No matter how you really feel, the office of rigorous honesty/bluntness is only valuable to your very closest friends. For your frenemies, nothing but your sweetest face will do. Shunning them or being rude would make you look like the bad guy. Civility to those we don’t like or who are different from us is part of gracious living. As W. Somerset Maugham put it, “I don’t think you want too much sincerity in society. It would be like an iron girder in a house of cards.”
  2. Set appropriate boundaries. With frenemies, a delicate balance must be struck between seeking and avoiding. Do take the initiative to say hello and be pleasant when necessity demands it. But if this is a chronic “user” — in other words, a flaky friend who uses you while convenient and then tosses you by the wayside — you must not become a part of their little games. What you need to bring across is the idea that while you will always treat them with dignity, you are not dependent on their approval in order to survive. Children learn not to put their hands on a hot stove after they are burned, so why would you continue to return the calls of someone who has canceled or stood you up the last 27 times you had plans?
  3. Resist the urge to gang up or gossip. When you and another friend see eye-to-eye about a frenemy, it can be tempting to vent your frustrations. If you hear yourself blurting out “I knowwwwww, I hate it when she does that!” you are probably drawing invisible battle lines for the war of Haters vs. Frenemies. The sticky part about this is that the other friend probably goes back to the frenemy and has a crucial gossip sesh about you. Exclude yourself from these goings-on and give others one less reason to feel that picking sides is necessary.

Calm yourself.

  1. Do not over-analyze. Don’t fall into the habit of letting suspicion rule your life. You shouldn’t be constantly watching your frenemy out of the corner of your eye, saying things to yourself like “Oooh, I know she just said that specifically to push my buttons even though there are 40 other people here,” or “We all know he just invited me to his party to make me jealous of his superior housewares.” It’s not likely that things are really that complicated. Let yourself take things at face value for once. Who knows, maybe your frenemy really is that clever, and really does do a number of things to mess with you. Either way it doesn’t help to let it work you into a state of paranoia.
  2. Maintain a sliver of hope. I’m not telling you to hope that a frenemy will suddently do a 180 and become the Best! Friend! Ever! But there must be something good about this person; something you can find to like about her. If you make a conscious effort to really get to know your frenemy, you may learn things about her that are compelling or that explain some of her characteristics. And from these small seeds, larger things can grow — like some kind of a detached fondness for her very worst qualities, or even an actual interest in hearing what she has to say. Sometimes the reason people make you feel particularly uncomfortable is because you’re more alike than you are different. At the very best, this way of thinking can win you a true and genuine friend from unlikely origins. At the very worst, the task of having conversations with your frenemy for later psychoanalysis can at least entertain you.
  3. Rest in the knowledge that you’re doing the right thing. When the dirty looks, sneers, and jabs lodged within witty banter are piling up, remember that you are bigger than this. Make it your goal to be able to say, “I never knowingly provoked any of this behavior.” You may be very witty indeed, but if you engage in a battle of cute but scathing comebacks with your frenemy, you can no longer say you are blameless. Everybody has a choice about whether to put more crankiness and disdain into this world, or more happiness and grace. No matter what is dealt out to you, make it your business to only pay it back with kindness. Although you cannot control the actions of your frenemies, you can control your own actions. Most of the time.

The literature on what to do about frenemies is rather sparse, my friends. Let’s face it, it’s not a topic that has been devoted much space in the etiquette tomes we usually consult. So let me know your take on frenemies in the comments section! You may have some better ideas than this imperfect adviser. Since you’re, like, always trying to outdo me and stuff.

  • error

    Report an error

Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

There are 9 reader comments. Read them.