We ordinarily think of one-sided friendships as involving one friend who does all the “work” while the other does not contribute to the relationship in kind.
Just as in any relationship where one party exhibits selfish behavior, we can lose time and energy thinking about the fairness of it all and feeling like one party is taking advantage of the other.
Yet, something very important gets lost if we only focus on these things, because in many (but not all) one-sided friendships, BOTH parties have a one-sided relationship to the OTHER.
In one-sided friendships, both parties are driven by a subterranean, unresolved need or attachment. This need is motivated less by truly seeing or supporting the other person. Rather, the need is old, hungry, frequently dysfunctional, and unfortunately, not successful in providing either party with sincere fulfillment for long.
Both parties use the other to play out an old pattern, sadly and helplessly existing past one another, sometimes (but certainly not always), with the best of intentions.
By saying this, I do not in any way mean to victim blame or minimize the very real feelings that come with realizing you are in a one-sided friendship or even losing a one-sided friendship (which very much can feel like a true loss).
The effects of one-sided relationships can be heart-searing: feeling desperately lonely despite being in the company of a friend, realizing you are being taken advantage of, or being abandoned because of the smallest misstep.
It is also undeniable that there are toxic, selfish, immature, tone-deaf, and emotionally inept people in this world who are indiscriminately not good at relationships of any kind. It is also possible that you will, for any number of reasons, stay in relationships with these folks, and may not even recognize the relationship as a one-sided friendship.
What Is a One-Sided Friendship?
On the surface, the tell-tale signs of a one-sided friendship resemble the tell-tale signs of a relationship with a person who exhibits a habitually selfish pattern of behavior. This person communicates to others that their own needs (and ego) are more important than yours or anyone else’s.
For a myriad of reasons, one of which may be, to be a good friend, other people can become caught up and exhausted in the momentum of these endless or inappropriate needs, without much reciprocity from the other person.
Alternatively, the other party may just exhibit endless nothingness – ignoring you or inconsistently being there for you – despite you communicating to them that you are available for a more intimate friendship.
Or it may be some combination of both.
In any case, one party can lose themselves in this dynamic, often fading away in the background, while the other party, or thoughts of the other party, dominate every scene.
This is my very much unprofessional opinion, but I think one of the more specific litmus tests, that gets to what is actually underlying one-sided friendships, can be revealed with these questions:
- Does the behavior of your friend make sense to you in the context of the situation, or does something about it feel off or instinctively not right to you?
- When you interact with your friend, do you have a feeling that your friend wants something very specific from you, beyond what is occurring on the surface? For example, do you instinctively feel like you need to fill a certain role or provide validation you don’t sincerely feel like giving?
- Do you feel that you impulsively react and snap into playing a role you feel you were inadvertently cast in? – As if you never had a choice?
In one-sided friendships, the (usually unconscious) end goal is not truly engaging with, supporting, and connecting with another person. One or both parties may instead be motivated by fulfilling some need.
The examples of these types of needs are innumerable, but the general idea is that one party needs the other party to be a mirror to something they are convinced they are missing. For example: to be liked by a certain type of person or to be seen as the winner, the leader, the all-knowing, etc.
Have you ever been in a situation when a person who you do not know well or who you do not feel a connection with, mounts a steady offensive to be your friend? In your confusion, maybe you were less responsive, and this made you feel guilty thinking that perhaps you are propagating the “one-sidedness” of the relationship. In these cases, you may consciously or unconsciously register that this friend’s motivation is not free-flowing or sincere.
Instead, you may feel underlying energy that this person has latched on to you, seeking something from you; that you may not be willing to freely give, especially early on. In this dynamic, you instinctively feel that something is not right. Not because your friend is a weird, terrible person, but because you recognize that their behavior is not appropriate for the context of the situation.
On the other hand, you may be involved in a friendship that you keep trying single-handedly to keep alive. Maybe your other friends, in hearing how unfair and one-sided the friendship is, wonder why you keep trying.
In this situation, you too, are in a (different) one-sided friendship with the other party.
It’s possible that you are determined to seek from them, attention, love, and support because something about them has specifically pinged in you some buried need or desire that makes you try harder than you otherwise might. And in doing so, it perpetuates the very harm you are trying to avoid.
