Why Frenemies May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Excerpt – We often think about relationships on a spectrum from positive to negative. We gravitate toward loving family members, caring classmates and supportive mentors. We do our best to avoid the cruel uncle, the playground bully and the jerk boss.

But the most toxic relationships aren’t the purely negative ones. They’re the ones that are a mix of positive and negative.

We often call them frenemies, supposed friends who sometimes help you and sometimes hurt you. But it’s not just friends. It’s the in-laws who volunteer to watch your kids but belittle your parenting. The roommate who gets you through a breakup and then starts dating your ex. The manager who praises your work but denies you a promotion. [..]

Even a single ambivalent interaction can take a toll, and it’s causation, not correlation. In one experiment, people gave impromptu speeches on controversial topics in front of a friend who offered feedback. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers had randomly assigned the friend to give ambivalent or negative comments. Receiving mixed feedback caused higher blood pressure than pure criticism. “I would have gone about the topic differently, but you’re doing fine” proved to be more distressing than “I totally disagree with everything you’ve said.”

The evidence that ambivalent relationships can be bad for us is strong, but the reasons can be harder to read — just like the relationships themselves.

The most intuitive reason is that ambivalent relationships are unpredictable. With a clear enemy, you put up a shield when you cross paths. With a frenemy, you never know whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde is going to show up. Ambivalence short-circuits the parasympathetic nervous system and activates a fight-or-flight response. It’s unnerving to hope for a hug while bracing yourself for a brawl.

Another factor is that unpleasant interactions are more painful in an ambivalent relationship. It’s more upsetting to be let down by people you like sometimes than by people you dislike all the time. [..]

Finally, ambivalence is an invitation for rumination. We agonize about ambiguous comments, unsure what to make of them and whether to trust the people who make them. We dwell on our mixed feelings, torn between avoiding our frenemies and holding out hope that they’ll change.

Although frenemies are the people who hurt us the most, we’re much slower to drop them than enemies. In our lives, we have about as many ambivalent relationships as supportive connections. And we don’t seem to get better with age at handling them. [..]

Early in my career, I invested a great deal of energy in mentoring a student. I thought it was a positive relationship, but she chose a different adviser. When I asked for feedback, I learned that the relationship had looked different from where she stood. On the one hand, she appreciated my rapid responses and clear guidance. On the other hand, my answers were too directive: I was silencing her voice and crowding out her ideas. What I thought was being supportive was actually undermining her autonomy. As Anne Lamott puts it, “Help is the sunny side of control.”

It’s all too rare for us to exchange this kind of feedback. Sometimes we end up avoiding or ghosting the people who stress us out in this way. It isn’t always a deliberate decision; we procrastinate on replies and put off lunches until the relationship fizzles. Other times, we just grit our teeth and tolerate ambivalent relationships as they are.

A relationship in which you can’t be candid isn’t a relationship at all; it’s a charade. Research shows that we tend to underestimate how open people are to constructive suggestions. Feedback doesn’t always lead to change, but change doesn’t happen without feedback. The goal is to be as candid as possible in what you say and as caring as possible in how you say it. As Brené Brown emphasizes, “Clear is kind.”

I’ve seen people try to address ambivalence by declaring, “This relationship isn’t healthy for me.” That isn’t kind: It’s often received as “You’re a bad person” when the reality is inevitably more complicated. An ambivalent relationship deserves a more nuanced, more accurate message: “The mix of good and bad here isn’t healthy for us.”

Full article, A Grant, New York Times, 2023.5.28