How To Tell If Your Friend is Really a Frenemy

She gives you back-handed insults and never misses an opportunity to sew insecurity and self-doubt in your mind, so how do you deal with a toxic frenemy?

Whenever Maya passes an exam, beats a personal best in a marathon or lands a contract for work, most of her friends and her family are delighted for her. They send congratulatory texts or suggest going out for a celebratory Indian meal. 

All except Simone, who even though she lives in the same apartment block as Maya in Dubai Marina, and who showers her with public displays of affection, will always leave Maya felling less confident as if she’s not worthy of any praise. 

‘She’ll say well done but then she goes on about how lucky I am to have the time to train for marathons,’ says Maya, 36. ‘She jokes my son will start to think our nanny’s his mother if I continue to go running every night after work, or to the gym at the weekend.

‘A frenemy pretends to have your best interests at heart, but she never misses a chance to get in a jibe, pass a sneaky comment and hurt you in a way that is so subtle it makes you question your own feelings’

‘When I passed my last exams, she hinted the pass mark was lower than usual, and that’s why I’d done so well.

‘But she says all this with a smile on her face so I get really confused and end up wondering if I’m being a bit paranoid. Then the next day, she’ll text and suggest we have a spa day together because I was looking so tired and worn out.

‘I don’t understand why I feel so dejected and down on myself after spending time with a friend who’s supposed to care about me.’

What Maya, a sales executive, doesn’t realise is Simone, 38, isn’t really a friend. Our true friends are kind, loyal and celebrate our triumphs, and are there for our lows and disappointments. They’re with us in good times and bad and we know we can count on them.

Frenemy Tactics

Simone is actually Maya’s frenemy. She pretends to have her best interests at heart, but she never misses a chance to get in a jibe, pass a sneaky comment and hurt her in a way that is so subtle it makes Maya question her own feelings.

According to experts, a frenemy will plant seeds of doubt in their friend’s mind, then sit back and enjoy the fallout. She asks over and over where your teenage son was last night, then she tells you a story about how some teenagers were spotted smoking near the mall. She questions your husband’s long work lunches, mentioning his attractive new colleague. With her raised eyebrow and a moment’s knowing silence, she skilfully creates paranoia, self-doubt and suspicion when there weren’t any originally.

With a raised eyebrow and a moment’s knowing silence, a frenemy skilfully creates paranoia, self-doubt and suspicion.

Lydia Miller, a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist at The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre in Dubai Healthcare City, says most of us have a frenemy or two – it just takes us a while to recognise them because they’re so clever at what they do.

‘In Dubai, people are here to have a better life and make money. Being in a competitive environment, where we rate the best jobs, fastest car and designer gear, friendship can be paired with jealousy, envy and criticism’

‘A frenemy is someone who claims to be our friend but they will stab us in the back at the earliest opportunity, and they get in sly little digs when we tell them our good news. They undermine us when they should be boosting us up. We feel we have to keep up our guard around these people.’

And Lydia believes frenemies are more common in an expat community.

‘In Dubai, people are here to have a better life and make money and sometimes we can’t help compare ourselves to others,’ explains Lydia. ‘Being in a competitive environment, where we rate the fastest car, designer gear and swimming pools, friendship can often be paired with jealousy, envy and criticism.’

Dealing with Toxic Friends

So how can we recognise a frenemy? Gill Hasson, a UK coach and writer, believes there are two types of these so-called friends and they behave differently depending on their personality.

‘Sometimes a frenemy can be domineering and demanding,’ says Gill. ‘They’re the ones who insist you go to theirs for dinner when you’d prefer to meet up at a restaurant. They’re quite blunt. If they don’t like your workmates, they tell you so. They like to keep control both of the situation, and of you.

‘The other type of frenemy is passive aggressive and they undermine you by sabotaging your plans. They turn up late for concerts you got the tickets for. They give you back-handed compliments and say you’re looking much better these days and they’ve been worried about you lately in case you were ill.

A frenemy is someone who claims to be our friend but they will stab us in the back at the earliest opportunity

‘At work a frenemy will take credit for your ideas. If she figures out your weakness, she’ll put you on the spot and ask you about costings in front of your boss. If you’re dieting, she will bring in cakes for the whole office so you have to say no in front of everyone.

‘Frenemies aren’t just among women friends – men can be frenemies too, probably in less furtive ways than women and more in a competitive way.’

Lydia Miller agrees. ‘At work a frenemy points out to the boss that you’re not on top form due to a relationship difficulty or a bereavement you told them about in confidence. 

‘At a wedding they’ll ask: “Have you lost weight? You really were starting to pile on the kilos.’ If you’ve moved to Dubai and you have a frenemy in your home country, they’ll call your new home “the desert” or they’ll exclude you from the group chat with your old friends on WhatsApp.

