When Jody Watley’s song[1] “friends[2]” topped the charts in the 80s those of us who were very young just enjoyed dancing to the tune and lip synching it without attaching much meaning to the lyrics.

In adulthood, those lyrics have taken on a new meaning and a term coined for the sort of friends she described – “frenemies.”

Simply defined, frenemies are friends who are actually enemies – that seemingly loyal friend who one day turns out to be your deadliest enemy! My dictionary defines a frenemy as “someone who pretends to be your friend but is really your enemy” or “a fair weather friend who is also a rival.”

Frenemies seem friendly yet they have a hidden agenda to cause harm.
Frenemies seem friendly yet they have a hidden agenda to cause harm.

Frenemies are extremely dangerous because they are part of our inner circle and can effectively destroy us from within, while abusing the trust that comes with friendship. In fact, they could be that one person who you trust with your life.  Consequently, the harm they cause in the long run is worse than that of people who openly show their dislike for you.

A frenemy can harm one physically, emotionally, spiritually or psychologically because we let down our guard when we are with them, assuming that they are our friends. However, their knowledge of the most intimate details of our lives make us more vulnerable to them.

While friendships are healthy and we all need friends to live quality lives that are socially fulfilling, frenemies use that to destroy unsuspecting friends.

I have been blessed with great friends, for whom I am truly grateful. They have stood with me through happy and troubled times and I know despite the physical distance between us, I can call on them any time of day or night and they will be there for me just as I am available to them 24/7.

However, I learnt the hard way that I also had frenemies. After observing the consistently cruel and abusive treatment of a few friends towards me, I had to face the reality that they were not my friends and we, in fact, did not even like each other anymore!

I am not sure when these individuals mutated from the loving, caring and supportive dear friends I’d learnt to trust, to vicious frenemies who were out to destroy me. What I do know, is that it took me time to realise the change and even then, I was in denial, making excuses for them while absorbing the abuse. It was only after some major incidents that I had an “aha” moment and realised I needed to deal with the frenemy situation.

First a doctor pointed out the initial signs of a stress-related health problem that could result in chronic medication if unchecked. I revisited my life and faced the reality that I had to deal with frenemies who were the main source of stress in my usually optimistic and happy life.

Second, after watching a few episodes of the series “Frenemies” on Crime and Investigation, I noticed that some frenemies exhibited harmful traits similar to those of my friends.

Third, I was struck by my friend’s persistently injurious treatment of me, particularly when I did something praiseworthy.

It is important to recognise frenemies so you can protect yourself from them because while some friendships may be genuine when they start, people can evolve into frenemies as their lives change and they grow apart.

Here is a checklist that could be useful in helping you recognise if your once wonderful friend may have mutated into a frenemy. These are drawn from a combination of real life experiences and research.

Do they always give bad advice?

Much as we like to think we make independent choices, we tend to have a circle of reference comprised of people whom we consult before we make major decisions. Such consultation is based on trust and the belief that our advisers have our best interests at heart. A frenemy will constantly ill advise you and enjoy the damage. Check the frequency with which frenemies dispense negative advice then simply strike them off your reference list or else you will live with the regret and consequences of the consistently bad choices.

Do they erode your self worth?

Most of us average people are generally confident and have learnt to deal with people and situations that threaten that confidence. However, if a trusted friend whose opinion matters constantly berates, belittles and besmirches you, your self esteem will suffer some dents. Erosion could be through negative words, a scornful look or contemptuous action, usually in front of other people for maximum effect. True friendships endorse and complement rather than demean and destroy. Honestly, being with friends who cannot say a kind word, give a compliment or acknowledge one’s positive qualities is like being in a bad neighbourhood. If you are in such a friendship, start packing, you need to get out of that friendship before it destroys whatever semblance of self-worth you are trying to preserve. Also, if you feel terrible whenever you meet this friend, then you are definitely in the wrong neighbourhood and it’s time to revise the friendship. Perhaps you’re better off spending time volunteering at an orphanage than being with this person because clearly, you are not having fun!

Do they always criticise you?

If you cannot do anything right in your friend’s sight, then you certainly should not be together. Indeed your friends should be able to criticise you when you’re wrong and commend you when you do well. Human beings by their very nature respond to rewards and punishments. However, if every word your friend utters about you is a criticism, there is a problem. Surely, you cannot be so bad that the closest person to you sees nothing good in you and has to remind you all the time. Also, if you are such a bad person, why exactly are they hanging around you?

As junior school children, when faced with a barrage of negative words, we often retorted with the chant:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Well, that may be comforting to say but it is not true. Words can be extremely dangerous because long after the person who said them is dead and gone, they will still ring in one’s mind probably with the same sting as when they were first spoken.

Words transcend boundaries, a word whether written or spoken in America, can reach someone in Zimbabwe and still have the desired effect. That is why people will not answer their phones when a potentially abusive conversation is likely to take place, because they know that long after the conversation is over, the effect of those words will linger on, housed deep in the recesses of their minds and causing much trauma.

Psychologists believe that every time we think about a traumatic event, we experience the same range of emotions we had when the event took place[3]. I believe the same applies to abusive words and whenever we remember them, we experience the same emotions we had when those words were first spoken to us.

