Enemies, Part 3: The Friendly Fire of Frenemies

Now that your husband is bishop, maybe you’ll grow spiritually.

I tell everyone that you are the wild one---and I’m the conservative one.

How can you possibly spend enough time with your kids while getting a Master’s degree?

You’re moving into THAT area?

How can YOU afford that?

You work out? I’m too busy for stuff like that.

Look at all that make-up you have on!

I know of some medication that will help your zits.

We can do better than this. (She said while standing on my porch.)

You’re working outside the home? I follow the Prophet---but that’s just me.

I noticed you use your maiden name on your work. Seems rather silly to me.

These comments---directed at me---were followed by a nervous laugh from the various friends who said them. I’d laugh too. And wonder if I’d been insulted. Deciding I had, I’d sulk for days. And plot to get even. Confrontation or honest dialogue was not an option. (I tried that at age 24. Didn’t work. Because I didn’t know how to constructively confront.) Passive-aggressiveness became my weapon of choice. Thus, I grew very adept at pretense. I'd forced a smile while wanting to pull my frenemy’s hair out. Venting my frustrations to other friends was cathartic. For one minute. Gossiping was wrong—and unproductive. And I knew it.

We’ve all been there. In this painful angry place. Caught between friendship and antagonism; benevolence and animosity; good will and ill will. We stay because we don’t know how to leave. Or whether we should leave. Because we don’t want to be perceived as petty, overly sensitive, or mean. So, we stay in a poisonous friendship. And simmer in our angry noxious stew.

It’s difficult to write about my broken friendships. I forgave these women many years ago. In the previous century.

Still, I write carefully and cautiously for fear of sounding petty or unforgiving. My fear is unfounded. Because my critics will judge me anyway.

Greater still, I write to help women build healthy friendships. To help them find peace. To help others learn from my mistakes. Mistakes I would not have made. If I knew then. What I know now.

So, here I go. Revealing hard truths about myself. To you.

Artist Unknown

Friend or Foe?

My last two posts suggested using our enemies as learning tools for our spiritual and emotional growth. I also suggested we utilize divine intervention in conquering our enemies. In this post, I’ll discuss the difference between friends and enemies, if and when to let go of a friendship, and inoculating ourselves against toxic friendships.

“Frenemy” is a trendy, clever label akin to the term “toxic friendship.” In my view, frenemies don’t seem as potently poisonous as toxic friends. Frenemies often remain casual friends despite tainted elements infecting the friendship. However, a safe distance is mandatory to keep the infection contained. When poisons sour a friendship, it’s time to confront the toxicity or get out. Period. Obviously, perfect friendships don’t exist. And we’re all capable of being mean and catty. But beware: Toxicity grows while breeding venomous contempt and inflames our desires for vengeance.

Dr. Susan Forward, author of Toxic Parents and Toxic In-Laws, coined the word “toxicity.” She says that toxicity permeates in friendships, marriage, and parenting styles. “Like a chemical toxin,” she writes, “the emotional damage inflicted spreads...  [There is an] erosive and poisonous effect that certain people in our lives can have on us” (p. 5). How do we determine when a friendship turns toxic? How do we determine toxicity in other women? And in ourselves?

Psychologist Jeannette Kennedy in her article, “Toxic Relationships Can Be Mentally and Physically Draining,” reveals helpful insights:

We feel as though we have just been run over, slimmed or drained. We stick with these relationships in the hopes that it will get better or change. However, remaining in the relationships (as they are) makes us sicker and sicker, mentally and physically. Clearly, someone who is physically, sexually and/or emotionally abusive is not beneficial for our well-being. However, there are also more subtle ways that we can be negatively influenced including being criticized, dismissed or not being validated especially by the person who is supposed to love us. Being undermined, devalued or shunned all can exist in the context of relationships. We all make mistakes or our emotions get the best of us, but if negative interactions occur consistently it can wear us down.

