Other research suggests that ambivalent friends can lower resistance to stress. In 2001 Holt-Lunstad and Uchino reported asking 133 individuals aged 30 to 70 to rate important members of their social networks according to how helpful or upsetting they were. Then the volunteers completed two stressful exercises: a mental arithmetic task and a speech defending themselves against a false accusation. The more ambivalent friends a person had, the higher his or her heart rate and blood pressure were, in general, during these activities. The result suggests that supportive relationships buffer the body against stress but that ambivalent friends have the opposite effect. Consistent with that conclusion, the individuals with a greater number of ambivalent friends were more likely to suffer from depression.
If such friends make us unhappy, why do we keep them? In a 2009 study Holt-Lunstad and graduate student Briahna Bigelow Bushman found that people hang onto difficult friendships deliberately—because the relationship has a long history, because the good in the relationship outweighs the bad or because, for whatever reason, they just do not want to give up on the person.
Indeed, you may not need to give up on your frenemies if you know how to manage these relationships to minimize the pain they produce. Whether your friend is worth this effort depends on what he or she means to you. But either way, you can work on keeping your end of the friendship bargain. As Holt-Lunstad says, “Start with controlling your own behavior and being the kind of friend you’d want others to be.”
Coping with Frenemies
You can limit the heartache of trouble-some—but valuable—friendships and family ties using a couple of simple strategies. Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University recommends avoiding previously problematic subjects or situations. If your frenemy tends to cancel at the last minute, for example, create backup plans. If talking about politics or religion has led to snide remarks, steer clear of that subject.
In addition, give your frenemy’s motives a positive, or at least neutral, spin. If a friend often calls you at work, you might be tempted to think, “She has no respect for my job or my time.” But perhaps she is the type who needs to share her news right away. “The latter way of thinking is not as personal,” explains psychologist Karen Fingerman of Purdue University. “That’s the kind of social cognition that contributes to better relationships.”
This article was originally published with the title Fickle Friends.