Serena and Blair, Kyle and Cartman, the Heathers or half the cast of the “Real Housewives.” What do they all have in common? They’re examples of toxic friendships—they’re frenemies.
Positive friendships can make you more beautiful. Study after study show that strong social networks are super important for lasting health and wellbeing. But when a friendship takes a nasty turn? It can seriously stress you out.
A frenemy is a portmanteau word that combines “friend” and “enemy,” and is symbolic of the kind of love-hate relationship some women know all too well.
“There are lots of different classes of relationships that we have with people in the world,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at University of Texas at Austin and YouBeauty Psychology Advisor. There are market relationships (you pay the cashier for your groceries) and neighborly ones (the guy next door jumpstarts your car; you bake him cookies to say thanks).
“With close friends and family, you enter into this communal relationship in which you do things for your friends, and they for you,” he says. “In an ideal world, you’re not really keeping track. If something happens, you know your friend will be there for you.”
Identifying a Toxic Friendship
Sometimes a friendship is less than ideal. Turns out, your friend isn’t there for you—or she undermines you, blurts out your secrets, takes teasing a little too far, steps out with your boyfriend or talks behind your back. That’s when things can turn toxic. “You begin to realize that your friend is not playing by the same rules that you are,” Dr. Markman says. “You were treating her as a friend, and she’s not sharing in the same way.”
Eleanor May*, 36, a social work graduate student in New York City, had been friends for about eight months with a woman we’ll call… Brandy. “We were both laid off at the same time,” says May, “and we began spending a lot of time together—like every day.” In the beginning it was fun, but then May decided to apply to grad school. “Brandy was still in this Oh-I-don’t-have-any-idea-what’s-next phase. I think that’s where a jealous thing was happening. And she turned very mean, very quickly.” While helping May fill out applications, Brandy started bad-mouthing her behind her back to mutual friends, doubting that she’d get accepted anywhere.
“As friends, you are on the same team. You are part of the same tribe, if not the same family,” says Dr. Markman. “When you draw your mental lines in the world, if it came down to us vs. them, who’s the ‘us?’ Your friends are part of the ‘us.’ There may be a relationship with good-natured teasing, but when push comes to shove, you want to believe your friend has your best interests at heart.”
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