Dr. John Gottman states there is a very specific ratio: there needs to be five (or more) positive events for every one negative. If the balance is less than that (or opposite) then it is only a matter of time before the relationship is in jeopardy. Contempt is the most damaging of interactions when it exists it is very unlikely that the relationship (or your self-worth) can survive.

We can differentiate between toxic people and those who celebrate us because when we are around people who celebrate us we feel energized, motivated, safe, secure, and a warm feeling washes over us. So, it is important to wisely choose whom you have in your life, and limit the amount of time you spend with toxic individuals” (Truro Daily News, June 2, 2014).

We would be wise to remember that the same friends who had supported and nurtured us can morph into formidable adversaries. Surely, we’ve all played the adversarial role when we feel insecure. Psychology Today writer, Dr. Irene S. Levine gives further insight:

You are friends on the surface but the foundations of the friendship are very weak in terms of loyalty and mutual support. The relationship creates more grief for you than pleasure. Additionally, [you and your friend] aren’t able to communicate in a productive way. These all suggest that it’s probably time to let go” (2011).

 Artist Unknown

A friend turned enemy is painful because it hinges on betrayal—real or perceived. As tensions intensify, we repeatedly ask ourselves, “Is my friend capable of betraying me? Is she deliberately trying to hurt or undermine me?” A “wait and see” approach often leads to increasing tension and thus hostility to the point of irreparable damage. The scriptures tell painful stories of former friends turned enemies. The Old Testament’s portrayal of David and Saul is particularly poignant. Saul loved and mentored David. He could see greatness in David at a time when others dismissed David as irrelevant. Gradually, Saul grew to loathe David to the point of attempted murder. We also read about Christ’s trusted apostles and disciples who either betrayed or abandoned Him.  And the mob who martyred Joseph Smith included many of his former friends. If we have frenemies, we’re in good company!

To Let Go or Not to Let Go? That is the Question

Herein lies the dilemma: Is “letting go” of the friendship worth the inevitable pain and collateral damage? As a young woman, my fear paralyzed me, and I mired for years in unhealthy friendships. My emotional response pattern following a “friendly fire” incident was predictable and kicked into high gear:

She’s got a lot of nerve saying that to me. Who does she think she is? Why is she treating me this way? Why is she being so mean? I didn’t do anything to her.

I’ve been a good friend to her. I don’t deserve this. She doesn’t deserve my friendship. I should stand up to her. (I’d conjure up potential “come-back” responses for my next encounter. Too afraid to use them, I stayed silent.)

Eventually I’d calm down. But my cluelessness regarding conflict resolution was a source of great distress. Old and useless tapes replayed over and over inside my head:

I can’t respond with anything but passive-aggression. I don’t want to be rude. (Passive-aggression is rude. And there’s always other options.)

I have to be Christ like. I must be kind. (True. We must also be kind to ourselves.  “Love they neighbor as thyself.”)

Looking back, my fear was irrational. I let other women’s opinions hold me hostage. My fear of rejection was its own brand of paralysis. I mistakenly thought my friend's feelings were more important than mine. Consequently, I allowed friends to manipulate me and/or put me down---or I’d save them the trouble by putting myself down. My reasoning looked like this:

I can’t respond assertively because I don’t want my frenemy to think I’m overly sensitive. (So, it's ok that my frenemy is being insensitive?)

If I ignore it, she’ll stop. (Doesn’t work. Ignoring and pretending emboldens frenemies.)

I’ll rise above this by being the “bigger person.” (I didn’t rise…I got covered in mud along alongside my frenemy by fueling the rivalry.)

I’m afraid how she’ll react if I confront her. How would she respond? What would she say? Would I be tongue tied? (The actions of toxic friends are already scary. Choose your fear.)

Confronting her would hurt her feelings. (Again, my feelings didn’t count.)

I don’t want any fall-out or drama. It would just make things worse. (Things got worse anyway.) I don’t want her to think I’m a drama queen. (But allowing ourselves to be abused is not the answer.)

I’m afraid she won’t like me anymore. (My frenemies didn’t like me anyway.) 

