Friends can offer support in so many ways: soup when you’re sick, words of comfort or distraction after a bad day, or a spare bedroom when you need to get away.
Strong friendships are based on mutual support, however. In a one-sided friendship, the communication, time, and effort needed to sustain the connection typically falls to one person.
When they need something, they seek you out right away. But when you’re in need, you just can’t seem to reach them.
One-sided friendships can leave you confused and hurt. You demonstrate an interest in their well-being, but they show little interest in you and your needs, unless you make an effort to draw them out.
If one of your friendships feels a little unbalanced, we’ve got your back with strategies for recognizing these friendships and keeping them from draining you dry.
Signs to look for
Unhealthy friendships can take different forms.
Your friend may not gossip, lie, or do anything outright hurtful. They might be fantastic — when they actually come through. The problem is that they only rarely do come through.
These key signs can help you identify a one-sided friendship:
It’s all about them
A good friend listens with empathy. If you catch them in a crisis, they might say so, but they’ll make sure to check in with you later.
In a one-sided friendship, most conversations revolve around their needs and interests. When you ask, “How’ve you been?,” they share their most recent struggles and then offer a token, “And you?”
Once you start talking, they seem to tune out or quickly turn the conversation back to themselves, saying, “Oh, that reminds me of…” or “That’s just like what happened to me the other day…”
When you spend time together, they tend to decide what you do and insist on having things their way instead of considering your opinion.
They don’t open up
Friendships can feel unbalanced when one person doesn’t share much.
Some people have a harder time opening up about emotional distress or other difficulties. They might deflect questions about their personal life and avoid sharing anything beyond superficial details about themselves.
Instead of dominating the conversation, they spin it back to you, creating an entirely different kind of discomfort.
Their reluctance to share may not relate to their feelings toward you or your friendship, but your interactions might still feel flat and incomplete. Relating to someone is difficult when you don’t have a clear sense of who they are.
You can’t count on them
Support from friends can make a big difference in times of distress.
True friends make an effort to help out whenever possible. Feeling unsure whether you can actually turn to someone when you need them, on the other hand, provides little relief. An absence of emotional support can leave you feeling isolated and more miserable than before.
Perhaps you recently volunteered to help your friend move at the last minute. But when you find your dream apartment and ask for moving help, they fail to reply to any of your messages.
They might also:
- regularly cancel or forget plans
- show annoyance or frustration with you for no clear reason
- break your trust by sharing personal information with others
Their behavior follows a pattern
People sometimes need more from others than they can offer in return. A friend experiencing stressful circumstances might respond to this tension by temporarily leaning on others a little more heavily than usual.
Of course, that’s exactly what friendship means. You help friends when they need you and lift them up when they’re feeling down. With healthy friendship, however, this typically balances out. When you need assistance, you shouldn’t doubt their willingness to help when possible.
A friend who accepts your support but consistently fails to reciprocate, especially when you need it most, may not have your best interests at heart.
Why they hurt
Like any other relationship, friendship takes work.
Sure, life circumstances can temporarily prevent someone from devoting energy to a friendship. But healthy friendships tend to involve good communication, so you’ll probably have some idea of what’s going on.
While you may not offer time, affection, or gifts in order to get anything in return, it can still be pretty painful when someone keeps taking but never gives. Wanting affection, particularly from someone who claims to care, isn’t selfish or unusual in the least.
It’s normal to feel upset by an unbalanced friendship, and you aren’t being “needy” by wanting more. You put in the time and effort.
Your friend says they care, but their consistent disinterest loudly suggests otherwise. This can cause plenty of emotional turmoil.
They leave you questioning yourself
A balanced friendship can help strengthen feelings of belonging and your sense of self-worth.
Believing a friend doesn’t care much about you, however, may do just the opposite. Instead of feeling supported and strengthened, you might:
- worry you’ve offended them
- feel rejected
- believe your personality or interests are somehow lacking
When you start wondering whether the fault lies with you, you might begin to criticize perceived failures and avoid other friends for fear of driving them away, too.
Besides leaving you isolated and vulnerable, this negative self-talk can also damage your self-image.
You don’t know what to expect
Perhaps your friend occasionally does something to reinforce your faith in their commitment to the friendship but fails to follow through. They might text something along the lines of, “Hey, just thinking about you,” or “It’s been too long! Let’s make plans to get together soon.”
