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When Friends Become Frenemies: How to Cope with Ambivalent Friendships

We all have them: friends we have mixed feelings towards


Sometimes they are there for us and sometimes… we wonder why they’re still in our lives. Find out how to recognize an ‘ambivalent’ friend and how to decide if the relationship is worth saving or if it is time to say goodbye. 

Do you have a friend who you secretly dislike a little bit? A friend who belittles you, then makes you feel like you can’t take a joke when you get upset? A friend whom you trusted with private information only to discover that it has become public knowledge a few weeks later? If so, then you are not alone. What popular culture labels ‘frenemies’ — friends towards whom we have both positive and negative feelings — psychologists have termed ‘ambivalent’ and they are surprisingly common.


The first time I came across the term, I thought of my friend Sally. A recent incident came back to mind in vivid detail. I was sitting alone in a semi-private hospital room, wearing a flimsy open-backed medical gown, waiting to go into abdominal surgery when she called. I explained to her where I was and, after briefly expressing surprise, Sally launched into a long tirade of complaints about her marriage, the nanny, the broken dishwasher, and some travel complications she was trying to iron out. My feelings and needs were never acknowledged. 

And this wasn’t the first time. There was also the time I was going through a break-up and she didn’t check in on me for weeks after receiving the news. The time she left me waiting at a restaurant for almost an hour, only to criticize me for being uptight when I confronted her about it and the countless times she failed to show interest in my life after endlessly venting about her own. 

And yet. When my grandmother passed away, Sally was the first to show up at the funeral and the last to leave. When I host dinner parties, she always brings homemade dishes to help out. Her presents are always the most fabulous and thoughtful (like the hand carved bracelet that I wear on my left wrist). 


The hallmarks of ambivalent friendships are conflict and emotional upheaval. They are often unpredictable and frequently leave us feeling upset, hurt or annoyed. We might stay in these friendships out of loyalty, because we have a long history together, out of fear of becoming socially isolated, or out of sheer convenience. But — whatever the reason — they are making us unhappy. A study carried out by psychologists Bert Uchino and Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that the more ambivalent relationships people had, the lower their resistance to stress was and the more likely they were to suffer from depression. Intriguingly, further research shows that ambivalent relationships are even more harmful to our health than purely negative ones (using blood pressure as an indicator). This may be, because we have our guard up when interacting with people we perceive as enemies, whereas we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with friends (even questionable ones) and are subsequently more affected when their behavior is unkind or careless.


No friendship is perfect, and before deciding to cut somebody off, it can be helpful to consider several factors. As uncomfortable as it may be, try to examine your own role in the dysfunction. It may be possible that you are projecting certain insecurities onto your friend’s behavior. Maybe her lack of responsiveness is a result of being overwhelmed by a heavy workload and has nothing to do with how much she cares about you. It may also be that you are not expressing your feelings and needs very clearly, making it difficult for her to support you. Insights like these allow us to shift our perception and change the dynamic of a relationship for the better.

Not everybody belongs in your inner circle, and your ambivalent friend might be a good companion if you limit her role in your life. A flaky pal is probably a good person to go on adventures with or to explore new activities and interests with. A highly opinionated mate might make a great participant in your book club. A self-absorbed glamour girl may be a fantastic shopping partner. Adjust the importance and the access you have given people and they may just become valued members of your social circle.

Difficulties between friends sometimes boil down to a very specific problem. For example, your friend has different political views than you and debates about current affairs lead to discord and anger. Or your friend is always late and you are highly punctual. For these friendships, salvation is a matter of some simple adjustments: avoid talking about politics, meet in venues where you would be comfortable waiting, etc. 

And sometimes, the only solution is to wave bye-bye to your ambivalent friend. If their behavior has crossed a line that is non-negotiable to you or they consistently hurt you and fail to change, then cutting ties may be the best course of action. Communicate clearly why you are choosing to end the friendship and don’t look back. 

After much careful deliberation, I decided that Sally has no place in my inner circle. My strong need for emotional support may have contributed to the negative dynamic between us, but it was her self-absorption and lack of compassion that was at the core of it. The decision wasn’t easy, but I feel lighter and calmer now. And who knows? Maybe I’ll still call her for recipes and gift-giving advice…

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