Are One-Sided Friendships Common?
There are as many permutations of one-sided friendships as there are unmet needs in our complicated lives as humans. There are more reasons for one-sided friendships than there are people in the world, including childhood trauma, generational pain, deep insecurity, or, no prior history of a healthy relationship, etc.
The issues that arise from one-sided relationships do not have anything to do with you, personally.
You will instigate one-sided friendships and you will be burdened by one-sided relationships. They are evidence of the fact that relationships are complicated, and that we all have unresolved needs.
That being said, while common, one-sided friendships are not benign, especially when you do not recognize the one-sided relationship as such.
15 Signs of a One-Sided Friendship
No friendship is perfect, and friendships, especially long-term ones, will never be entirely “equal” all of the time. There will be periods of time when you have to “step up” to support a friend and vice versa. If you recognize more than one of the below signs, however, it may be worth considering whether you are in a one-sided friendship, and perhaps thinking about why you continue to try to defibrillate the friendship.
- In many interactions, you instinctively know the kind of validation or ego hit your friend needs from you, and you know just how much to dole out just to keep the relationship going.
- Roles are set in stone, and any deviation from the role causes an overreaction or a major rift in the relationship.
- Along the same lines, there is very little room for your own personal evolvement. If you stray from the expectations that your friend has of you about your opinions, goals, or attitude, your friend tries to guilt-trip you, acts betrayed, and tells you that “you’ve’ changed.”
- The friendship makes you feel worn down and drained, even in times when you are doing an overtly relaxing activity with a friend.
- You question how to share good news with your friend. You find yourself providing a specific type of context or downplaying your wins, in contrast with how you share this news with others.
- You second guess yourself, eggshell walk and constantly apologize.
- Your friendship reminds you of your own previous one-sided romantic relationships.
- Your friend has more than one story of a previous friendship ending for reasons that don’t make sense to you or that your friend has difficulty properly explaining. This gives you the distinct impression that should you stray or put up any kind of boundary, your friend would not be willing to work with you to repair the friendship.
- You mentally re-enact interactions with your friend, thinking about how you might have responded if given another chance. In the moment, there is something about the interaction that makes you feel gagged and unable to genuinely express yourself.
- Thinking about having any kind of talk with your friend about the state of your friendship makes you feel exhausted. You genuinely believe that change is impossible.
- So you brainstorm ways to single-handedly improve the relationship. You exert effort in really “understanding” where your friend is coming from. The friendship takes up a lot of real estate in your mind, to the detriment of other relationships in your life.
- Even though you suspect that you are in a one-sided friendship, the thought of no longer being friends feels like a major loss.
- Your friend is inconsistent. Your friend may disproportionately respond to situations in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. In your attempt to understand your friend, you routinely ignore these over-reactions because you instinctively know how to diffuse the situation most of the time.
- Even though it bothers you that your friendship is one-sided, you grow very uncomfortable when given the opportunity to talk about yourself, to sincerely communicate your needs, or to share the spotlight for very long. You have realized that you secretly prefer to focus on your friend instead.
- In looking back over your own friendship history, you realize that you may have missed opportunities to grow friendships with people who reached out to you and who seemed to genuinely want to get to know you. Something about those people made you feel uncomfortable, and you realize that at the time, you preferred to instead try to figure out current relationships that were probably one-sided, instead of opening up to a person who may have sincerely been interested in being a supportive friend.
Is There Any Way to Fix It? Is It Worth Trying to Save?
I have no idea if there is any way to fix a specific one-sided friendship. There are far too many permutations of the possible reasons why you are in a one-sided relationship, and perhaps even more complex – why you feel compelled to fix it in the first place.
Furthermore, it takes a lot of devoted emotional work for anyone to truly change.
This is especially the case for people with unexpressed, unconscious needs, who become dependent on one-sided relationships in which one friend plays a very specific role and gets ousted when they no longer feel like playing that role. You are not crazy for believing that your one-sided friendship cannot be different than it is – these types of friendships are very complicated, and you have probably already spent too much time trying to fix it.
Is it possible that your friend changes or is open to a different kind of dynamic? Again, I have no idea, and neither do you, or you wouldn’t be wondering as much.
