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.
‘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.
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.
Rachael Alexander, a counselling psychologist and author, believes most of us have a frenemy or two, but because the label is now on our radar, we mistakenly think it’s acceptable behaviour and that we should tolerate it.
‘It’s impossible to have a friend who’s also an enemy,’ says Rachael, author of You’ve Got This: A Student’s Guide to Well-being at University and Beyond (Critical Publishing). ‘A friend is someone who stands by you and has your best interests at heart, while an enemy is on the opposite side.
‘Frenemies are people who goad us into drinking and smoking when they know we’ve given up, or they bake us cakes when we’re trying hard to lose weight. They raise an eyebrow when our children drop out of full-time education or take a year off to go travelling around Asia.
‘They don’t like it because our behaviour doesn’t tally with what they believe we should be doing. We’re also holding a mirror up to them. It could be they are afraid we’re moving on and breaking away from them, while they’re stuck in the same old habits and going nowhere.’
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.
‘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.
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 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.
But for how long can anyone put up with a frenemy pointing out to your superior that you’re not on top form due to a relationship difficulty or a bereavement you told them about in confidence.
And just how are you supposed to react when they suddenly announce at a gathering: ‘Have you lost weight? You really were starting to pile on the kilos.’
‘In their mind, they think you’re better than them, so they behave like this to bring you down to their level.’
After all, 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.
Divorcing a Frenemy
Once you’ve realised a friend is actually a frenemy who is sapping your confidence and dragging you down, it’s time to make the break. It’s often hard to sever links if you have history – if they were bridesmaids at your wedding or they listened to you for months after your mum died.
‘Let them go with love,’ Rachael Alexander suggests. ‘Remember the good times and, just as you would when a romantic relationship breaks up, move on.
‘You could let the relationship die a natural death. Often, these things naturally fizzle out as we change and move on. Or you could have a honest conversation with them and let them know that you don’t feel you’re on the same page anymore.’
Most frenemies are well practised and so when we call them out on their back-handed compliments or their veiled criticism, they will try to convince you that the problem is you and not them.
‘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,’ says Gill. ‘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.’
Rachael says it’s important to prioritise ourselves and make decisions based on what’s good for us, not what’s expected by our families or friendship group.
‘If your frenemy gives you back-handed comments about not going to the gym or criticises your cooking, you don’t have to spend weekends with them,’ she says. ‘It’s about being your authentic self and respecting your own energy and time.’
But if your frenemy is a colleague and it isn’t feasible to drop them from your life, Rachael suggests putting some boundaries in place.
‘If you have a frenemy at work, make a list of the things you’re not happy with,’ she suggests. ‘Look at whether they or you can change behaviour. If the answer is no, you might need to move departments or even jobs. Certainly limit the time you spend with them and don’t take the relationship out of work.’
Gill acknowledges it isn’t always easy to ‘divorce’ a frenemy, especially if they’re a member of your family.
‘If it’s your sister-in-law or your uncle that’s being a frenemy, you might still see them at family gatherings, so just limit the time you spend with them.’
And no matter who they are, it’s important to look after yourself. ‘Don’t engage with them when they go into frenemy mode,’ urges Gill. ‘When they say you look a lot better than you did last week, don’t ask them why they said that and why they thought you didn’t look great. 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.’
Gill Hasson is a trainer and writer who is based in the UK. She is the author of How to be Assertive, Mindfulness, The Confidence Pocket Book and How to Deal with Difficult People www.gillhasson.co.uk
Rachael Alexander is a UK counselling psychologist and author of You’ve Got This: A Student’s Guide to Well-being at University and Beyond. https://rachael-alexander.com/