Who are they?
How to recognize them?
And finally, how to deal with them?
This article answers all those questions (and more).
- Frenemies: Who Are They
- The Psychology of Frenemies
- The Sociology of Frenemies
- Signs of Frenemies
- Dealing With Frenemies
- Dealing With The Worst Frenemies
- If You’re The Frenemy
- When Frenemies Are Your Family
Frenemies: Who Are They
A frenemy is a person close to you who is jealous and envious of you.
It can be a friend, a colleague or, sadly, even a family a member. They will keep up friendly appearances and possibly even feign of liking you.
But deep down they harbor ugly feeling about you: resentment, envy, jealousy and anger.
Frenemies are sad when you win. And they are very happy when you lose (Schadenfreude).
Sadly, frenemies are so common that, in bad circles, they might as well be the norm rather than the exceptions.
The Psychology of Frenemies
Frenemies are common because of our own human nature.
We are at the same time both social animals and egoistical, self-serving machines.
Our friends, often, are both allies and competitors (David Buss, 2019)
When we look at ourselves we don’t do so objectively or by comparing ourselves to our previous selves. But we look at ourselves in comparison with others.
That means than when a friend of ours is going places and doing amazing things, on one side he is doing well for himself.
But from our subjective point of view he is also making us feel bad. His successes are a constant reminder that “we are not OK”.
In a way, the phenomenon of frenemies is a consequence of ego-protection.
A more dangerous twist that frenemies can take is not to look within themselves at all, but to blame the object of their frustrations. This is how many hate groups feed themselves.
The Sociology of Frenemies
The success of our friends has consequences that go well beyond our psychology. They have very real consequences for our lives.
Just imagine this situation: you are making 50k a year, the most in your social circle. Men think you’re very good at your job, women want you and you feel like a big shot.
Then more and more people start getting 80k a year jobs.
And one of them lands a 120k promotion with a top employer. He’s on fire and it looks like he might one day lead that company.
In theory, that’s good for you because they can help you secure future jobs and you know that options are power.
But they are also making you comparatively worse in your group. People don’t look up at you anymore, they don’t come to you for career and life advice and women don’t want you nearly as much.
See where I’m going?
Frenemies are the norm because the success of our friends can make us worst off. Their successes are pushing us down in the social rankings.
Note: saying it’s normal it’s NOT the same as saying you shouldn’t do something about your frenemy feelings.
As a matter of fact, you should do your darn best to rid yourself of jealousy and freudenschade. They are ugly feelings and they poison you.
The Closeness Rule
People, usually, do not develop envy and jealousy for people who are either too far up or too lowly beneath.
If a guy is a first level manager at his company, he doesn’t usually develop frenemy feelings towards the CEO or Jack the door guard.
Why is that so?
Well, to begin with, from a social point of view, the people in our social circle are usually the ones who are around our same level.
Similarly, geography plays a role because far away people are not in our social circle. We don’t feel in competition with someone who is doing our exact same job but at the other end of the world (unless you’re competing in the digital space maybe).
And from a psychological point of view, people compare themselves with people they know and people who are in our same situations: those are the guys you can beat and those are the guys who can beat you.
Similar people are our competition, not the people far up or far down. And similar people end up being our psychological yardstick to reward us if we are beating them, or to punish us if they are beating us.
In a nutshell: frenemies only develop with people who are near us, both from a geographical point of view and from a “station of life” point of view.
Frenemies change over time
As a consequence of the closeness rules, it derives that frenemy is not a constant.
If you are going through a rough patch in life and a friend of yours is going strong he won’t see you as competition anymore and you’ll drop off his Freudenschade radar.
That guy won’t be a frenemy… Until you get back on your feet and go up to his level.
Or until he’s on his knees and comes back down to your level.
That creates an interesting phenomenon.
You might have a mentor one day, or some high-flying friends. They seem nice and kind to you, albeit they baby you just that little bit.
But then you start getting better and better.. Until you start approaching their level. And maybe threatening to surpass it.
And then, you can either have a an open enemy.. Or a frenemy.
That’s why Greene in The 48 Laws of Power says “never outshine the master”. Only outshine him when you don’t need him anymore.
Signs of Frenemies
Here are typical signs of frenemies:
- Jealous of your achievements
- They find underhanded ways to hurt you
- They talk behind your back
- They don’t like your status updates
- Lots of questions without (good) advice
- Passive aggressive sabotaging
- Nice words with incongruent body language
For the full guide please check:
Dealing With Frenemies
Here are a few ways to dealing with frenemies.
Remembering that frenemies are often suffering a hurt ego, focus first and foremost on the N.1 solution here:
1. Make Them Friends (Not Frenemies)
Surprised to see one as the first item?