Whether we care to admit it or not, words have impact. It is easier to dismiss the negative words of a stranger than to disregard those spoken by someone close. The truth is, when someone close to you says something, you reflect on it and it affects you, even if you pretend not to be listening when they speak. The constant criticism of a frenemy cannot be ignored as it has far reaching effects.

Propagandists developed the theory that if people hear something often enough, they start to believe it[4]. Imagine hearing what a horrible, silly, stupid, cruel, stingy, ugly, frivolous person you are daily? You may try to develop coping mechanisms but at the end of the day if that is all that rings in your head, those words may take their toll and start affecting your behaviour. Naturally, a persistent volley of negative words will eventually erode someone’s confidence and could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Do they try to control you?

Human beings, by their nature, were created to be independent.  Stephen Covey in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” also speaks of interdependence which emanates from healthy relationships and the recognition that we all need each other. However, if a person tries to control you so that you become dependent on them whether emotionally, financially or otherwise, then the relationship is neither healthy nor sustainable.

Also, if they cannot recognise that you are an autonomous being who is capable of running your own life, there is definitely a problem. If your friend does not recognise your individuality and perceives you as an extension of her personality that friendship is not good for your personal growth and will actually dwarf you. If your friend wants to dictate how you should behave, when you should laugh, how you should interpret jokes, the extent of your knowledge about subjects, your career path, what car you drive, where you live or any decision about how you should run your life, then either try to address the challenges in the friendship, or let it go because it’s not a healthy relationship.

Do they compete with you?

I guess we all have a competitive edge and a little competition is healthy because it propels us to the next level. However, if your friend must always be the top dog and you the underdog, then your relationship most likely thrives on inequality with you being on the lower end.  Also, if the friendship is constantly a quest to prove who is better than the other, then it is likely that one is consistently being demeaned to illustrate the superiority of the other. Such a friendship probably erodes one’s self esteem while inflating the ego of the other and people who are deflated cannot rise to their full potential.

Do they play down your successes and magnify your faults?

Real friends celebrate each other’s successes and comfort each other when one experiences loss. A friend who plays down your successes and magnifies your faults probably feels better when you’re down and never wants to see you rise. They probably believe they are a superior being and therefore only they are entitled to success. It is also highly likely that such friends have a high degree of narcissism and draw pleasure from your failures because they feel successful at your expense. The friendship is not likely to last should you have a break and suddenly succeed. In fact, you may actually be doing well, but because the friend wants to feel better, they have to play down your successes.

Watch how people who are close to you react to your successes, it could be an indicator of whether they are friends or frenemies.

Do you need a coping mechanism to handle your friends?

Friendships should be enjoyed and not tolerated. If you find yourself developing mechanisms to cope with your friends, then it cannot possibly be a friendship. These coping mechanisms could range from giving yourself a pep talk before and after meeting your friend, to drinking and smoking just so you can deal with their negative effects. I almost sought counselling to deal with my friend but realised that it would be unsustainable, it was best to first flush her out of my life, then go for counselling to cleanse myself of her negative effects that had built up over years.

Moving on

It is important that people recognise when a friendship is no longer mutually beneficial, part ways and move on. After all, it could have been a relationship for a reason and a season that no longer apply to one’s life. Also, if it’s now doing more harm than good, then it has outlived its relevance.

Yes, making friends in adulthood is difficult and so is letting go of someone who has been part of your life. However, if they are not adding value, you are better off without them.

Letting go will save you the cost of treatment – whether medical, emotional or psychological – and time in the number of years it may take to rebuild your self esteem and subsequently your life. If the frenemy happens to be your sole friend, you may have to brace yourself for some loneliness, but bear in mind that you’re better off alone than unhappy. Find creative ways to fill up the space that the frenemy was taking, you might actually discover some new talents, or revive those that the frenemy had talked you out of developing.

Also, ask yourself what you really have in common and what is the glue that is holding the friendship? You may find that what once bound you together no longer exists hence the focus on negativity. People evolve and likewise friendships. Perhaps you have outgrown each other but are reluctant to acknowledge it.

You will have to be careful though. Breaking off a friendship with some frenemies may have consequences, particularly if they are still deriving benefits that they want to cling to. Remember, some frenemies have major personality problems and a mean streak, which is why you they are abusing you are breaking away in the first place. Brace yourself for the ostracism and whatever other social, emotional and psychological consequences may be inflicted. Bear in mind that your rejection of this friendship may not be taken lightly. In the various episodes of “Frenemies” on Crime and Investigation, some frenemies turned to arson and murder after their friendship was spurned. Note that these, though based on true stories, were also extreme cases. You probably know your frenemy well enough to understand how they will deal with the break up and the extremes to which they can go, so that should help you to strategise on how to untie yourself from their unpleasant bond.

Lastly, put together a support group of your genuine friends because you will need them as you deal with the consequences of your decision and action.

Remember that everything has consequences so just as hanging around in an abusive relationship can wear you out and negatively affect you, so too will staying in an abusive friendship.  I am convinced that the impact of staying in an abusive marriage is as bad as that of staying in an abusive friendship with a frenemy.

Therefore take action to free yourself from your frenemies!