I have to stay friends with her. She’s in my ward. She’s in the neighborhood. It’s not worth the hassle. (I had more choices than I realized.)

If I confront her, she’ll gossip about me. (She’s gossiping about me anyway.)

I also felt conflicted regarding “constructive confrontation.” My mom always told me “to rise above it.” (To me, that was just another form of “ignoring it” which had proven unworkable. No offense, Mom!) “Turning the other cheek” was offered as the solution in Relief Society lessons. The sisters’ interpretation meant living a life as a pacifist victim. Surely, Christ doesn't expect us to live our lives in passivity and victimhood. Adding to my confusion, Church lessons and discussions also praised Christ’s ability to rebuke the Pharisees and abruptly correct His apostles. Images of Christ cracking His whip and overturning tables in the temple was the antithesis of pacifism. Furthermore, Moroni’s righteousness and fearlessness in battle was canonized in the Book of Mormon—along with his strident confrontational letter to Pahoran. Regardless, passive-aggressive behavior seemed the only option or “most” Christ like solution for us “ordinary people." Not ideal, but seemingly better than outright confrontation. I hadn't yet learned that passive-aggression is its own form of toxicity; a self-serving form of bullying using a self-righteous facade. The pretense and denial surrounding this behavior is hypocritical because we become the very thing we claim to abhor. I’ve yet to see a healthy passive-aggressive relationship.

"Snow White and Rose Red" by Richard Doyle

Confrontation and/or Letting Go

I couldn’t change others, but I could change my responses to others. Earnest prayer and a Master’s degree in Communication Studies led me to this conclusion: Direct confrontation at a hostile friend is the only honest and constructive response.

Dr. Brene Brown gives a valuable litmus test in the decision to end a friendship. She says healthy relationships are based on mutuality, and require boundaries and trust.  She uses a marble jar analogy to illustrate dynamics within relationships. Her daughter’s teacher had used a marble jar in the classroom to reinforce positive interactions. Marbles would be added based on good deeds (or taken away if something negative occurred). Dr. Brown explained to her daughter that relationships act on the same premise:

When someone supports you, is kind to you, sticks up for you or honors what you share as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, disrespectful, share secrets, marbles come out. When you hold people in your life against the marble jar test, how does the relationship measure up? (Kennedy, Truro Daily News, para. 9).

Should we decide to end a friendship, I won’t pretend that the fall-out isn’t painful and grueling. Especially if your “friend” lives in your ward, your neighborhood, or when your children are friends. “Choose your poison” aptly describes this predicament. The good news: When the dust settles the peace is worth the pain. Forever boiling in anger and resentment isn’t worth the pretense of “friendship.” Confrontation also has a guaranteed upside: A hostile friend usually denies her behavior when directly confronted. Ironically, she usually stops the exact behavior she initially denied after being confronted. When exposed with a disinfectant light, subterfuge stops. If a woman knowingly hurts her friend, she’s not a true friend. Really, it’s that simple. We should also remember:  If we can’t find the guts to confront a hostile friend, we forfeit our right to complain or indulge in self-pity.

Sadly, each time I confronted a hostile friend, all of my fears materialized. I shed tears and mourned the positives of the friendship. But here’s the thing: I didn’t collapse. I didn’t die. Instead, a part of me felt relieved and empowered. My anxiety dissipated. Eventually, so did my anger. My conscience cleared. I didn’t just survive, I began to thrive. Of course, I missed my friend. I don't mean to imply that confrontation is a quick and easy fix. My point is this: Confrontation ends the pretense---the ongoing dance around the elephant in the room. Yes, confrontation ends one kind of pain and introduces another. However, confrontation makes resolution far more probable. And we all know that the "second-wave" pain and awkwardness of post confrontation will soften---if not completely disappear as the friendship continues. If the friendship still ends we surely mourn. Still, there's peace in knowing we made sincere efforts toward healthy friendships. As my own hurt and anger diminished, my peace grew proportionally. I understood Dr. Phil’s admonition regarding the hardship in maintaining unhealthy relationships: Peace at any price is no peace at all.

