Why Frenemies Can Be Good for You—and What to Do When They Aren’t

Twisted friendships can be great fodder for dark fiction, and in her thrilling debut novel, The Drifter, Christine Lennon masterfully delves into the complexities of a college trio’s fraught dynamics:

“Why hello there, Elizabeth, sophisticated woman in New York. It’s Caroline.” Betsy stood dumbstruck, holding the receiver as the voice registered in her ear. “I’m looking for my friend Betsy. Perhaps you remember her? One time, we wore fake grass skirts and bikinis to a luau-themed fraternity party in January. Of course, you would never do something like that, Elizabeth. If you see Betsy, tell her to give me a call. I’m coming to New York, or The City, as I’m sure you call it now. I’ll be there next Friday.”

The book got us thinking about the destructive friendships many of us maintain despite the anguish they can cause. So we asked Christine and her (non-frenemy) friend, Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., acclaimed child psychologist, therapist, and author (The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, The Blessings of a B Minus, and the forthcoming Voice Lessons) to talk about the phenomenon of the frenemy—and strategies for dealing when you find yourself mired in a relationship with one.

Christine Lennon & Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. Talk Frenemies

CL: I was about 150 pages into The Drifter when I realized I had it all wrong: I had planned a tense, read-it-with-the-lights-on suspense novel, a fictional version of a real-life event—about when a serial killer murdered five students in my college town in 1990. But as the book was taking shape, I saw that the kind of thriller I was writing wasn’t big on blood or gore. The suspense and drama I mined from that era of life came from friendships. Not sisterhood-of-the-traveling-pants friendships, but messy, difficult friends, the friends you acquire when you’re twenty who make you laugh until you’re sick, and who know so much about you it can feel dangerous, who undermine you in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I was writing about frenemies, with a dash of thriller on the side. The story touched the dark notes that I envisioned, but in a way I hadn’t expected. And it left me with lots of questions.

The word frenemy was coined in the 1950’s by the famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and frenemies—friends who claim to mean well but can’t be trusted—have existed as long as humans have formed communities. I’ve struggled with my own frenemies for as long as I can remember: Choosing the wrong people to trust, opening up and sharing my vulnerability with people who then used it against me. Through decades of trial and error involving a revolving door of women in my life (most of them wonderful, a few of them not so much), I’ve observed six frenemy archetypes, each one toxic in its own special way:

There’s The Competitor, who needs to win at all costs; The Gossip who can’t keep her mouth shut; The Underminer who won’t, or maybe can’t, celebrate your success; The Criticizer likes to to start a conversation with, “Can I be honest with you?”; The Gaslighter tells you that you’re paranoid for thinking that she’s not on your team, even though all evidence points to the contrary; and The Buzz-Killer, a Debbie-Downer-style black hole of negativity, needs no explanation.

There isn’t a single person I discussed the book with who didn’t have at least one of these frenemies in her social circle, which begs the question, why? Why would grown women tolerate these subversive double-agents who scheme to cripple their happiness? And what, if any, purpose do they serve in our lives?

Wendy, you draw on traditional Jewish teachings to help parents navigate tricky waters, not just with their children, but in life, particularly in the increasingly complicated social dynamics among mothers. You’re also brilliant at finding the “blessing” or the teaching in the challenges of everyday life.

So what’s the benefit here: Why do you think adult women have frenemies?

WM: A bad friend, the one who gossips about you, one-ups you, who undermines you, or can’t be happy about your success, is like the classic bad-boyfriend role. For many women, a bad friend/boyfriend serves as a pressure-valve release for their perfectionism. There are so many things women are expected to be good at in this moment in history. Women not only need to excel in all of the traditional female domains, caring about everyone’s feelings with all of our tend-and-befriend hormones—but they have to look the right way, hang out with the right people, have a house that looks a certain way, and excel professionally at a level that’s unprecedented. It’s a lot of pressure, and many people need a release. The excitement of a bad friend can provide a sort of release: They often do the things you won’t let yourself do, and lift you out of day-to-day life, which can be boring. It reminds me of something the Buddhist author Jack Kornfield said, “First ecstasy, then the laundry.” In this case, bad friends can be the ecstasy, or at least they can be an invigorating distraction.

