A Professor Teaches Us How To Tell A Friend From A Frenemy

Dr. Jenna Abetz helps us understand genuine friendships and why we stay close to those who aren’t.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 6, 2023

A new study published in Southern Communication Journal sheds light on the many shades of friendships, especially those that might be labeled as a 'frenemy.'

I recently spoke to Jenna Abetz, a faculty member at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, to break down the meaning of friendships that come with a hint of resentment and/or ill will. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What prompted you to investigate the topic of frenemies, how did you study it, and what did you find?

Despite the magnitude of research that exists on friendship, these relationships have only been the subject of empirical study for about three decades. We noticed that many of the nuances and complexities of friendship dynamics remain unexamined, especially within contemporary friendship types like frenemies.

While frenemy relationships are pervasive in U.S. popular media and can have significant interpersonal consequences, scholars have little knowledge about how frenemies are defined, understood, and interpreted by individuals themselves.

So our work was guided by the following research question: How do individuals who have had a frenemy define and understand the term?

We interviewed 29 adults, ranging from age 19 to 62, and conducted a participant definitional analysis. The results of our analysis illustrate that many participants shared a common understanding of what a frenemy is and how the frenemy relationship is experienced.

How then would you define a frenemy?

Based on our analysis, we defined a frenemy as a relationship, often negative, steeped in situational ties and shared social connections that outwardly appears friendly but is fraught with underlying competition, jealousy, or distrust.

What factors did you find led to this type of disguised friendship? How does a frenemy relationship develop?

Many participants shared how frenemy relationships were often embedded in their wider friendship circles and family networks. In many instances, interviewees described their frenemy relationships as being situational and bound by context, so the relationship was structured around certain environments like school, work, or extracurricular activities.

Many interviewees stated the friendship did not initially start out as competitive, but that it evolved that way, sometimes due to circumstances like living together. Despite not seeing their frenemy as a true friend, many participants reported still engaging with the relationship to some degree. However, as their relationship continued over time, the transition from friend to frenemy was an internal one.

Additionally, unlike the symbolic markers "best friend" or "close friend," the status of frenemy was not openly used with one another. However, many participants expressed certainty that the other person was aware of their dynamic.

What would you say are the main characteristics that compose a frenemy relationship?

Overwhelming competition, jealousy, and distrust were the three overarching components characterizing a frenemy. As participants shared their frenemy experiences, they storied that many of their relationships outwardly shared characteristics with friendship, summing it up as "a friend to the face, not behind the back."

Participants storied the many ways jealousy, both obvious and more subtle, turned their friend into their frenemy. Jealousy emerged in contexts ranging from academic performance and relationships with other friends or romantic partners, to material possessions.

They commonly described that rather than the support, warmth, and care they would have liked from their relationship. Their frenemy viewed them as a rival, someone to one-up, outdo, or compare themselves to.

Participants shared one of the most important aspects of a strong friendship was having trust in one another and communicating that trust by treating the friendship with respect and care. This dynamic was inherently lacking in frenemies.

In fact, interviewees illustrated that a frenemy is less a "hot and cold" dynamic, and more a relationship where they fundamentally and consistently lacked trust. This lack of trust stemmed from many sources, including romantic betrayals.

What are the upsides, if any, to having frenemy relationships?

Many interviewees called attention to the way negative frenemy dynamics could have silver linings and teachable moments. For some, the outcome of having a frenemy was better awareness of what they wanted and deserved in a true friendship. Others reflected on those teachable life lessons, that having a frenemy highlighted future relational red flags for them.

For example, a participant shared: "I'm more cautious, I see how they treat others before I get close to them."

Others explained, "You learn how people are and what signs to look out for in a friend. It helps you reconsider all the earlier signs."

Finally, participants shared that it helped them to learn who their true friends are, and it led them to develop more genuine relationships.

What are the practical implications of your research? How does it contribute to our understanding of interpersonal relationships?

It is important for parents and educators to be able to assist adolescents in identifying unhealthy relational patterns and how they manifest in friendships. While learning how to make and be a friend is one of the central developmental tasks of elementary school, as children age they still need guidance and support navigating challenging friendship dynamics.

As children and adolescents develop their social skills, compassion, and empathy, it may be helpful for parents to engage in conversations about being assertive, recognizing if a friendship is healthy or salvageable, and how to maintain supportive, respectful friendships.

Frenemies are often friends first, and seeing how the interplay of competition, jealousy, and lack of trust developed in the relationship suggests that while no friendship is perfect, frenemy dynamics are not genuine friendships, but participants often maintain them.

With this in mind, discussions focused on hurtful behavior that is repeated after an apology and when it is time to step away from a friendship, despite lingering social connections, are needed.

Adolescents are in the process of developing how to assert themselves and how to fit into their peer group. Conversations with this audience could focus on what a good friendship should look and feel like, and how to create boundaries, particularly if behavior is happening in online environments like TikTok, Stories, or Instagram Direct Messages (DMs).

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

While limited previous research has taken a gendered stance toward frenemies, our analysis highlighted that people of all ages and sexes have frenemies, they are not limited to adolescent girls.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on frenemies go in the future?

In the future, we would like to explore the transferability of these findings by focusing specifically on certain age groups or other identity categories (e.g., colleagues, classmates, parent groups). We'd also like to study disjunctive frenemy relationships to understand the perspectives and expectations when the frenemy orientation is not mutual.

Given that many participants noted "signs" and "red flags" present in their relationship over time, future researchers may find it useful to adopt a turning-points framework to more deeply understand the moments that potentially transform or alter frenemy dynamics. Doing so would allow researchers to capture critical communication moments, events, or incidents that have an impact and importance for the transition from friend to frenemy.