My difficult friend: how to deal with ambivalent friendships

Does someone close to you blow hot and cold, or let you down? Research suggests that an ‘ambivalent’ friend hurts us more than an enemy, but that doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye, as Suzanne Scott discovers.


how to deal with a difficult friend friendships

Staring at the text, I am incredulous and feel sick; a familiar prick of tears in my eyes. It is from my difficult so-called friend, informing me that she’s not coming to the music festival we have been planning for months, which starts in less than 24 hours. She’s ‘too tired’. No phone call. No apology – despite the fact that tickets have been bought and accommodation booked.

It’s not the first time. There’s the occasion she promised to DJ at my party, then dropped out at the last minute when she got a better offer. And I recall when she consoled me post-breakup, then became best mates with my ex. Our friendship is like being on a rollercoaster: sickening at times, but great fun at others.

Good, bad and ugly parts of difficult friendships

Psychologists label inconsistent or difficult friends and relatives, who trigger both strong positive and negative emotions in us, ‘ambivalent’. The term describes ‘complicated relationships that boost you and bring you down; when qualities such as warmth and understanding go hand in hand with criticism, jealousy or rejection’, according to Scientific American magazine. And they’re common. Research at the University of Utah estimates that half of our relationships, including with family, are ambivalent.

Typical ambivalent behaviour seen in ambivalent friendships includes being competitive, taking apparent comfort in your failures and gossiping about you. Difficult, ambivalent friends can be unreliable, and bitchy, passive-aggressive and arrogant interactions are their communication hallmarks.

These types of relationships are not only detrimental to our emotional health, but research has found that they have a negative impact on our physical wellbeing, too. One study tracked the blood pressure of 100 men and women in good health, to examine the importance of friendship quality.

It found that participants were far more stressed when they spent time with an ambivalent friend, compared to a supportive one, or even someone they didn’t like. The conclusion? ‘Individuals may not be able to fully relax in the presence of ambivalent friends and are therefore more susceptible to stress.’ 

We are perhaps more relaxed with our adversaries than ambivalent friends because we expect little of those we don’t like, but find the constant swing between disappointment and elation with ambivalent friends depressing.

how to deal with a difficult friend friendships

How to deal with a difficult friend

When trying to figure out how to deal with a difficult friend, the accepted advice is often to call them ‘toxic’ and ditch them. I’ve done this with ambivalent friendships in the past, but I regret a couple of those decisions, wondering if there could have been a happier ending.

As Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit (Little, Brown, £13.99), says, it’s advisable to find a healthy way to deal with them: ‘They’re more common than people think – and you’re not going to break up with 50 per cent of your friends!’

It helps to understand why they are the way they are. Coach Michelle Zelli says many ambivalent friends fall into the ‘avoidant’ category, and may feel ‘agitated by emotional intimacy’ with another person.

‘This is almost certainly rooted in their relationship with a parent during their formative years; it’s not about you at all,’ she explains. Zelli recommends that, when your ambivalent friend pulls back, you notice how you feel and use the experience to better understand your own patterns of connection and insecurity. ‘Try to stay mindful throughout; and be kind to yourself as you gently get to know yourself at a deeper level.’

Explore your expectations of the ambivalent friendship

I realise I am upset because my high expectations of my relationship with my ambivalent friend aren’t being met. As I investigate, I find a sense of failure – and even shame – about our imperfect friendship.

Therapist Miriam Kirmayer suggests paying attention to the ‘shoulds’ you hold around friendship: ‘That you should have a bestie; you should drop a bad friend; that a friendship should be perfect to satisfy you. Question your friendship rules and where they come from,’ she advises. As I consider the questions, I realise that I apply a cardboardcutout definition of a friend to my friendships. The ridiculousness of expecting one friend to satisfy many needs dawns on me.

Think about the positive parts of your difficult friend

‘Adjust expectations and recognise what you’re not able to get from your friend, and what you are,’ says Kirmayer. At her suggestion, I scribble a list of things I love about my ambivalent friend: her dirty, raucous laugh and jokes; the way she’d give you her last Rolo; how she tries to make everyone feel included.

Writing this list, I begin to feel happier about our friendship and more open to getting it on a better footing. Rather than berating her for disappointing me again, I start to feel curious about what is going on for her. For the first time, I take my focus off how she makes me feel and think about how she may be feeling to act so selfishly. I have a suspicion it’s more than tiredness, which is proven right: I learn she suffers from anxiety, which affects her choices. That’s not to say I am not hurt by her, but I realise I have options over how to respond, beyond my usual ‘huff’ reaction, and feeling rejected.

One option Boyes suggests is to accept my friend, including her tendency to bail, and come up with strategies to compensate for it, like ensuring I have a plan B when making a plan A with her. For the music festival next year, I will make sure it’s not just the two of us.

Another option is to speak to her and explain how her actions upset me, to find out what’s wrong in her world and set boundaries for what’s OK for me. The challenge in setting boundaries is that I tend to barrel in, trying to be assertive, and end up being aggressive, making my friend recoil or become defensive.

how to deal with a difficult friend friendships

Navigating assertiveness in difficult friendships

Relationship expert Juliana Morris reassures me I’m not the only one struggling with assertiveness: ‘Women are still working out what empowerment means and I see that playing out in how we try and assert ourselves in friendships. So much of empowerment has been about stating a claim with a “take it or leave it” attitude, but we have to get back to conversation. How can we assert ourselves lovingly?’ she asks.

Morris learned the hard way. Angry with an ambivalent friend, she forced a confrontation – the result of which was that they didn’t speak for an extended period. When she understood more about effective communication, she changed her approach: celebrate their friendship, and give positive feedback about what she would like more of in the future.

See where your friend takes it, she advises, but try not to have any expectations. Even if you follow all the ‘best practice’ rules for being a good friend and communicating compassionately, you still won’t always get the response you want.

As my discussions with the experts swill about in my head, I don’t know whether to force a boundary conversation with my difficult friend, or accept her, warts and all. When I confide in another friend, she hands me The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters (Ebury, £12.99) and says, ‘All will become clear!’

The premise of the book is that two parts of our brain drive our behaviour: a primitive, ego-led chimp and a more rational, evolved human. Both need a trusted troop of friends to feel secure.

Choose your inner circle wisely

In The Chimp Paradox, Peters says not all your friends should be in your troop. Define who should be, and prioritise them, he advises. He warns against including people who cause you turmoil, even if they are fun.

‘Recognise who should not be relied upon, or opened up to,’ he says. ‘Think about what each person in your troop offers you and what you offer them. Try to see when you are asking a troop member to fulfil a role that’s not suitable, and find someone appropriate to meet your needs.’

The penny drops! As much as I love my ambivalent friend, I know she can’t be in my inner circle and, as such, it’s not fair on her, nor me, to depend on her for security or reassurance; I have my troop for that.

That’s not to say I can’t relish her – but I’m investing less energy in our friendship and she no longer has the ability to unsteady my ship. Having clarity about her role liberates me to enjoy her for everything that she is, and everything that she isn’t.

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