Well, let me remind you two things:
- More friends means more power
- Frenemies are often frenemies because of crushed ego
Sometimes people become frenemy because they don’t feel like they can access your high value.
These frenemies are the like the fox in the Fedro’s fable: the fox says the grapes are not good, but it’s only because he can’t reach them.
But lower those grapes for the fox and he’ll immediately love them.
Example: Bring Along, Instead of Bragging
Here is a real life example for you: if a friend of yours gets rich and brags about how cool it is to drive Ferrari, eat caviar and bang bitties.
Then he asks you “and how are you doing man?”. How would you feel?
Maybe you’d turn a bit into a frenemy.
Now imagine this other scenario: a friend of yours get rich.
And he invites you to see his Ferrari. Then takes you for a ride… And then lets you drive it! Now a smile creeps up on your face, it’s the first time you drive a powerful sportscar, and all thanks to your friend!
Then you two go out, and since he’s just become a millionaire he pays for your dinner… And then invites you to a night club full of hot pieces of asses. All on his dime for old times’ sake.
I bet you’re not so likely to turn into a frenemy now, are you.
On the contrary, you are probably extremely thankful. He is your new hero!
What’s the difference?
The difference is that the second guy made his value accessible to the frenemy.
Now you might not want to let everyone drive your car and pay dinners out to everyone. And indeed you shouldn’t.
But there is a simpler way: be friendly and raise people’s status. As a matter of fact, to avoid jealousy, the better you become, the more warm and friendly you should become.
And once you start showing a welcoming side of your character and raising the social status of the people around you, you will see that most of the frenemies will U-turn.
Dealing With The Worst Frenemies
But, of course, not all frenemies can be converted.
Some are just too spiteful, angry and vengenful. Some the hungriest and most driven don’t see you as “above them” and any overtures will only make them feel worse.
“who does he think he are”, they will think.
Here is how to deal with the more difficult ones:
- Don’t go direct
Unless it’s a spouse, a family member or a proven good friend who mysteriously changed, don’t confront them directly.
Direct talk is helpful sometimes, but counterproductive most of the times.
What will likely happen is this: they will deny their games and jealousy and they will resent you even more.
- Don’t tell them you’re not friends anymore
Some guides online recommend you to officialize the ending of your friendship.
I can’t think of anything more stupid to do.
Officializing the ende of your friendship is akin to officializing the begin of a new relationship: that of an enemy.
If you can avoid being friends, then end the friendship with a good old fading:
- Fade Them
Fading someone means to slowly but surely disappearing from their lives.
It works like this:
- Pick less and less of their calls
- Answer late to their texts. If they reply quickly, answer at an hour when they aren’t likely to be text back.
- Say that yes, you should catch up eventually… you’re just so busy these days and traveling often.
- When you meet, tell them you can only meet at X time (time that work for you) for X amount of time (no more than one hour) and at X place (a place which is convenient for you).
Then rinse and repeat until they will fade out of your life.
- Pretend you didn’t notice their maneuvers
If you can’t fade them and if their underhanded maneuvers are not damaging, pretend you don’t notice their snarky remarks and underhanded tactics.
The feeling that they can’t get to you is poison to them.
- Show everyone their ugly faces
Frenemies are full of hatred and jealousy, it won’t take them long for people to notice.
Your job is to make that process faster and smoother: you want everyone to think badly of the frenemy and highly of you.
To do that, you will keep being warm to everyone, frenemy included. As a matter of fact, increase your charm and charisma so tat everyone ca notice the huge difference between you two -ie, a high value woman or man VS a spiteful one-.
Take advantage of all the occasions in which they will over-extend themselves with their envious remarks to highlight their game for everyone -read how to deal with an underminer on how to do just that-.
- Use them for motivation
If you have been stung by a frenemie’s backstabbing or snide you know it can be quite upsetting. Use that emotional surcharge to move ahead in life.
Once you’ll be far ahead, then you’ll only have to do the psychological work on your side to forget them.
- Play them
If they are damaging you with their gossiping and you can’t get rid of them, it can be helpful to play them.
Feed them slightly negative news about yourself so not to make them too jealous while in the meanwhile you keep working on building your political power and moving ahead in life.
When you’ll be ready to move forward and get rid of them it will be swift and lethal.
If You’re The Frenemy
To become the best possible people we can be, we need to face reality.
And reality says that we all have a dark side of bad feelings, repressed emotions and secrets we would rather not share.
But worry not: we all have it.
Some of us a bit more, and we might even be born with it. According to psycho analyst Melanie Klein certain people are prone to feel envious.
She recognized it in babies as babies who showed a greedy attitude in hogging their mothers and resenting their fathers and siblings.
