Frenemy: Definition, Types, And How to Spot Them

Have you ever placed your trust in a friend who turned on you, became toxic, or stabbed you in the back? If so, you have had a firsthand encounter with a frenemy—a secret enemy who dresses up and plays the part of a friend. Frenemies are the types of friends you want to avoid at all costs, but their cunning ways can make them hard to detect.[1]

This article will serve as a guide to help you understand what a frenemy is, the different types of frenemies to watch out for, and characteristics and signs to help you spot them.

Sections

  1. What is a frenemy?
  2. Types of frenemies
  3. How to spot a frenemy
  4. Common questions

What is a frenemy?

A frenemy is a type of toxic friend that pretends to be your friend at certain times (e.g., to your face, in front of others, or when they want something) but really isn’t.[2][3] A frenemy is one of the worst kinds of people to have in your life because their love-hate behaviors make it hard to figure out whether they’re your friend or your enemy.

Their confusing behavior can cause major drama and problems at work, in your personal life, and can even sabotage some of your most important relationships.[1][4] Frenemies often use manipulative tactics to gain your trust and friendship, only to later weaponize things you’ve shared with them.[1] They’re usually competitive or jealous types of friends who will only remain loyal as long as you don’t threaten them or get in the way of things they want for themselves.[3]

5 types of frenemies

Not all frenemies are the same, and some are harder to spot than others. Knowing about the different types of frenemies and the tactics they use can help you detect a frenemy more quickly before letting one into your life. Below are 5 types of frenemies and different ways to spot these kinds of bad friends early on.

1. The rival frenemy

A rival frenemy describes a jealous and insecure friend who’s always competing with you.[1][5] This could be a “friend” at work who is vying for a promotion and trying to get you out of the way because they see you as a threat. A rival frenemy may also be hiding within your personal life. For example, they may be a person who is always trying to one-up you or be the know-it-all.[1][5]

Rival frenemies are usually people who feel threatened or intimidated by you, or people who want something you have. Because they view you as a threat, they try to disarm you by getting close. Usually, their goal is to either get ammo they can use against you (e.g., secrets or weaknesses) or to keep you from suspecting they are the ones undermining you. Rival frenemies often use covert tactics to conceal their true motives, finding subtle ways to undercut your work, one-up you, or minimize your successes.[4]

2. The gossiping frenemy

Gossiping frenemies are people who talk badly about you behind your back or share your secrets with others. This kind of frenemy is always seeking out the “dirt” or “intel” on people and can be really good at getting others to trust and confide in them.[1] This trust is misplaced because they almost always end up betraying it.

A gossiping frenemy may or may not have bad intentions. Sometimes, they are just judgmental, nosy, petty, or find it exciting to gossip about people. Other times, they’re the “mean girl” types who actively try to smear and sabotage others by talking badly or sharing their secrets.[1]

3. The strategic frenemy

A strategic frenemy is someone who becomes friends with you for a particular reason or purpose, usually one that benefits them in some way. However, they are rarely open about their motives and instead pretend to have a true desire for friendship with you. Over time, it can become clear that they’re intentions aren’t as pure as they pretend, especially if they start to be passive-aggressive or critical.[1][4][5]

Strategic frenemies are sometimes people at work who suck up to you to gain favor, especially if you are in a leadership position or have connections within the company. They may also be people in your personal life who are after money, fame, power, or something else they think you can give them. You’re more likely to encounter these frenemies at work or when you have achieved a high level of success, fortune, or fame.

4. The unstable frenemy

An unstable frenemy is a friend who has serious issues or problems and sees you as a person who can help them. This kind of frenemy doesn’t always have bad or evil intentions, but they can be just as toxic as the other kinds of frenemies on this list. Unstable frenemies are often “drama queens” who seem to always be in crisis or people who seem to attract or create drama and issues wherever they go.[1][5]

Sometimes, an unstable frenemy is a person in your life who becomes mean or cruel when they get upset. This is usually a person who isn’t able to control their impulses or regulate their emotions, making them prone to outbursts. Unfortunately, close friends may become the targets or victims of their anger.

5. The backstabbing frenemy

A backstabbing frenemy is a friend who just isn’t honest or loyal and doesn’t have the kind of morals or values needed to be a good friend. Sooner or later, this kind of frenemy will show its true colors by betraying you, telling your deepest secret, or sabotaging something you love.[1] They might sleep with your ex, flirt with your boyfriend, insert themselves into your life in inappropriate ways, and do or say things that are unforgivable.[4]

Backstabbing frenemies are sometimes loyal for a long period of time before they end up betraying you. In many cases, the betrayals come when another bully or enemy enters the picture, who they join forces with.[2] This can make the betrayal even more unexpected, devastating, and painful. It also tends to lead to a dramatic and sudden ending of the friendship.

10 ways to spot a frenemy

While there are different types of frenemies, most will display the same patterns of behavior. These toxic and manipulative tactics often take time to manifest. Because a frenemy may have worked hard to earn your trust and get close to you, it can make it even harder to spot them. Your feelings of affection can cause a “blind spot” when it comes to noticing or accepting the early signs that a friend is actually a frenemy.

