Psychologists define what the term “Frenemy” really means
A new study published in the Southern Communication Review offers a succinct definition of a term that has become common in pop culture over the past decade: what it means to be an “enemy.”
“Despite the prevalence of frenemies in popular culture and the significant effect these relationships can have on our lives, frenemy research is limited and contradictory,” says Dr. Jenna Abetz, the study’s lead author. “Developing an in vivo definition of the frenemy relationship portrays the realities of these relationships as they are experienced.”
To arrive at such a definition, Dr. Abetz and his team surveyed 29 adults between the ages of 19 and 62 to get a better idea of how individuals who have had frenemy define and understand the term.
They found that many respondents shared similar sentiments about relationships with enemies, leading the researchers to arrive at the following definition: “Relationships, often negative, imbued with situational ties and shared social ties that seem friendly on the surface but are fraught with underlying competition, jealousy, or mistrust.
Unlike true friendships, researchers have found that relationships between enemies have three important characteristics:
- Competitiveness (considering the other more as a rival to be surpassed than a friend to be supported)
- Jealousy (whether in terms of social ties or material possessions)
- Mistrust (a lack of respect and care in friendship)
The dynamic was described by some interviewees as “hot and cold”, with the frenemy repeatedly giving mixed signals as they shifted from friend to foe mentality.
While many of these relationships were rooted in unavoidable social circles and networks like family, school, and work, some participants said enemy relationships evolved from seemingly true friendships that suffered pressures due to external circumstances.
Interestingly, having a frenemy was more of a “felt” experience than a verbally defined label. In other words, relationships between enemies contain an element of “unsaid.”
That’s not to say enemy relationships don’t come with their own silver linings. Some interviewees shared positive results amid the dark cloud of a frenetic relationship.
“For some, the result of having a frenemy was a greater awareness of what they wanted and deserved in a true friendship,” says Abetz. “Others reflected on these teachable life lessons — and how having an enemy highlighted future relationship red flags for them.”
Here are two thoughts shared by interviewees that highlight the positive side of their experience with enemies:
- “I’m more careful, I see how they treat others before I approach them.”
- “You learn how people are and what signs to look for in a friend. It helps you to reconsider any previous signs.
Experience with enemies or enemy-type relationships highlights the importance of learning what a good friendship looks like by having experience with a wide range of social relationships. It’s especially important for children and teens to understand this as they learn to navigate the social world. They need to know that while no friendship is perfect, the dynamic of enemies is not true friendships and they shouldn’t feel pressured to maintain them if there is a clear undercurrent of mistrust.
“It’s important for parents and educators to be able to help teens identify unhealthy relationship patterns and how they show up in friendships,” says Abetz. “While learning to make and be friends is one of the central developmental tasks of elementary school, as children get older they still need guidance and support to navigate a dynamic of life. difficult friendship.”
Abetz hopes her research will not only help people define a somewhat indescribable sense of connection, but that it can be used to teach young adults how to seek out more positive relationships in their own lives.
A full interview with Professor Jenna Abetz discussing her new research on frenemies can be found here: A teacher teaches us to tell friend from foe