How to Handle an Unbalanced Friendship

Kristen’s 12-year relationship with best friend Heather has been tested during the pandemic. (The names of both women have been changed at Kristen’s request to protect their privacy.) Their experiences over the past few years couldn’t have been more different: Kristen, a 35-year-old single behavioral researcher in San Francisco, was unbearably alone during confinement. Her best friend, Heather, also 35, married and living in Los Angeles, has given birth to her first child. Kristen expected Heather’s priorities to change as she adjusted to being a new mom, but Kristen was unprepared for how upsetting it would be to be moved to an outer ring of her best friend’s life precisely when she needed Heather the most.

They tried to keep in touch, agreeing to make a phone call every other Sunday at 8 a.m. But Heather was away week after week. “She was just getting really busy and overwhelmed and kind of forgetting about me,” Kristen says. With each phone meeting with Heather, Kristen’s resentment grew. “It got so painful that I was like, ‘This isn’t working,'” she says.

As we juggle the demands of this ongoing pandemic, friendships have changed in all kinds of unexpected ways. Many people now seem to have less stamina for socializing, says Kat Vellos, author of We should get together, a book on the culture of friendships in adulthood. Vellos thinks people have gotten used to having smaller social circles, and some have realized they prefer it to stay that way. As a result, these people might be more demanding of the friendships they To do invest time. This is usually a good thing, but it can be painful for injured people to no longer be a priority.

An imbalanced friendship occurs when one friend is more active in maintaining contact and the other friend is more passive in maintaining connection. It’s understandable to be sad or upset if you’re constantly reaching out, sending thoughtful messages, and asking if you can plan brunch or happy hour together. According to a 2010 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencessocial rejection can be as painful as physical pain.

“We live longer if we feel connected and supported,” says Kasley Killam, a Harvard-trained social scientist specializing in connection and loneliness, and founder of the nonprofit Social Health Labs. “So when someone expresses that maybe they’re not as interested in being friends with us or that they need a break or whatever, it can trigger this innate fear in us that we are going to be alone or that we are not of value.”

Psychologist Ayanna Abrams says having an unbalanced friendship doesn’t automatically mean your friendship is unhealthy or toxic. It’s only a problem if someone feels negative emotions about the model. To help you figure out if you’re in an unbalanced friendship and how to go about it, Vox spoke with four friendship and connection experts.

Resist the urge to make assumptions

It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume that if we don’t hear from someone as often as we’d like, Killam says, “that means they don’t like us or they don’t like us. our friendship”. More likely: the other person is just busy – it’s not that deep.

It’s seductive to tell stories when a close friend is silent. “Once that seed is in our minds, it’s hard to let go,” says Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach and host of the friend forward Podcast. Concocting a narrative of why your friend isn’t reciprocating is a common reason, she says, for many friendships ending prematurely. People think, for example, “Oh, I guess she’s not as invested in this friendship as I thought. I guess her new boyfriend is more important.

“It’s all self-generated history,” Jackson says. You might find yourself behaving in response to a story you made up out of thin air.

The solution? Challenge these beliefs, which are probably far from base. Are these negative thoughts based on reality, or is it your insecurity talking? When clients express these concerns to Abrams, she asks the person to imagine what their friend would say about friendship. Next, imagine the demands and commitments the friend is juggling. This exercise usually helps bring the temperature down so the client can see that their friend is probably busy and not intentionally blowing it.

Invite, don’t accuse

People often wait to alert their friend of a problem until they go from annoyance to outright anger. The best time to address the issue “is when you start to feel that distance or imbalance in the relationship,” Abrams says. She recommends identifying what you want more or less of, and then verbalizing it.

You might be tempted to blurt out, “Hey, I haven’t heard from you in a while. What gives?” But that might put your friend on the defensive. Instead, “let them know that you’re contacting them out of a desire to have their business and that you’re not accusing them of what they’re not doing. not,” she says, “which really doesn’t make anyone happy and isn’t a good motivator to get them to take action.

Jackson suggests coming up with plans using what she calls the movie trailer method: you have to preview the experience so the other person gets a taste of what’s to come. Instead of saying, “Hey, let’s see each other sometime,” and they say, “Absolutely,” and then crickets for two months, maybe say, “Hey, you want to meet on Saturday around 7 p.m. for an hour or two? We can try this new wine bar in town. Let’s get dressed and sip something bubbly. By doing this, you give a visual of being there, like a scene from the movie that will be your Saturday night hit.

Designing the plans this way makes it easier for people to engage. “And if they can’t, a friend who’s also interested will negotiate with you and say, ‘Dang, I can’t do Saturday, but let’s try Tuesday,'” Jackson adds.

Be flexible

Your friend may feel like it’s more of a logistical issue and doesn’t know you’re ready to change your established routine. So the next time you contact us, you might say something like:

  • Would you like to try something different the next time we meet? Maybe we can have tea instead of cocktails?
  • Instead of meeting for brunch, maybe we could have a coffee or go for a walk in the park?
  • Maybe we can go on a double date so we can include our loved ones?

Your friend might also prefer to change the communication mode and frequency. Maybe texting is better than taking phone calls. Or they may want to talk on the phone once a week instead of trading DMs on a social platform they no longer use. Ask!

At this point, if you’ve tried different strategies and are hearing radio silence, Vellos says you should assume the universe is telling you to take your attention elsewhere. “It could be another person, another friendship, another hobby, whatever,” she says. Redirect your energy so you don’t waste your time and hope for something that is unlikely to happen.

If you’re the one who can’t prioritize your friendships, be upfront about it.

Many people can find themselves on the opposite side of the spectrum: they are the ones who are too overwhelmed to invest in their friendships. In this case, it is your responsibility as a friend to let the other person know what they can expect from you for the foreseeable future. It saves a lot of heartbreak for everyone if you tell them the truth about what’s going on with you, Abrams says. Know that you don’t have to be in a stressful or busy place to explain that you need space; you can set limits around your time and energy even though technically you could spend time with this person more often.

When Jackson was pregnant, she messaged her friends and let them know her availability was changing, but she’ll be back soon. She communicated: “I am thinking of you. I want to be together. I can’t for the next few months, but man, I can’t wait to see you soon and catch up with you then. Her friends not only enjoyed the one-on-one, but were reassured that she appreciated their bond.

If you need to let a friend know you won’t be as available in the future, Abrams suggests saying something like:

  • I know we tend to talk on the phone for hours, but I probably have an hour max on Sundays before I have to prepare for the week.
  • Talking on the phone has been very difficult for me lately, so texting is the best way to reach me for the next few weeks.
  • Hey, I know we usually talk weekly. In this working season, I am overwhelmed. I’ll let you know when things calm down.

The important thing is to be open, honest and focused when you connect. Aim for quality over quantity here. So when you engage with your friends, they will feel valued and safe knowing that the friendship is also meaningful to you.

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