But when we talk about these frenemy archtetypes—Underminer, Gossip, Criticizer, etc., I wonder if we are expecting too much of people? It’s like marriage: The mistake people make is expecting their partner to be everything—a best friend, a wonderful parent, a devoted and loyal spouse, an exciting sexual partner. Many marriages fail because the standards are too broad and too demanding.

CL: You have to accept people for who they are, and how they can enrich your lives, but not force them to be a one-size-fits-all friend?

WM: I don’t want this to seem shallow, but maybe The Gossip is really funny? You enjoy her company because she makes you laugh, but you don’t share fragile and precious information about your life with her, because you know that she will use it to entertain the next person. Her worthiness is her humor. You enjoy her company, until or unless it makes you feel cheap, then you limit your time with her. Or maybe The Underminer in your life is an excellent cook. She can’t celebrate your success, but you have great, fun dinners at her house. That’s okay, it could be just that simple.

Now The Criticizer is an interesting person to me, in particular, because sometimes when she says, “Can I be honest with you?” she might actually be saying something you need to hear. I have a friend like this. She told me that she wanted to take me shopping because I didn’t know how to dress. She was right. The first thing you always have to do is explore your own vulnerability and defensiveness. Are you finding these useful truths to be worthy and helpful? Or are you so sensitive that you can’t hear it? No one would describe this friend of mine as overly kind, but she is smart, energetic, and showed tremendous respect for, and faith, in me. Sometimes, you just have to understand a person’s characteristics, and know what you can and cannot expect from them.

CL: The problem might not be with the friend, it’s with our definition of friendship. We can’t expect to make those deep and real connections with everyone in our lives.

WM: Exactly. There have been some changes in culture, in general, that are contributing to this. One is that it’s easier to get a date, or hookup with someone, but harder to have a relationship. We have much more access to friendly connections through things like social media, but they have less depth, and it’s harder to make real and lasting friends.

CL: In your books, you write about the Jewish concept of yetzer hara. Can you describe what that is and how it relates to challenging friendships?

WM: Yetzer hara stands for evil inclination. The rabbis say without it there would be no marriages, no cities built, and no innovation—because it’s also a source of creativity, the juice that fuels our engine. There’s a beautiful Talmudic story that says if you poke the yetzer hara’s eyes out, there will be no fresh eggs. It’s a strange metaphor, but it means that without it, there will be no novelty or invention.

The goal in personal development is to build the yetzer tov, which is the inclination for good. But we don’t want to wipe out the yetzer hara. It has to be deeply respected. Our pre-frontal cortex, which is the site of executive function, matures in adulthood—for women, it happens in their early twenties, for men in their mid-to-late twenties—which is when we learn priorities and self-control, and you make decisions that allow for the yetzer hara to have a safe but juicy expression. That’s why you wrote a book about a serial killer! You got to write about that unsafe world, but you don’t want to live in it. Yetzer hara is what’s behind the frenemy. It’s what makes that sort of person attractive, but also a little dangerous.

CL: I feel like the competition among women has escalated in recent years, and that’s what’s often at the root of these toxic friendships.

WM: We’re all comparing ourselves to others, and with social media, there are so many new ways for people to do it. Look, I am not nostalgic for the 1950’s in any way, but there was not the same pressure back then. Now the stakes for all of us are much, much higher, in good ways and some bad ways.

It’s more intense for women than it is for men; and for high school girls, it’s extreme. We see the increase in self-injury, eating disorders, and suicide among high school girls. There was just a report that came out that stated that anxiety and depression has been on the rise since 2012. It cuts across all demographics, but the numbers are higher for girls than boys. About 30 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys–totaling 6.3 million teens–have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.

CL: You’ve mentioned that you see a lot of mothers competing through their children?

WM: Yes, competition is often mediated through the children’s accomplishments. That’s where one type of “looks innocent but is really lethal” frenemy behavior comes in. Certainly competition is often about appearance and where you live and how much money you have and what your house looks like, but there is so much investment in where the children are developmentally, and the children’s status, in this scenario, becomes your status. This is the insane part of how the culture is organized. This hurts moms and it hurts their kids. When I talk to kids, they say they feel like every single day is opening night. They feel like every grade on a quiz predicts their whole future.

But again, there are all kinds of (non-mom) competitive behaviors that can also be destructive.

