Is there a person in your life who is singing your praises one day and putting you down the next? Maybe this person gives you backhanded compliments, has passive aggressive tendencies, or says one thing to your face and another behind your back. If these scenarios are familiar, you may be dealing with ambivalent friends or friends who you have mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about.

Adult friendships can be difficult to navigate. Instead of having instant friends in your neighborhood or school, you may have to try harder to seek out positive relationships. You may have to work with people you do not see eye-to-eye with or have to deal with love-hate friendships on a day-to-day basis. While toxicity may be easy to identify in others, dealing with ambivalence in relationships can be more of a challenge. If you’d like help identifying your ambivalent friends or want to learn how to deal with them, here are some ideas for addressing this common issue in adult friendships.  

Toxic vs. Ambivalent Friends

Psychologist Jenn Berman, Ph.D. defines toxic relationships as relationships with people who make you feel bad about yourself, are critical of you and drain you emotionally, financially, or mentally. These are people who have a tangible negative influence on your life and take a toll on your well-being in the long run.

An ambivalent friend, on the other hand, is someone who makes you feel uncertain or someone you have mixed feelings about. Ambivalent friends may be people in your social circles or workplace who you are unsure if you truly enjoy your company, that you have mixed feelings about, or aren’t sure how to act around.

How To Identify Ambivalent Friends

Vanessa Van Edwards, lead investigator at her human behavior research lab called Science of People, uses a concrete approach to identify ambivalent friends in your life. In a recent interview, she said you only need to answer one question to determine if you are in an ambivalent relationship: Do you ever doubt if that person is really happy for you?

“[Ambivalent friends are] people who make passive aggressive comments and you ask yourself ‘was that nice or was that mean?” she said.  “A true friend will mirror your excitement, whereas an ambivalent person may be a dream killer.”

She explained that while criticism is often important for success, true friends support you and find ways to put you up, whereas ambivalent friends may be the first to shoot you down. True friends are people who should leave you feeling positive and supported even if they have some feedback about a project, relationship, or another aspect of your life.  Ambivalent friends may give you unwarranted or hurtful criticism that leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth or feeling down about positive things in your life.  

How Ambivalence in Relationships Impacts Mental Health

Van Edwards argues that ambivalent relationships are worse for your mental health than toxic relationships. While toxic relationships can be easy to identify and obviously harmful, she says, ambivalent friendships are more of a gray area. She cites an Academy of Management study lead by Michelle Duffy that explored social undermining in the workplace. Researchers polled a group of police officers about coworkers who they have mixed feelings about.

Duffy’s team found that those who had coworkers who undermined them sometimes but supported them other times had the worst performance at work. Those who dealt with ambivalent coworkers were the least committed to their jobs, had poor health, and missed more days of work.  

“If you [are dealing with] a toxic person, boundaries are easy,” Van Edwards said. “If they ask you to go to lunch, you know it’s a ‘no thanks.’”

Whereas with ambivalent people, she explained, it takes a lot more mental energy to decide if you do or do not want to spend time with this person.

While, in most cases, cutting out toxic people from your life may not be as simple as declining their lunch invitations, Van Edwards’ overarching idea is that people you have mixed feelings about can be hugely draining for your mental energy and take a toll on your mental health.

Ending Ambivalent Friendships

If you feel like ambivalent friends are bringing you down, you may want to take actions to end your relationship with these people, or at least cut down the amount of time you spend with them. Alice Boyes Ph.D., a social, clinical, and positive psychology researcher recommends the following tips for moving away from ambivalent friends:

1. Evaluate The Relationship

Determine if a competitive nature you may have with this person is beneficial or not. Criticism and competition can help you become a better person, but endless put-downs can have a negative impact on your mental health. If you do feel in competition with an ambivalent friend, Boyes recommends trying to shift your perspective on that competition and see if there is a way to change your view so you no longer see it as threatening.

2. Stand Up For Yourself

If this ambivalent friend is always insulting you or making endless passive aggressive comments, voice your concern. While this may not make the person stop their behavior it can help to set a boundary and build your self-confidence.

3. Limit Your Exposure To This Person

Your ability to limit the amount you see this person will depend on your relationship. If this person is a coworker, it may be difficult to get away from them completely, whereas if you know them from a social circle it may be easier to limit your contact with that person by opting out of seeing them. If you do see this person in the workplace, have a clear outline and objectives going into any project you may work on with them. This can reaffirm your commitment to projects and limit the impact they have on your work.

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