'Friend guarding' is a normal impulse, but jealousy doesn’t have to ruin a friendship
Everyone feels left out sometimes. It's how you handle it that matters.
When Bob Bergeson’s friend invited him to a Denver Nuggets basketball game with some new pals, he was excited to join in. Sure, the evening would cost him nearly US$400 (S$543), an amount he wouldn’t normally spend. But Bergeson’s splurge didn’t reflect a slavish devotion to basketball; he opened his wallet because he felt insecure about his languishing relationship with his friend, who he perceived to be getting closer to a new group of people.
“He started hanging out with the dads on his daughter’s soccer team and talking about them fondly and I thought, ‘Oh, man he’s kind of got some new friends,’” Bergeson, 42, a business consultant in Denver, said. “I needed to insert myself to make sure I still mattered to him.”
Just like you can lose a romantic partner to another person, “friends can also lose their slot in the best friend hierarchy,” said Jaimie Krems, a friendship researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University. This fear of being replaced is often borne out of jealousy, Krems said. And one way to cope with it, she added, is by doing something social scientists refer to as friend guarding – actions like excessively praising a friend or cutting down a new rival, for example – to maintain a threatened relationship.
“Like all behaviours, there are good and bad aspects of friend guarding,” Krems said. Telling your friend how much they mean to you might bolster your friendship, she said, but badmouthing a newbie might anger your friend and cause them to pull away.
Miriam Kirmayer, a friendship expert and clinical psychologist in Ottawa, said feelings of jealousy and envy in friendships are quite common with her adult clients, but many feel ashamed of those feelings because they mistake them “as a sign of immaturity.” On the contrary, Kirmayer said. When handled correctly, jealousy can lead to a deeper understanding of yourself, and as a result, more fulfilling friendships. Here’s how.
JEALOUSY CAN STRENGTHEN A RELATIONSHIP
Feelings of fear, anger and jealousy often make people uncomfortable, but like all emotions, they evolved to protect well-being, said Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. “Negative emotions alert us to potential danger and motivate us to take pre-emptive action.”
In truly perilous scenarios – like a pandemic, for instance – you might cope with your anxiety by wearing a mask and steering clear of crowds. In less dire situations, like when you think you’re on the brink of losing a friend, you might attempt to hold their interest by becoming a better listener or trying to be more positive and upbeat.
When feelings of jealousy bubble to the surface, start by questioning how good of a friend you’ve really been. You might ask yourself, ‘What kind of friend do I want to be?’ And perhaps, the answer will help steer you toward traits that foster acceptance by your social circle, like more compassion and generosity.
Identifying the origins of your feelings can also help you pinpoint potential triggers that may make jealousy worse. If you’re already second-guessing yourself at work, for instance, you might assume a turned down dinner invitation is a sign of a friend pulling away. In other instances, unhealed wounds from childhood – growing up with inconsistent caregivers, for example – can make you more sensitive to rejection as an adult.
To identify these potential triggers, ask yourself questions like: “What past experiences might this feeling be linked to?” and “Is my jealousy triggered by circumstances in my own life?” Kirmayer suggested.
Once you understand your emotions, decide how you want to proceed. Instead of letting jealousy elicit knee-jerk negative responses like leveling accusations, you might see the emotion as a signal to talk with your friend, or to work through some issues on your own.
When Joli Hamilton’s close friend planned a party without her, she was overcome with jealousy. “I found out through mutual friends and the rejection really stung,” said Hamilton, 45, a relationship coach in Westfield, Massachusetts.
Hamilton admitted that her hurt feelings unleashed catastrophic thoughts like, “I don’t know why I ever thought we were friends!” and “After everything I’ve done for her, she doesn’t get to leave me out!” But instead of telling her friend off, Hamilton decided to have an honest conversation about her concerns.
As a result, both parties better understood the insecurities and desires that fuelled their behavior. “I always wanted to be included in all of her plans, but she needed space to spend time with other people,” Hamilton said. And shortly after, the friends reached a compromise. “We ended up spending less time together, but that time was one-on-one with activities we both enjoyed.”
Unlike with romantic relationships, we rarely ask ourselves, “What should I expect out of a really good friendship?” Leary said. But stating your needs and developing boundaries can solidify trust, which helps build more mature friendships.
JEALOUSY ISN’T ALWAYS PERSONAL
When jealousy swells, it can be easy to assume there’s something wrong with you. But in most cases, this is far from the truth. “Even though our feelings are real, our brains aren’t always objective truth tellers,” said Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at California State University, Chico, and the author of Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss.
To manage self-critical thoughts, he said, take a step back and see if there’s another way to understand the situation. If your best friend cancels your weekly phone date to have dinner with their new pal, you might assume it’s because you’re a downer or a bad friend. But ask yourself if there’s any evidence for or against that belief, or if there’s “another explanation for your friend’s behaviour that’s more realistic,” Minden advised.
Replacing negative thoughts with more useful explanations can ease the emotional weight that hurtful assumptions can bring, Minden added. For example, “my friend needs different kinds of friends” is an easier pill to swallow than “my friend is replacing me.”
REFRAMING JEALOUS THOUGHTS INTO EMPATHETIC ONES CAN HELP
Another way to thwart the negative feelings of jealousy is to find small ways to be happy for your friend, said Sara Konrath, an empathy researcher at Indiana University. Instead of ruminating on how a buddy’s new friendship with someone else affects you, think, ‘I’m really happy that she has somebody else she feels connected to,’” Konrath suggested. When we prioritise empathy in friendships, reminders of how much our friends mean to us and how much we mean to them can temper jealous feelings.
As for Bergeson, he had a great time at the game. And fortunately for him, those feelings of jealousy ended up being short-lived. “My friend made sure I was enjoying myself and this relieved my worries about possibly losing him to a new crowd.”
By Juli Fraga and Connie Chang © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.