1. They have a long list of ex-friends

One of the telltale signs of a toxic friend or frenemy is that they have a long list of ex-friends. While they may have a lot of excuses and explanations for why and how these relationships ended, not having long-term friendships is sometimes a red flag. This sometimes can be an indication that the person has a pattern of doing or saying things that cause drama. Many frenemies are even attracted or addicted to drama and seem to create it wherever they go.[1][5]

2. They switch their charm on and off

A frenemy is able to easily switch between being nice and mean, and you may be able to witness this “switching” firsthand. If you’re around a friend who you’ve seen smile in someone’s face and then sneer as soon as they turn their backs, this is often a warning sign. If they can so easily switch their charm off and on, it’s difficult to know if they’re really being genuine with you.[1]

3. They trash-talk people behind their backs

Trash-talking or gossiping about others behind their backs is another warning sign of a frenemy because it shows they are two-faced.[2] If you have a friend who likes to gossip or talk badly about other people, it may indicate that they are doing the same behind your back. Mean gossip is a form of social aggression and should always be seen as a warning sign of a bad friend.[1]

4. They don’t seem happy for other people

A frenemy has a lot of trouble being truly happy for the successes of others, including you. They might complain about how others didn’t work hard enough to earn their achievements or seem bitter that they were overlooked. When a friend never seems to be truly happy for other people when things go well for them, it’s often a sign that their jealousy can turn them from friend to foe.[4]

5. They’re only around when they need something

A friend who only seems to be around when they need or want something from you may be a frenemy. True friends will show up during times when you need them, no questions asked. A fake or fairweather friend will mainly show up when there is something in it for them. If you start to notice a pattern or begin feeling taken advantage of by a friend, it’s often a warning sign.

6. They’re passive-aggressive

Another red flag that you are dealing with a frenemy is passive-aggressive behavior.[1][4][5] Passive aggression is any behavior or interaction that makes it clear someone is upset without openly admitting it. In fact, a passive-aggressive person will often deny anything is wrong, pretend to be confused when you ask, or feign innocence when confronted about their backhanded ways.

7. They enjoy your misery

Another telltale sign of a frenemy is when a friend seems to find pleasure or humor when you find yourself in hard times. A true friend would be concerned and empathetic when they see you down, but a frenemy may seem unusually upbeat or happy in these moments. When someone seems to enjoy your misfortune, it’s a huge red flag that they may be a frenemy.[4]

8. They follow the majority

A frenemy is often someone who is loyal to you as long as it doesn’t cost them anything, but they aren’t the kind of person who will stand up for you against the masses.[2] If it ever comes down to choosing between protecting your friendship or their reputation within a group, they are more likely to go into self-preservation mode. A frenemy like this is usually someone who conforms and subscribes to groupthink because they value popularity over individual loyalties.[1]

9. They get too close to things you care about

A frenemy is often someone who is after something you have. This could be money, fame, your job, or even your boyfriend or girlfriend. When a friend starts eyeing something that belongs to you, it should raise your guard up a little.[1][5] Step back and observe them closely to see if they may be trying to take something that belongs to you.

10. You just catch bad vibes from them

While this sign of a frenemy can be a little tricky to explain, catching a bad vibe or sensing something is “off” about someone is something you shouldn’t ignore. These kinds of gut feelings often indicate that there is something about this friend that you don’t trust or like. When these gut feelings start to become frequent and nag at you, watch out for other red flags or signs that it’s more of a love-hate relationship.

Final thoughts

Frenemies are fake friends who may put on a good act but don’t really have your best interests at heart. Frenemies are often people who harbor resentment, envy, or anger towards you but, for some reason, feel it’s in their best interest to pretend to be your friend. If you find one in your midst, the best way to deal with a frenemy is to distance yourself from them. Set better boundaries and end the friendship if necessary, especially if it’s doing you more harm than good.[3]

Common questions

What is the opposite of a frenemy?

The opposite of a frenemy is a true friend: someone who is loyal, and really cares about you. True friends will show their loyalty by having your back and treating you well. Frenemies also tend to show their true colors over time, usually by betraying your trust.

How do you break up with a frenemy?

Since a frenemy was never really a true friend (and was probably more of an enemy), it’s not the same as breaking up with a friend. Once it becomes clear that they have bad intentions, distancing yourself becomes an obvious response that helps you protect yourself from their covert attacks.

How do you deal with frenemy at work?

Dealing with a frenemy at work is tough, especially when you have to work closely with them. It’s best to remain polite and cordial with a workplace frenemy but to avoid seeing or talking to them outside of the office. Don’t let them in on secrets or information that they could use against you.[1][3]

Show references +

Hailey Shafir is a licensed mental health counselor, licensed addiction specialist, and clinical supervisor working out of Raleigh, NC. She has a Masters in Counseling from NC State University, and has extensive professional experience in counseling, program development, and clinical supervision. Read more.

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