What You Can Do When Your BFF Turns Into Your Worst Enemy

New research into friendship chemistry may shed light on "frenemies."

Posted Apr 07, 2017

 Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock
Source: Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock

Bethany*, a mother of two, told me that her best friend had suddenly abandoned her: “I don’t understand. One day we're closer than sisters, and the next, we're not speaking.”

Liane, a preschool teacher, said, “My best friend just stabbed me in the back. How could that happen?”

Keisha, an account executive, said, “Stuff has been going on at work, and everybody’s tense. But my closest friend at the office and I always said we’d get through it together. And now I find out she has thrown me under the bus.”

"Frenemies," the popular term for best friends who become enemies, is usually used in reference to teen relationships. But both in my psychotherapy practice and in interviews I did for my new book about women’s friendships,** I heard over and over again about this painful and sometimes surprising reversal in the lives of women of all ages, all over the world. And the anecdotes are backed up by scientific research: According to a study reported in Jan Yager’s book about friendship, 68 percent of people interviewed had been betrayed by a friend at some point. But with frenemies, the betrayal can be followed by making up and being BFFs once again, only to have the friendship disrupted and the whole cycle start over again. 

How does this happen? Why? And what’s the best way to respond when it happens to you? (One further question: Does it really happen more with women than with men?)

Recent research into something called “friendship chemistry” offers some insight. “Interpersonal chemistry,” a relatively new concept that has been studied in romantic relationships, also exists in friendships, according to a group of psychologists at California State University, San Bernardino. Defined as “an instant emotional and psychological connection between two individuals,” this chemistry can quickly impact whom we connect with and even how that relationship will turn out in the long run. 

Psychologist Kelly Campbell and her team conducted interviews and gave out questionnaires to a sample of 688 men and women between 18 and 66 years old. Campbell and her colleagues, Nicole Holderness and Matt Riggs, found five important factors in friendship chemistry:

1. Reciprocal candor, or mutual understanding and easy communication.

2. Mutual interest, or enjoying the same things and even finding the same things funny.

3. Personableness, or being warm and caring, down-to-earth, and genuine.

4. Similarity, as in values, morals, beliefs about life, life goals, and education.

5. Physical attraction.

The study's sample consisted mostly of women—81 men and 607 women—which makes it difficult to determine whether men and women struggle with the same issues. For the most part, I have heard these stories from women (although not totally, as you can read in my post about friends who hurt you)

In the 1990s, Pat O’Connor highlighted some of these factors in her research into women’s friendships. Another study, published in 2014 by a group of researchers at Utrecht and Stockholm Universities, found that convenience plays an important role in the formation and preservation of friendships for both men and women. This study, led by Gerald Mollenhorst of Utrecht University, showed that social context, which is a way of talking about the ease with which we might run into a friend and the comfort of the setting in which we see them, is significant in both men’s and women’s friendships.

It would seem logical that when that context changes in certain ways, a friendship will shift. And in some of these shifts, friends can become enemies. When the context changes again, you might find yourself feeling close once again, although if it happens often enough, you might wonder if the friendship is worth the roller coaster ride.

For instance, if you and a colleague are in pretty much equal positions at work, you could develop a positive and collegial work friendship; but if the position above the two of you opens up, and one or both of you want to apply for the job, the context immediately changes: You are no longer equals; you are competitors. In many instances, healthy friendships can handle the shift, but when they don’t, a once-supportive friend may turn into a frenemy.

That’s exactly what happened to Keisha and her former office pal: “Instead of being supportive, she got manipulative. She cozied up to our new boss, and before I knew what had happened, she was promoted to a position that I had been in line for. And she acted like she didn’t understand why I might be upset. I can’t even stand to be around her anymore."

The same dynamics that create friendship chemistry in the first place can be part of the reason that close friends turn into enemies. Frenemies often develop when there is a sense of betrayal on one side or the other. For instance, a close friend goes after a man or woman you’re interested in, or a house you’re thinking of buying. You feel betrayed, hurt, and angry. You don’t think you’ll ever be able to trust that friend again. And perhaps the sense of betrayal and disillusionment is stronger when it contrasts with an original feeling that you could really like and trust that person. It’s painful to discover that someone you thought shared your values, and was open and honest with you, has turned out not to be what you thought. You begin to dislike the person with an intensity equal to the caring and liking that once existed between you.

So what can you do if your BFF has just turned into your worst enemy? The advice that professionals give to parents of children who have been hurt by this kind of turn-around applies to all of us.

1. Try to talk to your friend to find out what’s going on from their side. Maybe they genuinely misread a situation, or really had no idea that you would be hurt.  

2. If your friend denies responsibility or tries to downplay or negate your feelings, try putting what you’re thinking into words anyway. Say it simply and clearly, without blaming, if at all possible. Listen to what they have to say, and acknowledge that you’ll think about it.

3. Take a step back. Daniel Goleman, who has written numerous books about Emotional Intelligence, tells us that very few arguments convince anyone of anything, and that after 20 minutes there is no chance of either side changing their opinion. So after you and your friend have each made your point, end the discussion with an agreement that you’ll both think more about what you’ve said. And then leave. Go on to other things.

4. Cool down. Go for a walk, listen to music, call another friend or someone else you trust.

5. Assess your own part in the situation. Did you do something that hurt your friend, either by accident or on purpose? Could that be what set off some of their behavior? If so, it’s almost always productive to take responsibility for your part. Own up to it, and maybe, if you’re lucky, your friend will do the same, taking responsibility for what he or she did as well.

Finally, no matter what the outcome, remember:

6. Try not to take it personally. Take responsibility for anything you have done, of course. But try to remember that anything this friend—or former friend—is doing is also motivated by his or her own needs, psyche, and behaviors. Thinking about that side of the coin might help you be more empathic, but it can also help you separate yourself from the situation. Sometimes, when a friend consistently hurts your feelings or stabs you in the back, or when a friendship can’t sustain a life change, your best psychological action is to know that the friendship has to end. Jeanne Safer, a New York psychotherapist, writes about realizing that she could never again trust a dear friend who disappeared from her life when Jeanne was hospitalized for a serious illness. Accepting that this woman could not be the friend she wanted was both freeing and self-affirming.

*Names and identifying information have all been changed to protect everyone’s privacy

Keep your eyes open for my new book on women’s friendships—I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women's Lives.

Follow me on Twitter @fdbarthlcsw.

Copyright @fdbarth2017.


Campbell, K., et al. Friendship chemistry: An examination of underlying factors. The Social Science Journal (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.soscij.2015.01.005

 Jan Yager, When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You, (New York: Touchstone Books, 2010).

Gerald Mollenhorsta, Beate Volkera, Henk Flapa, 2014, “Changes in personal relationships: How social contexts affect the emergence and discontinuation of relationships” Social Networks Volume 37, May 2014, Pages 65–80

Pat O’Connor, 1992, Friendships Between Women: A Critical Review, The Guilford Press.

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D. Broken Bridge: What sparks the demise of a serious friendship and what can be salvaged from the emotional wreckage? Psychology Today March/April 2016 

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. 2013.