What we can be sure of is that life is very short and getting shorter all the time, as the years go by. All humans need love, connection, and support. The more of our own precious energy that we dispel for the purpose of seeking these from impossible situations, the more we miss out on true, easy, and genuine friendships with people who have done their own emotional work and who we can responsibly trust with our time.
In my experience, coming to terms with a one-way friendship, involved taking a look at my own unexpressed needs, rather than continuing to solve the unsolvable puzzle of someone else.
Once this process began, I realized that I, too, am far more puzzling than I ever thought, even though we tend to believe that we are internally consistent. The more that I focused on my own needs and reactions, however, the more I naturally grew uncomfortable with being in a one-sided relationship. When you are constantly focused on someone else, it becomes far easier to stay that course, rather than question why you are on that course, to begin with.
The Following Are Some Thoughts on What Helped Me Deal:
- Stop evaluating your own worth as a person based on your ability to stay in a friendship or how many friends you have. There are more underlying reasons than there are people in the world for why someone you know cannot or will not return in kind the sincere relationship you seek. I think one of the dirty secrets of adulthood is that people don’t have nearly the number of friends that they portray they have. I can also absolutely guarantee that there will always, always be people in your life, no matter how much of a loser you may feel like right now, who will seek your kindness, support, and friendship. There will never be a friendship shortage. You will not feel alone for very long.
- The emotions of regret and bitterness are absolute beasts – they will insist that you recycle your feelings of feeling misunderstood, betrayed, and abandoned – on a loop that will make you feel crazy. This loop will turn around a specific friend (or friends), and it can feel momentarily good to blast that negative energy toward that specific person. This will not help you though. What will help you is to get more in tune with what your actual needs are and what it is you want to say to yourself. You will continue to feel this way until you take (very small & incremental) steps to show yourself that you can be trusted to protect yourself, your inner child, and your past hurt from such situations again.
- It’s very hard to protect yourself from similar situations, however, if you find that you habitually involve yourself in one-sided friendships. One-sided friendships are a form of self-abandonment. It becomes easier and more natural to think about someone else than to take care of yourself.
- The solution, then, to being in a one-sided friendship, is to figure out how to be a friend to yourself first. I don’t like the way that sounds either, but what that truly means is taking very small steps toward genuinely connecting to yourself, for as long as you can manage on a consistent basis.
- Whenever I heard someone give this advice, it sounded very abstract and impossible to follow, so I’ll be more specific, but know that these are just examples. Genuinely connecting with yourself means for extremely small spans of time (to begin with), putting an end to deflecting from your feelings or disassociating from your body, for long enough to feel what you are feeling. This can mean paying more attention to the physical cues of your body. Are you hungry or tired? Do you need to pee? Where are you holding tension in your body? How is your breathing? What situations make you feel disproportionally exhausted? This can mean paying more attention to your spiritual and emotional body. Some people find that journaling their feelings, playing with a pet, going to a place of worship, meditating, exercising or any number of other activities provide them with a gateway to only the amount of feelings they can tolerate and manage at one time. Going slowly with all of this is key or you may become flooded and feel worse than when you started.
- Finally, and this may be the hardest of all, take very small steps to accept connection on a daily basis. People who are prone to self-abandonment are also prone to blocking out genuine tethers to connection. You may stick around in one-sided friendships because you feel uncomfortable with receiving or believing that you deserve even small measures of genuine kindness.
Do any of these things help to fix a one-sided friendship? Nah. One-sided friendships can be terribly sad, and if you are in one, know that you are certainly not alone.
There isn’t really a silver lining, in my opinion, to anything that harms you.
But if you find yourself in a one-sided friendship and you can’t stop trying to fix it (or you can’t stop obsessing that it’s over), this is a cue that you may have a habit of abandoning yourself.
The more you have compassion for yourself in this, the more you will be open to finding ways to unfreeze a whole lot of love that you have for yourself, that you have been directing toward other people instead. In time, you will be less attracted to one-sided friendships.
Any friendships that become one-sided will be short-lived because you will more quickly grow unfilled by the relationship. And you’ll have more time for the genuine open hearts who come into your life.
This post was written by Natasha Adamo team member, Irena.
Irena will be answering your comments and questions below!
+ If you need further and more personalized help with your relationship, please look into working with me here.