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Frenemies: Dangerous to Your Health

n.b. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at Wharton School of Business writes eloquently about the damage of ambivalent relationships – and why we often stick with them, nonetheless. What is their impact? What is their allure? rss

It’s been two decades, but I still feel jittery when I think of an old boss of mine. One day she nominated me for an award for service to the organization. Then she threatened to fire me for raising a concern about a colleague being mistreated. “If you ever speak up out of turn again,” she said, “I’ll have you fired.” I walked on eggshells until the day she quit.

We often think about relationships on a spectrum from positive to negative. We gravitate toward loving family members, caring classmates and supportive mentors. We do our best to avoid the cruel uncle, the playground bully and the jerk boss.

But the most toxic relationships aren’t the purely negative ones. They’re the ones that are a mix of positive and negative.

We often call them frenemies, supposed friends who sometimes help you and sometimes hurt you. But it’s not just friends. It’s the in-laws who volunteer to watch your kids but belittle your parenting. The roommate who gets you through a breakup and then starts dating your ex. The manager who praises your work but denies you a promotion.

Everyone knows how relationships like that can tie your stomach into a knot. But groundbreaking research spearheaded by the psychologists Bert Uchino and Julianne Holt-Lunstad shows that ambivalent relationships can be damaging to your health – even more than purely negative relationships. One study found that adults had higher blood pressure after interacting with people who evoked mixed feelings than after similar interactions with those who evoked negative feelings.

You can see it at work, too. An independent team of researchers found that Slovenian police officers whose supervisor both supported and demeaned them reported more negative physical symptoms and were more likely to miss work than officers who said their supervisor only undermined them. And among older adults, the more ambivalent relationships they had in their lives, the more depressed they felt, the more their heart rates spiked under stress, and the more their blood pressure climbed in response to stress over the next 10 months.

I had assumed that with a neighbor or a colleague, having some positive interactions was better than all negative interactions. But being cheered on by the same person who cuts you down doesn’t buffer the bad feelings; it amplifies them. And it’s not just in your head: It leaves a trace in your heart and your blood.

Even a single ambivalent interaction can take a toll, and it’s causation, not correlation. In one experiment, people gave impromptu speeches on controversial topics in front of a friend who offered feedback. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers had randomly assigned the friend to give ambivalent or negative comments. Receiving mixed feedback caused higher blood pressure than pure criticism. “I would have gone about the topic differently, but you’re doing fine” proved to be more distressing than “I totally disagree with everything you’ve said.”

The evidence that ambivalent relationships can be bad for us is strong, but the reasons can be harder to read – just like the relationships themselves.

The most intuitive reason is that ambivalent relationships are unpredictable. With a clear enemy, you put up a shield when you cross paths. With a frenemy, you never know whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde is going to show up. Ambivalence short-circuits the parasympathetic nervous system and activates a fight-or-flight response. It’s unnerving to hope for a hug while bracing yourself for a brawl.

Another factor is that unpleasant interactions are more painful in an ambivalent relationship. It’s more upsetting to be let down by people you like sometimes than by people you dislike all the time. When someone stabs you in the back, it stings more if he’s been friendly to your face.

Finally, ambivalence is an invitation for rumination. We agonize about ambiguous comments, unsure what to make of them and whether to trust the people who make them. We dwell on our mixed feelings, torn between avoiding our frenemies and holding out hope that they’ll change.

Although frenemies are the people who hurt us the most, we’re much slower to drop them than enemies. In our lives, we have about as many ambivalent relationships as supportive connections. And we don’t seem to get better with age at handling them. (Of course, although no relationship is purely positive, any relationship that crosses the line into being abusive should be jettisoned.)

Early in my career, I invested a great deal of energy in mentoring a student. I thought it was a positive relationship, but she chose a different adviser. When I asked for feedback, I learned that the relationship had looked different from where she stood. On the one hand, she appreciated my rapid responses and clear guidance. On the other hand, my answers were too directive: I was silencing her voice and crowding out her ideas. What I thought was being supportive was actually undermining her autonomy. As Anne Lamott puts it, “Help is the sunny side of control.”

It’s all too rare for us to exchange this kind of feedback. Sometimes we end up avoiding or ghosting the people who stress us out in this way. It isn’t always a deliberate decision; we procrastinate on replies and put off lunches until the relationship fizzles. Other times, we just grit our teeth and tolerate ambivalent relationships as they are.

A relationship in which you can’t be candid isn’t a relationship at all; it’s a charade. Research shows that we tend to underestimate how open people are to constructive suggestions. Feedback doesn’t always lead to change, but change doesn’t happen without feedback. The goal is to be as candid as possible in what you say and as caring as possible in how you say it. As Brené Brown emphasizes, “Clear is kind.”

I’ve seen people try to address ambivalence by declaring, “This relationship isn’t healthy for me.” That isn’t kind: It’s often received as “You’re a bad person” when the reality is inevitably more complicated. An ambivalent relationship deserves a more nuanced, more accurate message: “The mix of good and bad here isn’t healthy for us.”

Not every ambivalent relationship can or should be salvaged. A few years ago, my old boss reached out to say she’d enjoyed one of my articles. It felt too late to tell her how stressful I had found it to be in constant limbo, not knowing whether she was going to lift me up or kick me down. I wonder if she’ll end up reading about it here – and if she remembers our interactions with mixed feelings, too.

excepted from an article by Adam Grant, “Your Most Ambivalent Relationships Are the Most Toxic“, in the New York Times, 29 May, 2023