I can’t go back that far with my memory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was such a baby.
But here is the good news: we can all overcome it. I am in the process of stamping out any frenemy feelings from myself.
Here is how:
- Develop an antifragile ego
- Develop a growth mindset
- Own your dark side
- Remind yourself that successful friends make you more successful
- Develop your own goals, chase relentlessly and all else will matter less
And here are a few more techniques that Greene recommends in The Laws of Human Nature:
- Get closer -and you’ll realize it’s just people with nothing special-
- Compare yourself with those who are lower than you as well
- Turn envy into desire for emulation
- Admire high achievements as a sign of human potential
When Frenemies Are Your Family
You would hope that frenemies are limited to people from your outer circle, right?
Well, in an ideal world there would be no frenemies at all.
But of course, you know that we don’t live in an ideal world. And sometimes our frenemies are the people who can hurt us the most: our own family members.
This deserves its own section because in some cases family frenemies can really scar people psychologically and for life.
When the frenemy is a brother
Among kin there is a natural, non-written battle as to who’s getting more resources from their parents -also read The Moral Animal-.
Sometimes that means pleasing their parents more, getting higher grades in school or, of course, trying to paint the other brother(s) and sister(s) as unworthy.
Many of these relations normalize once you are an adult, once you are out of the family nest or once either of you stop depending on their parents’ resources and approval -weaning off approval takes longer, sometimes a whole life is not enough-.
The best way to address it is to first become an adult yourself.
Then helping your kin get closer to your parents, take a step back and act very warm and loving with your brothers and sisters.
When the frenemy is a father
It’s a sad reality of life that in some rare cases, a frenemy can be a parent.
Most of the times it happens on same-gender children.
For some father it’s the fear of losing the “lion’s position in the house”. Seth MacFarlane, an astute observer of human nature made a funny skit on this process here:
If you are the child, you can make it easier on your father by showing respect and keeping him in the top dog position. Even nominally keeping him there is often enough.
Some other times the frenemy relationship with a father happens because he doesn’t see in you the traits that are important to him and/or he doesn’t see himself in you.
You see, mothers know that you are their child. But when a father sees nothing of himself in you, a nasty process of emotional rejection can take place.
You should never try to appease your father as that would mean living a life that is not true to you.
And you should not display the opposite but actually equivalent reaction, such as try to prove him wrong by doing the exact opposite of what he wants.
What you can do is try to explain the dynamic of what’s happening to him and that you love him but that he is ruining your relationship with that behavior. You love and have your own way of living life.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could accept you as you are, because you love him just the way he is?
Alternatively, you could do therapy with him.
It works with some fathers.
With some it doesn’t and they’d never join a therapy with you. You have done your best.
When the frenemy is a mother
Having a frenemy relationship with a father is terrible.
But with a mother it’s even worse. The impact they can have on the psyche of their children is disastrous.
Mothers sometimes fear of losing the position of queen of the house. They can be especially jealous of the father/daughter relationship.
She will try to put you down, criticize you and drive a wedge between you and your father.
In some other cases, and the two often overlap, the mother can resent the youth and opportunities their daughter is enjoying.
For example, if the daughter is traveling and enjoying an easy life, you can recognize a frenemy mother by the comment she makes on you “party all the time like a sloozy”.
If you have a rich husband she might say that you “go through life squandering other people’s money” and “what are you going to do if he leaves you?”
In some cases mothers will flirt with their daughters’ boyfriends and in extreme cases sleep with them or, it happened too, make out with them in front of their daughters.
These are usually highly narcissistic mothers.
In case it’s not full blown -narcissism is on a scale-, you can talk to her or do therapy.
But if it’s full blown narcissism, there is usually no changing it.
The work you must do here is on your side, and it’s mental.
You must first understand the impact it’s had and it’s having on you. Then work on yourself to make you independent of you mother’s unhealthy effects.
Once you are independent, you can resume the relationship.
But if you still get nothing good from it and only pain and abuse, you can consider cutting contact for ever.
If you are in this position I can recommend the wonderful book Will I Ever Be Good Enough.
Here is an example of a narcissistic mother who is more concerned about her appearance than er own daughter pregnancy:
You can notice her reaction: the reaction of a daughter who is still dependent on her approval but cannot get it.
Frenemies are a normal part of life because it’s a normal reaction of who we are as humans.
If you are the frenemy, your task is to work on yourself to develop your mental side. That way you will become a better -and stronger- human being.
If people around you are frenemies, try to make them friends if you can. If you cannot, cut them out of your life.
And if you cannot cut them out your task is to neutralize them as much as possible until you can remove them from your life or outgrow them.