June 20, 2019

How Long do I Hang on? When Friendships are No Longer Equal

Mental Health & Wellbeing

We’ve all had a relationship where the investment from each party is not equal. You’ve either been the person who reaches out for support the majority of the time or you’re on the other side offering support and care to the needs of another person. In the life span of a friendship there are moments based on your capacity, time, and needs where you may find yourself being supported or being the supporter. But what happens when you realize that a friendship was never mutual?

When We Realize There’s A Problem

The awareness of unbalanced relationships often occurs during life transitions, such as moving, starting a different career, birthdays, weddings, having children, taking care of parents, or crisis within our family. These transitions often instigate this question of, Is this relationship created equal? And if not, is this a person that I’d like to keep around?

Maybe this question is terrifying to you. Aren’t we supposed to “make new friends, but keep the old…one is silver and the other gold?” Or as Barney used to sing “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.” Asking the question may create a certain degree of apprehension, anxiety, and guilt. Shouldn’t we all be able to get along? If that’s you right now, I want to encourage you to press into that feeling. It’s quite possible that whatever is at the root of that feeling is likely what has kept you in relationships, sometimes, longer than you should’ve.

It Starts With Considering Yourself

In my work with clients, we often reflect on this truth: this dynamic didn’t happen overnight. If you’ve experienced this dynamic multiple times in different relationships, it’s important to consider, is there something about me that is drawing me towards these dynamics? Do I have a need that’s being met in this dynamic?

For the supporter: Maybe you enjoy being a reliable and resourceful helper to others. Or, maybe you are feeling lonely and enjoy the company. Maybe you struggle with being vulnerable. Or that people are unsafe or untrustworthy. Maybe your earlier relationship wounds are kicking into gear here. Client’s often share with me that they were the parentified child because their parents were emotionally unavailable. This may have taught them that the only way to have a connection with their parents is to provide support to them. Thus, when they step into adult relationships, they may continue to play out this relationship dynamic.

For the one being supported: Maybe you feel the most seen and validated when others are helping you with your emotional and practical needs. It’s quite possible that at this time in your life you really do need help. There isn’t a shortage of crisis in your life and without the support of others you may not be making it through. My goal is not to make anyone feel ashamed or guilty for reaching out for help. Truly, we all need it at some time or another and the kindness of others can be healing during moments of extreme pain. Where it may become troubling is if you find yourself only reaching out when you have a need, never asking the other person how they are doing, or if you try to use guilt to get others to meet your needs.

For early relationship wounds: You may have been overly comforted by your parent or guardian for a number of different reasons. You didn’t hear ‘no’ often because they were emotionally unavailable to set boundaries or maybe they felt guilt for times where they weren’t able to be present for you.

The truth is, especially in the ways that we relate to others, it’s something that we have learned through our own personal experiences. If we are going to have a new experience of ourselves, and in our relationships with others, we will need to learn some new ways of being.

So What Do You Do?

Observe the dynamics of your relationships. Are you the supporter often? Are you the one being supported often?

Consider what would need to happen for this relationship to feel more mutual. It could be as simple as the other person texting you to ask how your day has been, or they plan your next activity to do while hanging out. Maybe you decide to share something more vulnerable with the person and see how they respond. Or, you decide to let them go first before you share about your day.

Answer these questions: Is this someone that I’d like to stay connected with? Do I think that this person has the capacity to meet my needs or preferences?
Do I have the time, energy, space and capacity to continue to engage in this relationship?

All of these steps will help you shift the dynamics of your relationship from one that is unbalanced to more mutually life giving.

Call to Counseling

Relationships that are imbalanced can be difficult to navigate. Meeting with a counselor is a great way to explore these questions and to develop a plan for how to move forward. Call today!

Written by therapist Pamela Larkin


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