I realized far too recently how important it is to be reflective about what a friend means to me. It took me a few emotional bruises to understand the concept of a frenemy—a friend that isn’t actually your friend at all. Sometimes, we take it for granted that a friend is in our corner, on our side, there for the good and bad. It’s a stunning betrayal to realize that is not the case.
If it’s not motivated by true affection, it’s not true friendship. What motivates the “frenemy” relationship? These typically happen when someone wants to get close to you because they admire things about your life or who they think you are—but it’s not a selfless admiration. It’s more akin to envy.
Most of us don’t learn the difference between real friends and frenemies growing up. We have to figure it out on our own—which we usually do by getting burned. But there are a few criteria I’ve developed to differentiate friends from frenemies before you put too much time or trust into that relationship.
Here are five qualities of true friends to help you separate them from those who wish to bask in your light, but aren’t supportive of you.
1. True friends don’t want to be you or take what’s yours.
I lost one friend when I got married and another when I had a baby—not right 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 disparity felt all too real to her. I tried to stay friends with her until being around her began to make me to feel increasingly defensive and guilty for just living my life.
2. Friends don’t leave you feeling worse about yourself after every interaction.
Eventually we had to end our friendship. It was devastating, but we realized our friendship had only really worked when we were both single and a bit lost. Now the time we spent together left me feeling over-privileged and entitled; I was constantly put in the position of apologizing for my happiness. No matter how generous, humble, or comforting I tried to be, she was no longer able to hear those affirmations from me. The growing gap between our life situations made it impossible for us to speak openly and vulnerably as we used to do. So, even though I felt even more guilty at first, I stepped away. I still care about her, but we don’t have what each other needs in a friend anymore.
3. Friends want to see you and prioritize time together.
Another friendship of mine became fraught because basic trust constantly fell apart between us. She would suggest we meet up, then call the arrangements off repeatedly for various reasons, until I felt I couldn’t trust her word at all. I valued her deeply. I found her brilliant and loved our time together, but it felt as though I was always her last priority. 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. Our bond almost fell apart permanently as we became increasingly distant.
4. Friends aren’t afraid to talk about what’s real.
Eventually we talked about how she kept canceling and she told me that she frequently suffered from acute anxiety about social events, including meeting a friend out and about. I realized that she stood everybody up, not just me. She regularly canceled all her commitments at the last minute in favor of the couch and solitary Netflix. Knowing what was going on, instead of assuming she just didn’t really want to spend time with me, meant we could spend more time together on her terms. It also calmed my self-doubt.
5. Friends own their emotional issues.
That experience was also a good reminder that other people’s stuff usually 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 what may or may not be going well in our own lives, are the essential parts of friendship. We can choose our own relationship values. Each of us has the power and the right to define what makes a friend. Friendships are a huge part of life, so giving real thought to what you want and need from your friendships is absolutely worthwhile.
Having clarity on what friendship means to you empowers you to have a real conversation if something feels wrong in one of your relationships. 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.