A real friend is one of the great loves that make life worth living. I realised far too recently how important it is to be reflective about what a friend means to me. It doesn’t work to assume that people are automatically ‘friends’ just because you hang out with them. I wasn’t taught that as a kid and it would have saved a lot of pain. You need a few personal criteria to differentiate friends from frenemies, otherwise you can end up surrounded by people who aren’t supportive of you.
It took me a few emotional bruises to understand the concept of a frenemy – a friend that isn’t actually your friend. Frenemies are a shock because you take it for granted that a friend is in your corner, on your side, there for the good and bad. Once or twice I’ve realised that wasn’t so, with the greatest sadness. A Frenemy can typically happen when someone wants to be pals with you because they like things about you or who they think you are, but something about that admiration is more akin to envy.
Criteria 1: Friends don’t want to take what you have or BE you.
I lost one friend when I married, another when I had a baby, not straight away but gradually, soon after. One was honest enough to tell me she felt I had everything and she had nothing – not at all true – but I understood that distortion felt all too real to her. I tried to stay friends with her until being around her caused me to actually feel down on myself, defensive and guilty for just being me and having all I’d worked hard to have.
Criteria 2: Friends don’t leave you feeling down on yourself every time you interact.
We had to end. It was devastating but our friendship had only really worked when we were both single and a bit lost. Now being together left me feeling like a privileged, lucky little cow who didn’t deserve happiness. No matter how generous, humble or focussed on her I tried to be, being together was loaded with her envy. We tried to talk about it but we didn’t get past it. So I stepped away even though I felt even more guilty at first. Did I do the right thing?
Another friendship became fraught because basic trust constantly fell apart between us. She would say let’s meet up, then call the arrangements off repeatedly for various reasons until I never expected her to keep her word.
Criteria 3: Friends want to see you and prioritize time together.
Months would go by. I valued her deeply, she was brilliant and I loved our time together, but it felt as though I was always her last priority. So, I stopped inviting her out and calling her because I got tired of feeling rejected. I began to lose confidence and assumed she didn’t like me much, that I was not interesting enough.
Criteria 4: Friends aren’t afraid to talk about what’s real.
Eventually we talked about it and she told me that she frequently suffered from acute anxiety especially about social events. I realised that she stood EVERYBODY up, not just me. She regularly cancelled all her commitments at the last moment in favour of the couch and alone TV time. Knowing what was going on, instead of assuming I stunk, meant we could spend more time together on her terms. It also calmed the self-doubt in my head.
Criteria 5: Friends own their emotional stuff.
More importantly, it was a good reminder that other people’s stuff often has nothing to do with you, even when it feels very personal.
For me, being able to get real, support each other and be happy for each other regardless of your own wants, are essentials of friendship. We can each choose our own relationship values and create a definition of what makes a friend to us, and it’s too important to life not to give those things some thought.
If something doesn’t seem right with a friendship, being clear with what friendship means to you can help you to have a clarifying and real conversation. Only then can you work out whether you’re still in it together despite any inevitable ups and downs, or understand that you never really were.
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