In a perfect world, friendships and romantic relationships have a natural give-and-take. One week, you might call someone and make plans to meet up, while the following week, they’ll reach out to you first instead.
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However, relationships can sometimes slip out of balance and become what’s known as a one-sided relationship. These can cause mental anguish and be physically and emotionally draining. Clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, explains the red flags of a one-sided relationship — and ways to end these relationships in the kindest way possible.
In a balanced relationship, you know where you stand with the other person. “We’re reliant on one another, and we have our expectations met a lot — not universally, but we’re not feeling upended very much, or that you’re on shifting sands,” says Dr. Bea. “There’s a basic stability to it that feels good and familiar.”
A one-sided relationship has more uncertainty and boils down to one person doing more of the heavy lifting — emotionally, physically and mentally. “It’s any relationship where it feels like the effort, energy and tasks are imbalanced, and where one feels as though there’s not a reciprocity that they would necessarily like,” says Dr. Bea.
“We might notice that we’re the ones that always make the phone call or initiates the contact, or we’re the one that’s listening, or we really never have a chance to discuss what’s on our mind.”
In contrast to one-sided friendships, one-sided romantic relationships — or what Dr. Bea calls partnered relationships — often involve daily “shared obligations,” he says.
“While friendships can be unsatisfying, or we can feel the lack of balance, they’re not as penalizing as when we’re connected in a partnership or in some romantic way,” adds Dr. Bea. “There we start to have shared ideas, objectives, paths, values and destinations. And so that can become more painful, with higher stakes also.”
Every one-sided relationship looks different because the imbalance can come within “skill sets, values and shared ideas,” says Dr. Bea. “People like the idea of reciprocity, right? Like, if I’m a good friend, and a good listener, and a good partner, I’d like somebody who’s my teammate. But within relationships and communication styles, there’s a range of skill levels. We’re not always going to meet our match.”
However, Dr. Bea says there are a few common signs that you’re investing more effort into a relationship than someone else.
The stress of being in a one-sided relationship can also cause physical and emotional side effects. “You may have challenges to how you nourish yourself, move your body and take care of your general health,” Dr. Bea says. “You can become depressed, anxious, frightened and have poor sleep habits. All those things come with any stressor — and relationships can produce lots of stress.”
It’s tempting to view one-sided relationships as nefarious, borne out of someone being willfully ignorant or just plain rude. However, not everyone naturally knows how to be a good friend or good partner.
“There is no manual,” Dr. Bea stresses. “And there’s really no training in relationships. We don’t get any relationship training when we’re in kindergarten or at any point in our schooling. And like any skill, you know, we just have at it without any training. Some might have a gifted capacity, but many of us won’t.”
Factors such as our home environment, family histories and what kind of relationship models we had growing up can also affect how we relate to others as adults. “Maybe we grew up in a family where there’s lots of chaos, and where our emotions get attached or entangled to other family members,” Dr. Bea says. “In professional circles, those sorts of relationships are referred to as codependent.”
An imbalance in expectations — for example, thinking that your partner should act a certain way — can also lead to an imbalance in a relationship.
“People have this idea that everybody ought to be equivalent in their skills,” says Dr. Bea. “However, we are all born with different brains. Some brains may be designed in ways that incline them to be really good communicators and teammates. Others are perhaps born without those traits.”
Momentum and precedent are powerful things in relationships. You may have shared good times or meaningful experiences in the past, and are optimistic these could happen again in the future.
“People are often engaged in some sort of calculation about future likelihoods and whether a relationship can get better,” says Dr. Bea. “People with hopes that rise and then are dashed frequently will persist a bit longer when they have a commitment and significant investment.”
Partnered relationships involve deeper emotional and physical connections, meaning there’s more at stake when breaking off the relationship. For example, you may worry about being responsible for disrupting your family’s routines.
“If you have your lives intertwined — if you share lives, homes, children — then it gets trickier,” says Dr. Bea. “People are apt to hang in there a bit longer based on their sense of investment, and the histories of reward within the relationship.”
Whether you can change a one-sided relationship is up for debate, though changing another person is certainly difficult. “You might feel you have a special gift of love to give to another person that will be transformative, and this partner will become a better person as a result of my loving behaviors,” says Dr. Bea.
Unfortunately, the reality is that you generally can’t fix somebody or mold them into the ideal partner. “You may hope somebody that isn’t a great teammate will become a great teammate as a result of your effort towards them,” says Dr. Bea. “But you can’t change another person’s brain.”
So if someone doesn’t call you back or initiate plans to hang out — it could be that’s just how their personality is wired. “We have this idea that we want people to be other than how they are, and unless they’re creating some dedicated effort in that direction, it’s probably not going to happen,” says Dr. Bea. “We’re creatures of habit and are really good at maintaining those habits.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t try to ask for changes or more consideration, though Dr. Bea suggests gently asking permission first if you do, and even asking a third party or coach to help mediate where applicable.
“You might say, ‘Would it be okay if we discuss the nature of our relationship? Is it okay if I share some thoughts or reflections I have about where we’re at?’” he says. “And I would invite them to share their views too. We’d want some balance in the exchange of those views.”
Everybody has a different breaking point, so there’s no one uniform sign that a one-sided relationship needs to end. However, if you make every effort to let a friend or partner know you’re unhappy, and things are still status quo, it might be time for a change.
“If you make reasonable requests, and your partner is stonewalling or rigid or can’t negotiate that path with you, it’s going to bring about resentment,” says Dr. Bea, who adds that when resentments pile up, they negatively affect how you see another person. “Those sorts of things can lead to forming contemptuous thoughts. Those predict the end of a relationship.”
One-sided relationships aren’t necessarily a binary situation. If both people are satisfied with the terms of a relationship — or if you’re okay with a self-involved friend with whom you have shared history — then there’s no reason to break things off.
“People have all sorts of reasons for maintaining relationships,” says Dr. Bea. “People have different tolerances. Accepting people as they are becomes one component of successful relationships when they are behaving within acceptable limits.”
The latter is crucial, he adds: “If it starts to get out of bounds. If you start to get into that deal-breaker zone, if it becomes abusive, then you really have to calculate how to extract yourself.”
Make no mistake, breaking off a one-sided relationship can be painful for both sides. Nobody likes conflict, and even if you’re the one letting someone else go, feelings of guilt are perfectly normal.
“You can acknowledge the feeling,” says Dr. Bea. “Guilt is a subtle feeling, right? We know what it feels like, but it’s subtle. It doesn’t mean that we were necessarily doing anything wrong.”
Dr. Bea says that we can use the end of one-sided relationships to look at our own communication skills and partnership styles and identify any areas where we might be able to improve.
Keep in mind that no relationship is perfect or balanced at all times. A relationship that’s one-sided for a certain period might shift over time — and a little empathy, and acknowledgment that people are trying their best, goes a long way.
“We want to play to our strong suit and bring that as a gift to the relationship and accept the gifts of others,” says Dr. Bea. “But we have to be aware of what their assets and gifts are, and allow them to employ them — and vice versa. In that context of acceptance and mutual effort, people can feel relatively balanced.”