The word "frenemy" usually conjures up the image of a fictional mean girl like Regina George, someone who is not entirely a trustworthy friend yet not quite an all-out enemy either. Of course, the word is a combination of "friend" and "enemy"—but what does it really mean? To get an expert's perspective, we asked psychotherapist Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC, all our burning questions—starting with the most basic one: Who is a frenemy?
According to Bergen, "A frenemy is a person in your life where there is some type of rivalry under the surface of a friendship. This rivalry may arise from unresolved conflict between two people, competitiveness that develops over the course of the friendship, jealousy by one or both parties, or it may be a manifestation of psychological issues by one person."
Here's what you need to know about the psychology of a toxic friendship, including the identifying signs, the mental and emotional consequences, and how to navigate the next steps.
How do you know if you have a frenemy?
Relationships are complicated and notoriously difficult to define. If you think you might be in a toxic friendship, Bergen advises that you ask yourself the following questions:
1. Have they lied about me to others to either make themselves look better or to make me look worse?
2. Have they lied to me just to get something they wanted?
3. How often do they flake out on plans without notice or complain when something isn't on their terms?
4. Do they criticize me frequently but explain it as "joking around?"
5. Have they ever intentionally sabotaged a situation or obstructed me from a goal or positive outcome?
6. Do they try to put distance between me and other friends?
7. Do their compliments frequently have a subtle insult attached?
8. Do they disrupt my romantic relationships?
9. Do they act angry, annoyed, or disinterested when I talk about my life? Do they only act interested when I share bad news?
Lastly, and most importantly:
10. How do I feel after I spend time with them?
What's the psychological impact of having a frenemy?
According to Bergen, being in a volatile interpersonal relationship can take a serious toll on your mental and emotional well-being. "Toxic friendships carry a high potential for gaslighting," he explains. "Prolonged contact with a toxic friend can start to make a person question their own thoughts and feelings about situations, people, and even themselves."
An unhealthy relationship may even cause you to question your self-worth. "Since put-downs and insults are common in frenemy relationships, self-esteem can also decrease, especially if the frenemy is initially a trusted person."
I'm in a toxic relationship—what do I do?
It's probably time to reassess your relationship if you wouldn't list this person as a personal reference on a job application, according to Bergen.
Although, you don't have to cut a person out of your life completely if your friendship isn't perfect. "It's not imperative to end every relationship in our lives that may not be healthy, but it is important to have strong boundaries in place with toxic people in our lives," he explains.
"Boundaries help keep us safe and instruct others how to treat us. It's difficult to set boundaries, but healthy boundaries empower us and may help change the dynamics of a frenemy relationship."