THE BLOG
05/23/2013 03:14 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Should My Friend's Enemies Be My Enemies, Too?

I came across a great quote recently that I had not seen in years, and it really challenged me and my core belief system as a person of faith. The ancient proverb reads, "The friend of my enemy, is my enemy." Or the inverse, "The enemy of my enemy, is my friend."

Whatever way you slice it, the two quotes mean that we would do well to associate ourselves with people who are aligned with our best interest and who protect our peace. If I am having an "issue" with someone, and it turns ugly, can "B," the mutual friend of us both, love us both, and stay loyal to us both without having to choose sides or get stuck in our mess? The answer from my perspective is: maybe.

I am a total extroverted people person. I like people. I like to engage them, be challenged by them, befriend them, work and play with them. I live authentically and transparently, which is at times both a blessing and a curse. Yet the notion of separating myself into a "wolf pack" or "flock" has become increasingly apparent as I go higher professionally and as I get older. The circle of friends and trusted advisers get more closed, not more open. This is hard for me, but I am learning it may be very necessary. I was sensitive to the above quote in a way I had not been when I first came across it many years ago because it struck a deep nerve in me. I have been through a lot recently that has me wrestling with this very question on several fronts.

Can I, or should I separate myself from people who may not have done anything directly to me, but who may have hurt someone close to me? When am I part of the problem if Mary has deeply hurt Jane (my best friend), yet I continue to be friends with Mary when I know Jane does not like her or want to be associated with her? Or what about when I have had a bad parting from someone who was once a dear friend or even a not-so-close business associate -- do I expect my closest friends and colleagues to now isolate that person as well? Good question worth exploring, and here is why:

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

I have said this many times before that birds of a feather do indeed flock together. This is a critical "life tool" that we must grasp as human beings. Who we spend time with, who we socialize with, who we do business with and the like in many respects defines who we are as people. In an April 2013 study on Science Daily, researchers found that both human beings and animals use the same social network "codes" to either befriend or abandon their species in social interactions. What am I saying? What I am saying is that we tend to want to avoid "conflict." To quote the researchers:

Structural balance theory considers the positive or negative ties between three individuals, or triads, and suggests that "the friend of my enemy is my enemy" triangle is more stable and should be more common than "the friend of my friend is my enemy."

Given the backdrop of what the research suggests and what we know about ourselves as people, here is what I would suggest we strive to do in situations like this to try and maintain our social ties and keep peace with those we love all at once:

1. Let people prove themselves to you. Some of the best friends I have ever had in my life came by way of introduction from someone with who I intentionally no longer associate myself with or keep in touch with anymore. What's my point? That had I cut off certain people because a former friend did not like them, or because I had heard "some stuff" about them, I would have blocked some great blessings in my life. The same goes for me. Thank God for mature, honorable people who got to know me for me, outside of someone else's distorted, or tainted view.

2. Be a mediator, not a meddler. Do not pour gasoline on a raging fire. If two friends or colleagues that I value are at odds, my job as their friend (do not miss this one) is to HELP them work it through and to heal. I can serve as a mediator or bring in some other trusted resource or friend, clergy, or clinician to assist if the situation is volatile. Trust me, I have been on both ends of this one, and it is not easy, but if I am true to my faith as a Christian I want people to be at peace. I want to help them get through it without rancor, hurt, and pain as much as possible. Most importantly, working it through helps all of us to grow. It helps us to do better the next go round. It teaches us that we do indeed live in a "village" of people who care for, love, and want to sharpen us to resolve our conflicts in healthy ways that move us forward.

3. Believe people when they show you who they are. A true story. Some time ago I hired two young women for a special project of great visibility. It did not work out well. The things I was promised were not delivered, timelines, deadlines were constantly missed, no proper contracts were drawn at the outset, poor communication methods was the norm, personal drama infected the work and some intellectually property (of which I only had originals) was maliciously taken down, videos and work product never returned. Needless to say I was not happy. It meant I had to take on the project under duress (while dealing with a serious health crisis), clean up their mess, and deal with the fallout of the perceptions with other major partners involved. Unbeknownst to me one, of the partners I was working with on the project, who was clear on what had happened and how I felt about these so-called professionals (and their lack of ethics, follow through, etc.) decided to hire one of them behind my back, use her on a joint project where I was very involved, not tell me about it, hide it from me, and pay her from funds I helped to raise to support the project. I found out about it from a mutual friend who had been told about the alliance in confidence, and who was very upset by the subterfuge (she actually called me in tears) and felt I needed to know who I was dealing with. She was right. I needed to know that someone I thought was a friend and partner was working with someone I regarded not so much as an enemy, but as very unprofessional and unethical. This situation is a prime example of what not to do in "triangles." It damages credibility, trust, and valued relationships on a number of levels. Deception is never a way to win friends and influence people. period.

According to Detroit-based clinical therapist Dr. Sabrina Jackson, Ph.D., who has been dubbed a "people expert":

The answer to the friend/enemy question posed is "situational." For example, if a friend's child has been molested by a mutual friend, and I become aware of it, of course the alleged molester cannot be around me or my children. That just makes good common sense. Conversely, I cannot just get mad at those people who my friends are mad with. That makes no sense whatsoever. All that does is block open doors, new opportunities, and great friendships.

She continued:

The bottom line is that it depends on the situation. There are times when we need to learn the lesson of who someone is from what we see someone else go through with them. And there are others times that it is nothing more than a personality clash between them, that has nothing to do with the people involved being good or bad. They just clash. I may not clash with them because my personality is different. Sometimes it is that simple. We need to then be careful of taking sides in conflicts between friends or colleagues.

I agree with Dr. Jackson. The answer to the maxim posed is "maybe," it's "situational." Our loyalty to our dearest friends, family and colleagues must be above reproach at all times, but when dealing with "conflict" between other friends and colleagues, even family members, we have to be careful not to get drawn into other people's messes that may ultimately become our mess. This matters because all of us has been the victim of social "isolation" or "blackballing" at the whim of someone who did not like us, fell out with us, or who wanted to damage us. I have been there. It hurts, and it harms you financially, relationally, socially, professionally, reputationally and emotionally. Going forward, I will take the friend/enemy maxim to heart much more, and suggest that we all do the same; however, I will be very careful not to unwittingly become an enemy to someone who may turn out down the road to be one of life's best business partners, colleagues, or dearest of friends.

For more by Sophia A. Nelson, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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