CL: At what point do you know a frenemy has crossed the line, and is bad for your emotional wellbeing, as opposed to merely a distraction?

WM: If you keep someone around who is not really on your side, it often comes at a great cost. Sometimes, it’s like you’re a casting director of the telenovela that is your life: You might be picking bad friends to keep your life from being boring, because being a perfect mother and raising perfect children is dull, or your job is a drain and you need these spicy people to make it more exciting. Or maybe you have problems of your own that you don’t want to look at too closely. You might be keeping a frenemy around to prove the damage that one of your parents did to you, to maintain your position as a victim. Maybe you crave the pleasure of feeling superior? Maybe this person is a distraction from real responsibilities and things that you need to work on, because you spend so much time feeling outraged, hurt, and disappointed? We’d often rather feel indignant than lonely, or confront our own sadness.

But sometimes you get really burned by a frenemy. To figure out whether a relationship—it could be a friend, a sister, even your own mother—is coming at a cost to your emotional life, think about what percentage of time you are thinking about this person (in a negative way). When someone tells me how much they’re really thinking about a bad friend, it’s illuminating for both of us. If that amount of time seems unusually high to you, it’s a problem. The true cost of focus on a bad friend’s flaws could be that you take time away from working on your own.

CL: Any tips for preparing to extricate yourself from this kind of friendship with grace?

WM: I work with women on this a lot. We role-play, and we practice social finesse. Here’s one exercise I commonly suggest: Imagine that a person you are feuding with, who you might think hates you, starts a blog called, well, in your case it would be called, “Christine Lennon is the worst person who ever lived.” You’re not going to let it have any power over you—you won’t look at it or be afraid of it; you’re not held hostage to it. If they enjoy thinking negative things about you, that’s on them. While this is just an exercise (and obviously not real), it can be a helpful tool for taking back the power a frenemy might have over you, and for getting yourself ready to let go. Many people are afraid of the potential backlash from exiting a friendship. I find that it rarely results in the retaliation or public humiliation that many people dread. Fear of retaliation shouldn’t keep you involved in a friendship that is depleting you—don’t give a frenemy that kind of power.

We also talk about etiquette when it comes to seeing a frenemy who you are trying to distance yourself from. You don’t have to go from, “I thought she was my best friend,” to blocking her on everything and staying at home for fear of seeing her. If you’re at an event or a party and you greet the frenemy, you can be polite but don’t try to cultivate his/her approval. You don’t have to explain anything, talk about your issues with them, or how your trust was violated. You don’t have to provide the other person with all of the evidence of their social, emotional, and spiritual crimes.

Over time, you minimize your responses and interactions with the person. I have a list on my bulletin board from Christine Carter, of the Greater Good blog, called “10 Ways to Say No.” Some are effective ways to stop spending time with people you don’t want to see: “Thank you for asking, but that isn’t going to work out for me” is vague but can be an effective way of passing up an offer to get together. Or, perhaps, just say nothing—not all requests require an answer.

CL: Maybe you take longer to reply to her text, and then even longer to the following one? Let her fade out of your life gradually? Now that I am thinking about it, I am sure people have done this to me.

WM: Yes, sometimes. But with some people, you might have to be direct. If, for instance, you have a Gaslighter who you realize is crazy, or just plain evil—say something clear like, “This isn’t working out for me.” Don’t laugh at the end. Don’t start with “look,” because that means that you want them to see things from your perspective, which they can’t, or it wouldn’t have come to this. Just say, “I need to end this.” Be candid and fearless.

CL: I remember you wrote somewhere that rabbis say people should live like they have two scraps of paper in separate pockets. One should say, The world was made for me. And the other should say, I am nothing but dust and ashes. Sometimes I think that frenemies are there to remind us of the dust and ashes part.

WM: I think we sometimes give ourselves superiority points by keeping frenemies around. You can say, I will never be her, I would never be as bitchy as she is, or as gossipy as she is.

CL: I look back at these challenging friends I have had, and I recognize that they were probably struggling, and I also realize that I may have been a bad friend at one point without even knowing it… Now that I’m in my forties, my capacity for forgiveness feels much bigger. In the book, I think the so-called frenemy was also the person my protagonist needed the most.

WM: Yes, it’s true. That can happen. Mature people practice kindness—even when the recipient might not seem deserving.