Writer Paige Williams’ observations mirror mine:

Small infractions (from a toxic friendship) add up and wear you down, the way rivers forge canyons. If we’re ridding our lives of stuff that threatens our well-being, a bad friend belongs right there on the junk pile along with stress, overspending, and trans fats. She takes up far more psychic space than she deserves or we can handle, and yet we keep her around for the same reasons we hang on to those size 6 jeans: We think things will turn around and/or we can’t confront reality. 'Maybe this friend will change,' we tell ourselves yet again. Yeah, and maybe we’ll magically shrink five jeans sizes overnight.

I’m starting to think a frenemy can be exposed with a few easy questions: Do you look forward to seeing this person, or do you consider it a chore? Is she truly happy to see you, or do you suspect she wants something from you or needs to lord something over you? Will you walk away from this meeting feeling good---or feeling manipulated, demeaned, poisoned, or played?

I’ve had a few such friendship terrorists in my life, and I’m absolutely certain I’ve been one at times, too, but part of growing up means knowing when to stop playing pretend. Remaining attached to some people is like slaving over a withered garden without realizing all the plants are dead. And letting the negative relationships suck up time and energy only deprives us of the opportunity to nurture and appreciate those friendships that actually do work. Friendship is about collaboration, not domination. Because we should be stewards of each other’s rooms, I am happy to help you keep yours clean, but life is too fleeting to let you continue trashing mine (The Friendship Detox: How to Say Goodbye and Good Riddance, O Magazine, March 2010).

 "Ulysses and the Sirens" by John William Waterhouse

Transforming and Transcending

As you can see, I’ll be the first to come forward and shine a harsh light exposing my own complicity as a frenemy. I’m not proud of my gossipy, cattiness toward women who hurt me. Or my passive-aggressive tactics. I like to think I wasn’t the one to draw “first blood” or “cast the first stone” as the friendship turned sour. (No doubt my former frenemies would claim otherwise.) Yes, operating from a defensive not an offensive position gives one the initial moral high ground. (Moroni tells us that.) Maintaining the moral high ground during battle requires nothing short of the Spirit. (Moroni tell us that too.) Back then, I thought it unrighteous to utilize the Spirit in terms of battle strategies. (Besides, back then I didn’t know how.) By the same token, my passive-aggressiveness failed to promote the Spirit nor resolve relationship issues. Bad or negative behavior and the Holy Spirit cannot coexist in the same moment. There’s no such thing as classy rudeness. Thus, my “she started it” defense—no matter how true and/or justifiable---did not excuse my behavior.

Admitting to and “coming clean” about our bad behaviors takes courage. I respect those who have the guts to do it. The Church’s Twelve Step program teaches that a willingness to account for our behavior is the first step toward spiritual and emotional growth--and in healing and resolution. My evolution reflects the Apostle Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 13: 11:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I will always regret hurting other women. I've made my apologies and made sincere efforts to amend my mistakes. I’m hoping they have all forgiven me. If not, I’ll use this public forum to again apologize for my passive-aggression as a younger woman. Forgiving my former frenemies was effortful and difficult. My wounds had cut deep. But we all know forgiveness is the only path to peace. And I worked hard to get there.

"Pandora" by John William Waterhouse

Inoculating Ourselves Against Toxic Friendships

The Lord blessed me with a cocoon of nurturing high school and college friends. Getting married and making friends with married women changed all that. Friendships between married women introduced new complexities and dimensions. Competing with women for men was no longer an issue. However, as a newly married woman, I was surprised at the depth and breadth of competition between couples and within married women’s friendships. Many LDS women competed with me or compared themselves to me. Let’s not pretend this isn’t an issue with women inside and outside of Mormonism. Women competed with me in terms of family income, homes, personal accomplishments and righteousness, righteous and accomplished children, righteous husbands, church callings, and cliques and popularity. And too often I allowed myself to be sucked into the rivalry. Comparison is often the favorite measuring tool young women use in defining themselves. And it’s horribly demeaning and demoralizing.

