So, there’s this girl you hang out with. She’s really cool and so much fun to be around, but there’s just one problem: she never asks about your life, and she makes everything about her. When you need her, she’s not there, and she often chooses other people over you.
Are you in a one-sided friendship? It sure seems like it. Check out how to deal with these confusing situations.
How to tell if your friendship is one-sided
According to Jan Yager, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York and author of When Friendship Hurts, there is a general rule for friendships: “Just as it takes two people to want to begin and cultivate and maintain a friendship, it takes both friends wanting to improve the friendship and valuing the friendship [in order to create balance],” Dr. Yager says. We laid out the signs that your friendship doesn’t fit this description.
It’s all about her
A healthy friendship should be an exchange, with both friends giving as much as they take from each other. According to Melanie Ross Mills, a life coach and author of The Friendship Bond, if your friend is self-absorbed and never considers your wants and needs, you’re in a one-sided friendship. She is gaining more from the friendship than you are, and she could be manipulating you.
Erica*, a student at Juniata College, knows this situation all too well. “Oftentimes, I feel as though [my friend] is the one doing most of the talking,” Erica says. “When she talks, I ask questions and listen. I’m rarely asked about my own life, and if I do talk about myself, she’s not listening and is usually texting.”
A good friend should be “extremely aware of the other person’s needs, especially in college, when there’s so much going on,” Mills says. She should “have a mental timer in [her] head for how much time [she] talked about [herself],” and ask you questions about your life to balance it out and show she cares. If your friend always makes the conversation about herself, this is a red flag. In more extreme cases, your friend might make you feel like she can’t deal with her issues without your help, but never reciprocates your caring attitude.
“I once had a friend who basically only really talked to me when she was having some sort of crisis, which was about 24/7,” says Caroline*, a senior at Franklin & Marshall College. “She would make me feel super guilty if I couldn’t solve all her problems for her. She would call me or IM me in tears, and then I would have to deal with all her emotional drama and baggage until she was somewhat functional again.” This kind of neediness is a definite sign of an imbalanced friendship.
You want different things out of the friendship
Just like in any relationship, two people can enter a friendship with different expectations. “For example, one young woman could want a best friendship and the other young woman could want a casual friendship, or only one of the young women could want a friendship of any kind,” Dr. Yager says. “So it could be whether or not both women want to be friends with each other as well as whether both women agree on the level of commitment and intimacy to their friendship.”
Sometimes friendships start out reciprocal but fade with time. “I discovered this my freshman year with one of my roommates,” says Tiffany, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas. Tiffany’s originally awesome friendship became so one-sided that her friend was basically using her. “She started shutting herself away from me, but still accepted all of the little things I did for her,” Tiffany explains. “I slowly started to realize that I was becoming a ride or someone to sit with in the dining hall just so that she would feel comfortable. I guess somewhere down the line she became bored with our friendship.”
It’s probably time to reconsider your friendship if it gets to the point where your friend doesn’t contribute anything to it anymore.
How one-sided friendships happen in the first place
Your friend might be getting something out of the friendship that she’s not willing to let go, Mills explains. This could be anything from the status you bring her to the clothes you let her borrow. A common mistake is to choose a friend for the wrong reasons, whether you’re the one using your friend or she’s the one using you.
If you’re on the giving side of the friendship, you might also lack confidence, according to Mills. “When you have low self-esteem, you are not able to stay in places [i.e., friendships] that are good for you,” she says.
For Dr. Yager, both people having different expectations is one of the most common explanations behind one-sided friendships. “It’s so easy to find oneself in a one-sided friendship, whether at college or at work or at any other phase in one’s life, especially a temporary one, like college,” Dr. Yager says. But there are many other factors that come into play. For instance, “timing is important,” she explains. “If one woman is just too busy with college and perhaps a part-time job or even a boyfriend … it could just not be the time to become her friend.”
Unfortunately, sometimes the problem is more personal. One friend could simply have enough friends already or, worse yet, dislike the other one.
How to avoid this situation
When making new friends, “look for consistency,” Mills says. “Look for someone who really cares. Sometimes you might not be choosing the best people to help you develop [who you are]. Both people need to be as invested as each other, both willing to do what it takes.”
Your sense of self-value is equally crucial in order to avoid finding yourself in an unequal friendship. According to Mills, “sometimes you have a strong sense of who you are and feel comfortable giving without expecting anything in return,” especially if you know your friend isn’t able to give back. In this situation, you know what you’re doing and you’re fully willing to help your friend through a hard time.
