Frenemies: Stressful Figures In the Workplace

Frenemies are those co-workers with whom, despite maintaining a more or less cordial relationship, you know you can't really trust them, because they'll betray you at the slightest opportunity. Do you recognize this profile?
Frenemies: Stressful Figures In the Workplace
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Frenemies are the kinds of figures that you find in every work environment and with whom you establish ambivalent relationships. You can get along with them, work alongside them, and have friendly conversations. However, it’s impossible for you to trust them because something tells you that they’d betray you at the slightest opportunity. Consequently, there’s a voice inside you that says “Be careful, watch your back”.

It’s easy to identify genuine friends, those who improve your life. At the other extreme, you also have a good idea of who your enemies are. However, frenemies are personalities that occupy the gray area of human relationships. This means they’re rather more complex and more difficult to define. They’re the kind of people who, while they’re not as threatening as your enemies, they’re certainly not your friends either. As a matter of fact, they may choose to be friendly with you today and criticize you behind your back tomorrow.

work team with friends


You’re able to live alongside your frenemies, as long as you recognize that at any moment they might betray you for their own ends. It’s quite common to have these people as colleagues. On the other hand, they could also be friends or members of your family. They’re the kinds of figures who always seem to be around and with whom you clash from time to time.

One thing you need to understand about these types of relationships is that they’re not harmless. In fact, the psychological impact they can have on your health is quite intense and often damaging. As Aesop said in his fables, a doubtful friend is worse than a certain enemy. That’s because you don’t know what to expect with these people and insecurity, like mistrust, makes you feel like you’re on shaky ground.

Interestingly, psychology has recently focused on these ‘gray areas’ of social relationships. This research suggests that these people who are neither your friends nor your enemies can be extremely harmful. Let’s take a closer look.

You can’t run away from everyone you mistrust

You’re often advised to “keep your distance” from people who bring you more worry than calm. However, this isn’t always possible. That’s because we all live in evolved social ecologies in which we’re forced to coexist with each other.

In addition, your friends are the most frequent social figures in your daily life. You can usually count your good friends on the fingers of one hand and your enemies are also usually quite rare. On the other hand, the social bonds of this gray and ambivalent area are far more frequent. They also generate extremely complex feelings of love/hate.

There are certain colleagues you see every day. Those you work with and even occasionally go out for dinner with. Nevertheless, you know that they criticize you behind your back from time to time. Furthermore, if they can, they’ll betray you in order to get a promotion. These situations inevitably cause you considerable stress.

Frenemies are defined by passive-aggressive behavior. There’ll be times when they seek your complicity and later, end up betraying you.

Frenemies are your competitors

One of the most interesting books on human behavior, social relationships, and evolution is Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind by David M. Buss. In this work, he explains that frenemies are a common phenomenon in human nature. That’s because we’re social creatures who compete with each other.

In this way, people can be both allies and enemies in almost any scenario. For example, siblings may love each other, but they can also end up rivaling each other at times. The same thing happens in certain friendships. The phenomenon of frenemies is most frequent in work environments. This is due to the context of competitiveness.

Generally, these men and women always try to maintain a friendly attitude towards you. They know that it’s always better to appear easy-going and maintain harmony and appearances. However, you’re extremely aware that this closeness is due to self-interest and that, deep down, resentment, hypervigilance, and even jealousy are present.

The fact of not knowing what to expect with your frenemies means you must always pay close attention to their behavior. This often makes you stressed and anxious.

co-workers representing the frenemies

Ambivalent relationships generate stress

Frenemies are the main source of stress at work. You must understand that if there’s something that we, as human beings need, it’s to have social bonds based on trust. When you don’t have or think you don’t have them, you tend to go on the alert.

Brigham Young University (USA) conducted research that focused on how ambivalent relationships affect our physical and psychological health. For example, working with someone who criticizes you behind your back, but then praises you and invites you to lunch is exhausting. Or, having a family member or friend whom you appreciate, but who, from time to time, ignores you or lies to you, ends up exhausting you both mentally and emotionally.

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t always as simple as keeping your distance from these controversial and ambivalent figures. Because, in many cases, you’re forced to be around them. As a matter of fact, relational uncertainty and not knowing how certain people will act, or not being able to trust those around you is a common phenomenon that’s really not discussed enough.

You’re obliged to coexist and manage your frenemies. Therefore, you should reduce your expectations of them and safeguard your emotional limits. This is key in order to maintain neutrality yourself and to stay afloat.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Buss, David (2009) Evolutionary Psychology. The New Science of the Mind.ISBN 9781138088610. Published March 14, 2019 by Routledge
  • Holt-Lunstad, J., & Uchino, B. N. (2019). Social Ambivalence and Disease (SAD): A Theoretical Model Aimed at Understanding the Health Implications of Ambivalent Relationships. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science14(6), 941–966.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.