• Frenemies are the friends you love to hate, evoking strong feelings of love and loathing at the same time
  • It can be hard to trust a frenemy – and it can be risky to remain close with someone who doesn’t always have your best interests at heart
  • However, frenemies are very common, and they can form some of the most entertaining and exciting relationships of your life

If you like to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, a ‘frenemy’ or two might be useful to you. Frenemies are those friends who you sometimes can’t stand, don’t always trust, and who form a platonic love-hate relationship with you.

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The best word to sum up a frenemy relationship is ‘ambivalent’. You love to spend time with a frenemy, and they’re often entertaining – perhaps caring and supportive at times. They could even be your closest friend. But you can also find yourself loathing them.

These mixed feelings are astonishingly common. On average, around half of our friends are some variant of frenemies, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University. “It is rare to encounter someone who doesn’t have at least one ambivalent relationship,” she notes.

If you’ve ever found yourself struggling with the friends you love to hate, here are some tips on how to manage ambivalent friendships and avoid getting hurt by a smiling frenemy.

What is a frenemy?

A ‘frenemy’ – the term blends the words ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ – is a person who you’ve befriended, but whom you may secretly or openly hate at the same time.

Although the word has had a modern revival (used in everything from podcasts to political commentary), ‘frenemy’ goes way back – and the concept of friendly enemies goes back further still.

The word ‘frenemy’ was first coined by the Mitford sisters. These six aristocratic siblings (and their single brother) rocked English society in the 1930s. Fights and rivalries between the siblings created a fair few high-profile, love-hate relationships. In particular, the family drew attention because Unity and Diana Mitford supported Nazism.

Jessica Mitford, who moved to America and became an author, recalled in her book Poison Penmanship that one of her sisters had a frenemy when they were very young.

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“[Frenemies is] an incredibly useful word…coined by one of my sisters when she was a small child to describe a rather dull little girl who lived near us,” Jessica Mitford wrote.

“My sister and the frenemy played together constantly…all the time disliking each other heartily,” she explained.

Famous frenemies from history include Brutus and Julius Caesar, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.

The celebrity world also has its fair share of frenemy relationships. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, and Elton John and George Michael have all been noted for their frenemy dynamics. Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder are self-proclaimed frenemies and former roommates.

Fiction likewise thrives on frenemies. In the Harry Potter franchise, the turbulent friendship between Ron and Hermione causes plenty of strife. And who could forget Regina George, Cady and Janice from Mean Girls, all of whom end up as each other’s frenemies from time to time? If these choppy, argumentative but often loving friendships sound familiar to you, you may well have a frenemy.

The best of frenemies

Relationships with frenemies are often messy and difficult – but they don’t have to be harmful.

In particular, friendly rivalry can have huge positive impacts on your life. “Competition can help you identify personal mental strengths and become aware of how your own actions relate to positive outcomes, progression and success,”  sports psychologist Caroline Silby, Ph.D has commented.

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When a frenemy helps you to better manage competitive feelings, fraught relationships and disagreements, they are strengthening your interpersonal skills. Getting on well with a frenemy can improve your resilience and make you more open to different opinions and ideas.

As Sigmund Freud put it, “An intimate friend and a hated enemy have always been indispensable to my emotional life…[and] not infrequently…friend and enemy have coincided in the same person.” Rivalry, competition and disagreements can all feature in a perfectly healthy friendship. However, frenemy relationships can also cause a lot of harm when the tension between love and hate spirals out of control.

When it takes a bad turn

While frenemies can give you the most entertaining and drama-filled friendships you ever have, those relationships can also take a swift downturn. It’s wise to be on the lookout for warning signs that a frenemy is causing more harm than good.

One common trait of frenemies is that they share in each other’s drama. When it comes to mischief or arguments, your frenemy might be the best person to offload to, and you can end up bonding over your shared hatreds or secrets.

But when a frenemy gets stuck into destructive behaviour – whether it’s mean gossip, bullying or fierce rivalry – they can drag you down too. Amid these volatile friendships, you can feel swept into things you’ll regret. The rollercoaster of a love-hate relationship can alter your own personality, too, affecting your compassion and your ability to build healthy friendships.

Here are some signs that a frenemy relationship is starting to sour:

They are never happy for you. If a mate is never pleased when you succeed, and can never overcome their own jealousy to congratulate or support you – that isn’t a frenemy, that’s an enemy.

They’re cruel behind your back. When a frenemy starts revealing your secrets or spreading rumours about you, it may be sensible to distance yourself from them.

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They pressure you. While it can be fun to be dragged into the whirlwind of your frenemy’s drama, if they’re making you do things you don’t want to do and won’t take no for an answer, the relationship isn’t worth it.

They control you. Some frenemies may become controlling, trying to monitor who you spend time with or how you act on social media. This can spiral out of a love-hate relationship where they feel untrusting of you. Rather than feeding the drama, it’s often best to either talk it out or walk away.