On the surface, a frenemy acts like they are our friend: we regularly socialise with them, we talk to them often, and we know their life story. They may even say that they love and support us.
But under the surface, these same people can be undermining or sabotaging us. They are our friend and our enemy at the same time, hence the term frenemy.
How do we know who our frenemies are?
Undermining behaviour is often subtle so it is difficult to spot. Here are four ways to identify typical frenemies:
1. The Pretending to Care Frenemy
This friend says things to you that sound caring but are actually unsupportive and even destructive.
“I’m so worried about you.” Hidden message: You are unstable and I can fix you.
“You look a bit tired- are you okay?” Hidden message: You look terrible. You need to look after yourself better. You need me.
“Sweetheart, are you a bit depressed?” Hidden message: You are weak and I am strong.
This frenemy unconsciously needs to put you down so that they can feel elevated.
2. The Public Saboteur Frenemy
One-on-one this person is as sweet as anything. But in a group of people, this frenemy makes barbed or sarcastic comments about you. They may ridicule you or makes jokes at your expense. Or they may simply undermine you by ignoring you publicly.
For example, they may gush to you in person, but ignore you at group events. Or they may never like or comment on any of your social media posts even though you know they frequently use social media.
This frenemy is unconsciously threatened by who you are. While they like to be around you, they act out their jealousy/resentment towards you in public.
3. The Abandoning Frenemy
This person says that they are your friend to your face, but then consistently disappears for days or weeks on end without answering phone calls or texts.
You may also find out later that this person had a party or went out with lots of other people without inviting you.
For this frenemy, you represent some part of them that they try to suppress. While they acknowledge you every now and then, ultimately they don’t like the part of them that you symbolise.
4. The Fairweather Frenemy
This friend only wants to see you/talk to you/engage with you when you are happy and life is going well for you.
You may only work this out after months of years of knowing them, but they tend to go AWOL whenever you are in need.
This frenemy is unable to deal with vulnerability within themselves, and as a result they are unable to deal with yours. You need to share your vulnerability with people who are strong enough to hold you safely.
What are some strategies for managing frenemies?
The bottom line is this: through our behavioural cues, we give other people instructions about how they can treat us. If someone is undermining us, sabotaging us, excluding us, or rejecting us, then at some point they have taken cues from us that this is an acceptable form of behaviour.
We are all in some kind of unconscious dance with other people, where we exchange psychological dynamics. For example, we are all drawn to people who make us feel good and we avoid people who make us feel bad. But we are complex beings. At some point, the people who once made us feel good will reveal parts of their personality that start to activate negative feelings in us. This is a relationship.
Here’s how to take action.
If you are confident enough, confront your friend with your feelings about them. This may be face-to-face or in a letter/text/email. Offer some clear examples of times when you have felt undermined by them. Give them an opportunity to explain their behaviour. They may even feel undermined by you at different times!
If you don’t feel comfortable with confrontation, the only way for you to deal with a frenemy is to minimise time with them. Boundaries are important. Don’t go out of your way to call them or answer their call if you feel undermined by them. Only spend time with them when you really feel like it. After awhile, your frenemy will realise that you are acting differently, and they will have a choice to either change their behaviour or lose your friendship.
After we overcome these unhelpful dynamics, these healed relationships can become friendships for life, or we can make room for the friendships that nourish and sustain us.