‘Trying to please a frenemy can be an exhausting process. They can be draining and you’ll always wonder what mood they’re going to be in.’

But why do they behave like this when, after all, they’re supposed to be our friend? Experts say it’s because frenemies aren’t the super confident beings we imagine. On the contrary, they’re usually insecure and jealous.

Gill Hasson explains: ‘They’re either controlling or insecure or they resent you. They maybe lack confidence and self-esteem and they don’t feel good about their own self-worth, so by bringing you down, they make themselves feel better.

‘In their mind, they think you’re better than them, so they behave like this to bring you down to their level.’

So what can we do if we realise a friend is actually a frenemy and they’re sapping our confidence and dragging us down? It’s often hard to sever links if you have history – if they were bridesmaids or best man at your wedding or they listened to you for months after your mum died. 

Lydia suggests: ‘Be honest with yourself and ask how your friend really makes you feel and if they build you up or bring you down. Are they supportive and compassionate?’

If the answers to this soul-searching aren’t positive, it may be time to face the truth about your so-called friend. But if your frenemy is well practised, it’s often hard to work out if you are, in fact, over-sensitive and over-reacting to the things they say and do. When we tackle the frenemy about their back-handed compliments or their veiled criticism, they’re just as sneaky.

Gill Hasson is the author of The Confidence Pocket Book

‘They accuse you of having no sense of humour or of taking things far too seriously,’ says Gill, author of The Confidence Pocket Book and How to Deal with Difficult People (both Capstone). ‘They tell you you’re too sensitive and you can’t take a joke.’ 

In this situation, Gill recommends we go with our feelings. ‘See how you react when you get a text message from them, or their name pops up on your mobile,’ she says. ‘If you love being with them, you’ll think: “Oh, great, we’ll have a nice chat.” Be aware of your first thought or your first physical feeling when you hear or see their name. If your heart sinks, your stomach turns over or you get tightness in your chest, it’s clear there’s a problem.

‘Look in your diary. When you see you’re due to have lunch with a good friend, you get excited and you look forward to it. But if you’re seeing a frenemy, you’ll dread it and experience some unpleasant physical symptoms like shoulder tension or nausea.’

Divorcing a Frenemy

Gill acknowledges it isn’t always easy to “divorce” a frenemy, especially if they’re a member of your family or a colleague.

‘One rule doesn’t fit all frenemies – each one is different,’ says Gill. ‘With some people, you can just let the relationship fizzle out. When they say you must meet for a drink, don’t set a date and time and eventually the relationship will just fade away.’

Lydia Miller advocates honesty as the best policy for the frenemies we don’t have to see unless we choose to.

She says: ‘Explain to them how they make you feel and be prepared for them to blow up and lash out. They may end the friendship because they’ll feel it’s you being unfair to them – this is manipulation in practice. It may also be they’re going through their own struggles and need support.’

But if your frenemy is a family member or a colleague and it isn’t feasible to drop them from your life, Lydia suggests we set some boundaries.

‘Dealing with a frenemy is about self-protection. They can undermine your self-esteem and confidence and you don’t need that. It’s best to either stand up to them or disengage.’

‘Keep work frenemies at work – don’t meet them for a coffee after hours,’ she advises. ‘Limit the time you spend with them. Have an hour’s chat if you have to see them, rather than a whole afternoon.

‘Be sure to look after yourself. Your frenemy knows which buttons to push so figure out what keeps you calm – taking a deep breath, or going for a run, for example.’

Rationing Time Together

Gill agrees time with frenemies must be rationed. ‘If it’s your sister-in-law or your brother-in-law that’s being a frenemy, you’ll still have to see them at family gatherings, so just limit the time you spend with them.

‘If they’re a colleague, don’t engage with them when they go into frenemy mode. When they say you look a lot better than you did last week, don’t start asking them why they said that and why they thought you didn’t look great last week. That way, you’re not getting pulled into their game.

‘Dealing with a frenemy is about self-protection. They can undermine your self-esteem and confidence and you don’t need that. It’s best to either stand up to them or disengage.’

Maya agrees. She now limits spending time with Simone to an hour a fortnight when she arranges to meet her for a coffee with other friends so she’s never alone. ‘I realised she wasn’t good for me, and have slowly managed to cut down time I spend with her,’ she says. ‘I feel so much better and don’t have to worry about being on my guard all the time. It’s harsh but I’m happier spending time with real friends than someone who makes me feel bad. I plan to drop her altogether soon by spreading out the times we meet until I’m no longer on her radar – I don’t have time in my life for a frenemy.’  

  • Lydia Miller is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist based at The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre in Dubai Healthcare City
  • Gill Hasson is a trainer and writer who is based in Brighton, East Sussex in the UK. She is the author of How to be Assertive, Mindfulness, The Confidence Pocket Book and How to Deal with Difficult People

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