On the other hand, sometimes being needed this much is filling a gap for you, and you might not recognize it. For instance, you could give gifts for the praise it brings you in return. In order to avoid this situation, “You can do a self-check,” Mills says. “Look at your motives: ‘Am I disappointed when I don’t get appreciated in return?’” We all need to feel loved, secure and significant, but you should never rely on one person for all three.
“Internal strength is so important,” Mills says. “Know who you are and what you have to offer, and identify what others have to bring to the table.”
If you spot any signs that a girl you like isn’t 100 percent ready to be your close friend, simply “don’t let her into your trust,” Mills says. She could be fun to be with, and that’s great! It’s all about being able to distinguish between true and fair-weather friends. As long as you can make that distinction, it’s totally okay to hang out with a girl whom you wouldn’t necessarily trust as a close friend.
What to do when your friendship is one-sided
If she’s distancing herself
If your friend seems less invested in your friendship than she used to be, it’s probably a sign that she’s grown and evolved into someone else. Mills’ advice is to keep her around, but to “move her to a different type of friendship.” So instead of considering her one of your besties, try to think of her as a “comfortable friend”: someone who’s nice to hang out with. If you do this, “your expectations will change,” Mills explains. “And sometimes, you don’t have to communicate this shift to your friend.” It’s a decision you make for your own good, and if she doesn’t expect more from you, she doesn’t need to know about it.
If you want to fix the friendship
If you’ve been very close to your friend for a long time and your relationship starts to feel one-sided, it might just be a phase. “Depending upon what else is going on in [your friend’s] life, the friendship can be more or less important to [her],” Dr. Yager says. “[You] can discuss it and see if there’s a way that the friend who is less invested in the friendship could show more concern.”
Getting your friend to understand that she isn’t giving enough to the friendship will not be easy. “Be honest without freaking her out,” Mills says. “You don’t want to come across as needy.”
Put yourself in your friend’s shoes, as she could be going through a hard time. Express concern; don’t blame her for anything. Mills suggests saying something like, “I’ve missed you; let’s get lunch and talk about what’s going on with you.” If you make it about her—especially if she is in fact having a hard time—she will be more likely to meet you halfway.
If you need to let her go
If you’ve been reaching out to your friend time and time again and she always turns you down, you might want to take a hint, according to Mills. “Go where you’re wanted,” she says. “Believe that there’s someone better for you. Find people who will help you grow or who you can help grow.”
If your friendship is truly toxic, there’s no easy solution. “You just can’t stay in it,” Mills says. “Respect the person as you want to be respected and ask yourself: ‘How would I want to be treated if someone was breaking up with me?’ You wouldn’t want them to withdraw without talking, so be honest, don’t leave them wondering and don’t be mean.”
When deciding what to say, “You want to emphasize that you’re ending the friendship because the way the two of you interact isn’t working, not [because] you’re rejecting her personally,” Dr. Yager says. Don’t jump into the conversation while bitter or angry. “Explain it in a way that doesn’t hurt or shame her,” Mills says. “Explain that you’re transitioning.”
Although direct communication is almost always the best solution, “you also have to be mindful of whether or not you live in the same dorm or are in classes together, so that more subtle ways of dealing with the friendship might work out better than a dramatic confrontational ending,” Dr. Yager says. This could mean “‘being ‘busy’ with the hope that the toxic friend will get the hint.”
If guilt is keeping you from letting go of your friend, remember that “you need to be wise in who you invest in,” Mills says. “You can only invest so much and in so many people. Invest in yourself first so you have it to give.”
As for a friend who is worryingly needy, keep in mind that you cannot fix her. Instead, suggest she get counseling. This dysfunctional codependence is too much for you, and you need to outsource. However, this is a very difficult conversation to have. It will only work if she is willing to help herself. “She won’t do the work if she doesn’t want to do it,” Mills explains. “You could offer to go with her.”
As for bringing up counseling in the first place, Mills suggests that you reframe the concept. Say “tools” instead of “counseling” or “help.” This is so important, because professionals are third parties who know better than both of you how to work through this situation.
In Tiffany’s words, “realizing that you’re a victim of an unreciprocated friendship is really hard, but you learn from it!” People will move in and out of your life, and you should know that that’s okay. Experiencing a one-sided friendship will help you understand who your real friends are, and that in itself is special.
“Hold onto those friendships,” Mills says. “Don’t take them for granted, because they are few and far between.” If you’ve found great people who make you feel loved and important, so be sure to keep those people around!
*Names have been changed.