Here’s a good thing about getting older: What we put up with when we were younger, we no longer tolerate as we get older. Therefore, my friendship circle has diminished considerably---a conscientious choice on my part. I’m very careful with whom I allow into my circle. I don’t see my cautiousness as mean-spirited; I see it as wise. Just as a woman can earn her way into our friendship circle with kindness and trustworthiness, she can also earn her way out when her behavior is consistently or purposely hurtful. I was in my late 30’s when I finally decided to be my own best friend. To protect myself, I resolved the following:

  • No one has an innate right to my friendship.

  • Just because a woman wants my friendship doesn’t mean she’s entitled to it.

  • I get to decide who’s allowed into my circle of friends.

  • I have the right to set my own boundaries, expectations, and parameters regarding my friendships.

  • My friends are not allowed to decide the terms or make the rules and then expect my humble compliance.

  • I have a right to self-determination.

  • I no longer allow a woman to use me as her personal measuring tool.

  • I will not be held hostage to a “friendship” through guilt or intimidation.

  • I will not be manipulated.

  • I will not be bullied.

  • I will not be controlled.

  • I have the right to determine my own outcomes without my friends’ approval.

In short, I do not allow a woman to engage me in mean-spirited pretentiousness, competitive one-upmanship and other power struggles, passive-aggression and other forms of manipulation, putdowns or jokes at my expense, false or fake offers of diplomacy, stonewalling and denial, entrapment and other forms of subterfuge—and then call it “friendship.” (Whew! That's a mouthful!) Regardless, a woman who would chafe against these resolves wouldn’t want my friendship to begin with.

"Nocturne" by Thomas Dodd

Now, (and for the past 20 years), if tension or conflict arises in my friendships, my commitment to honest, mature, and constructive dialogue coupled with mutual accountability is non-negotiable. Without these elements conflict resolution is impossible. I won’t pretend this form of communication is easy. It’s not. Honesty and accountability are demanding task masters. But as I stated previously, denial and game-playing also require enormous amounts of energy. Even worse, it's negative energy. It's exhausting. Pretense in any relationship relies on denial. It's like one or both friends forever attempt to convince each other the sky is green. But we all know the sky is blue. Still, we pretend the sky is green to "keep the peace" and remain connected to the relationship. Resentment and anger in both friends continues to fester---and so does the denial. Eventually, the emotional gymnastics wear us down---along with our integrity.

Thus, if my friend denies ongoing tension in our friendship, denies her behavior, or refuses honest discussion, I'm no longer afraid to end the friendship. I do this for her sake and mine. My friend still has a right to her own self-determination; she's free to feel and act however she wants. But that doesn't mean I must comply to her needs by feeding the pretense. And re-negotiation is always a possibility--unless the friendship was extremely toxic.

I’ll end this post with the compassionate voice of psychologist, Dr. Shasta Nelson of the Huffington Post:

We were all meant to be a blessing on this planet, even if we do adopt behaviors that can damage one another. This worldview invites us to see our relationships as our self-growth laboratory, a context in which we learn the genuine dynamics of who we are and who our friends are.

When we show up, really show up with someone, seeing them past the healthy, non-toxic façade we thought they were initially, it allows us to ask: “What does this relationship tell me about myself, about what I value, about what edges I need to smooth? Have I clearly communicated to her what I want and need from her and how her behavior impacts me? Have I sought to understand why she’s acting out her insecurities with me in this way? And what does this relationship tell me about her and how I can give to her in ways that mean something meaningful to her?

I’m not saying you need to get closer to everyone whom you consider toxic. But I am saying you’ll have to do it with a few of them if you want Frientimacy—friends with whom we experience familiarity, safety, comfortableness and acceptance of both our good sides and our bad (“Toxic Friendship? Or Can You Work Toward Frientimacy?, The Blog, June 3, 2014, para. 15-16).

Don’t we all love happy endings? Happiness can also grow from the ashes of sad endings. Proverbs promises “beauty for ashes” if we seek divine help.

Here’s to detoxing,