Do you know what the worst kind of relationship is?
Not difficult people.
Not toxic people.
Ambivalent relationships cause the most emotional strain, take the most energy and are the most toxic.
But what is an ambivalent relationship? Here are some questions to self-diagnose your ambivalent relationships. Answer each question by placing someone on the ambivalence spectrum.
Does this person support you or undermine you?
a) They are supportive
b) They are sometimes supportive
c) It depends
d) They undermine me
Is spending time with this person fun or draining?
b) Sometimes it’s fun
c) It depends
d) Not usually
Is this relationship healthy for you and your life??
a) Yes, it is healthy
b) Sometimes it’s healthy
c) It depends
d) It’s not usually healthy
Are you sure of your relationship with them?
a) I know exactly where we stand
b) Sometimes I know where we stand
c) It depends
d) I don’t usually know where we stand
Is this person usually excited for you or jealous of you?
a) They are excited for me
b) Sometimes they are excited for me
c) It depends
d) They can usually be jealous of me
- If you picked mostly A’s and B’s this person is a good friend!
- If you picked mostly B’s and C’s you have an AMBIVALENT person in your life! Read on…
- If you picked mostly C’s and D’s you have a TOXIC person in your life. Read How to Deal With Toxic People
The Science of Ambivalence
You might not realize it, but ambivalent relationships are more toxic than toxic ones. Wait what? I know what you’re thinking, but let me explain:
This is some serious science: Psychologist Bert Uchino found that the more ambivalent relationships you have, the more likely you are to have higher rates of depression, stress and dissatisfaction in your life.
A researcher at the University of Minnesota named Michelle Duffy wanted to see if frenemies impacted people in the workplace. And not just any workers—police officers. Here’s what she did:
- Surveyed police officers on their levels of stress, absences from work and how often they were undermined and supported by their closest coworker
- Unsurprisingly, she found the more an officer felt undermined, the more unauthorized breaks they took, the more absent they were from work and the less committed they were to their jobs.
But here’s where it gets interesting…
- What about officers who had colleagues who were sometimes supportive?
- These officers missed even more work, took even more breaks and felt even less committed.
You read that right: Officers were impacted more negatively when they had ambivalent relationships—even more than toxic ones?
Why Ambivalence is Toxic:
Duffy argued that when police officers have toxic relationships they can work to keep clear of them, they don’t worry or wonder as much and take as many steps to distance themselves as possible.
But ambivalent relationships were more confusing. It made police officers have to constantly second guess, be on guard and grapple with wondering and worrying.
We know we have to get rid of toxic relationships. We worry, grapple and second-guess ambivalent ones.
This effects all areas of our life. In another study, adults rated their relationships with the ten most important people in their lives. They also did two anxiety-provoking tasks:
- Deliver a speech with little time to prep
- Take a rapid fire math test
The more ambivalent relationships a person had, the more their heart rates spiked on both tasks.
Bottom Line: Ambivalent relationships stress you out in all areas of your life.
And they can be the most insidious because you don’t always know how to handle them. For example, toxic people usually show their toxicity with deal breakers, red flags and terrible aha moments:
Ambivalent relationships aren’t as obvious. A frenemy is the ultimate ambivalent relationship.
Frenemy: n A person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry. Combination of friend + enemy.
I think there are three types…I also included some of my frenemies. I debated including them, but would always rather be honest and give you real examples. Be kind = )
#1: The Jealous Frenemy
This is the most common type of frenemy—in fact jealous is often the emotion that flips friends into enemies. And it goes both ways…
- A colleague is jealous of a promotion.
- You are jealous of a colleague’s promotion.
- A wingman is jealous of your righteous ability to attract babes.
- You are jealous of your wingman’s righteous ability to attract babes.
- Someone is jealous of your raise / hair / smarts / personality / humor / car / ____.
- You are jealous of someone’s raise / hair / smarts / personality / humor / car / ____.
The Problem: Jealous is an insidious little beast. It destroys trust, respect and admiration. I believe that it is almost impossible to have a healthy relationship where there is jealousy brewing.
Bottom Line: Either get over the jealousy, or get over the person.
My Frenemy: Oh there was this girl in High School who seemed to have it all. She was cool and fun and spontaneous (the word every guy said he loved about her). I see her on Facebook and her life looks perfect. I like her posts and we are ‘friends’ on Facebook. But I have to admit, I am jealous. I’m sure it’s not actually this way, but she makes her life look so easy and amazing and golden!
#2: The Undermining Frenemy
When you have an undermining frenemy you are constantly faced with challenges like this:
- You landed a new client! Should you tell them?
- You lost 5 pounds! Will they enable bad behavior if you go out to lunch?
- You want to invite some new friends over. Should you invite them?
Undermining frenemies are usually great at passive aggressive comments, sarcastic tones and enabling your bad behavior.
My Frenemy: A frenemy of mine runs a podcast and a lifestyle blog. He is always offering support and frequently calls to chat through business stuff. I always wonder—is he borrowing my ideas or taking them? When he brought me on his podcast he asked really hard (borderline mean) questions. Was he trying to actually be supportive and encouraging or was he actually undermining me?
The Problem: These kinds of frenemies are the worst! Why? You hope they will be supportive, but they often aren’t.
Bottom Line: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Don’t keep hoping. Cut this person out.
#3: The Unsure Frenemy
Humans hate having unfinished business. We also hate not knowing where we stand with someone.
- I think he is a close friend…but is he close friends with everyone?
- I think she likes me?
- Are we business friends or actual friends?
- He knows me but I’m not sure if we are just acquaintances or actual contacts.
- Are we LinkedIn type contacts or Facebook type contacts?
My Frenemy: One of my best friend’s best friends perplexes me. I am not really sure if she likes me or just is nice to me because we have a mutual friend. Sometimes she makes comments that seem passive aggressive, she frequently double books our mutual friend when she knows we already have plans. There might be a little jealousy there too. Is it on purpose? Does she hate me or like me? I really have no idea.
The Problem: You just aren’t sure. Where do you stand? Do they help or support you? You are constantly on guard and second guessing them. This kind of ambivalence takes a lot of energy because you are in a constant state of not-knowing.
Bottom Line: Have a talk. Sort it out. Put it all out on the table.
Ambivalence Takes More Energy
With toxic relationships, we know we need to cut them out—and often do. Ambivalent relationships are much harder. But guessing, wondering, protecting—those all take a lot more energy. It might be time for you to:
It takes so much physical energy to be on guard.
My goal is to start owning my relationships.
Owning my jealousy—and facing it.
Standing my ground—and not pretending.
Speaking truth—and stating it all.
I hope you will too.
Frenemies are more toxic than enemies because we let them get away with so much more.
I say no longer.
Live in truth,
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
Join Over 500,000 Students
Are you looking to kickstart your career? Level up your leadership? Join thousands of students learning to master their people skills and make an impact on the world. And for joining today I'm giving away a free one hour audio training to help you jump start your learning!