In their next message, however, they waste no time asking for your help with something. This shift flattens your excitement, leaving you with the clear impression that they value only what you can do for them.
Even if they don’t need anything, they might quickly fall back into their usual habit of failing to respond. You believe they don’t mean to hurt you, but their regular neglect inspires doubt.
People sometimes get so wrapped up in their own concerns that they have little energy to offer others, so your friend may not have any bad intentions behind their behavior. Regardless, their lack of interest can leave you feeling disconnected and unfulfilled.
You still feel lonely
It’s natural to want to maintain strong friendships. After all, isolation can have serious mental and physical health consequences. A friend who returns the comfort you offer with little consideration of your emotional needs may not ease your loneliness, however.
Emotional support requires emotional energy. Continuing to devote time and energy to a friendship when you get nothing in return can leave you feeling disconnected, with little energy for other friends.
When an unbalanced friendship triggers feelings of uncertainty or a loss of self-confidence, you might become wary of trusting any friendships at all.
Is it worth fixing?
Even when your friendship feels more unbalanced than mutually supportive, you don’t have to give up on it entirely.
These strategies can help you bring it back into balance:
Have a conversation
Different factors can contribute to one-sided friendships. Your friend might have something troubling them, even if they haven’t felt able to share, and they may not realize how unsupported you feel.
By opening a dialogue, you can let them know how their behavior affects you and provide an opportunity for them to share what’s going on.
“I” statements and other good communication techniques can help you avoid sounding accusatory.
Try starting with: “I’ve noticed lately that I’m always the one who reaches out. I sometimes think if I didn’t talk first, we wouldn’t talk at all, and that makes me a little sad. I’m wondering if there’s some reason why I don’t hear from you much these days.”
Change up your interactions
Pinpointing exactly where your friendship feels one-sided can often provide solutions.
Perhaps they never text first and then reply to messages with just a few words. Although you think this means they don’t want to talk to you at all, when you explore the issue, you discover they simply dislike texting. You suggest having conversations over the phone instead.
Maybe they come to your house regularly but never invite you over. As you’d like the occasional break from hosting, you ask if you can visit them instead. They reveal that they live in a small apartment with family and have very little space for guests, so the two of you decide to meet at the park.
Take a step back
It’s perfectly OK to invest a little less energy into others when you feel drained. Easing up on communication for a week or two can often help paint a clearer picture of your friendship.
If they text after a few days to say, “Are you OK? I haven’t heard from you,” they may just have a hard time reaching out first. When 2 weeks pass and you still haven’t heard a word, it’s worth considering whether that friendship is really serving your needs.
You might also find that recognizing the friendship for what it is doesn’t bother you as much as you imagined. Perhaps you have other healthy, well-balanced friendships and don’t mind having one friend who wanders in and out of your life.
Ask for what you need
People might hesitate to offer emotional support or more tangible types of assistance when they don’t know you’ll welcome it.
It’s never helpful to assume someone knows what you need.
Telling a friend, “I feel sad and lonely tonight,” doesn’t necessarily make it clear you want them to come over. Some friends might respond with, “I’ll be right over,” but others might avoid making assumptions.
If you’re in need of company or anything else, asking for it clearly can prevent confusion.
Instead of promoting a sense of connection, one-sided friendships can create distress. One person can’t carry a friendship alone. Even trying to sustain the relationship can leave you exhausted, skeptical of their commitment, and even a little resentful.
One sad truth of life is that friendships don’t always thrive, no matter how much time, energy, and love you put into them.
These tips can help you end it and move forward.
Make your intentions clear
When you tell your friend how you feel, they insist they care about your friendship, but they continue to cancel plans and ignore your texts.
A good next step? Let them know you won’t continue holding up the friendship alone.
Try: “You matter to me, but it hurts to keep trying to reach you when you don’t seem to care. I can’t keep investing time in this friendship when you don’t make a similar effort.”
Stop reaching out
Once you end the friendship, you’ll need to stop reaching out. Stick with your decision, even when missing them or worrying about them.
Remember, you chose to end the friendship because it caused you pain. Getting back in touch can send the message they can continue to take advantage.
Like other interpersonal skills, being a good friend can take some trial and error. If they truly value your friendship, they’ll realize they need to make amends and show a sincere commitment to improvement.
If you want to give them another chance, however, let them show their willingness to make an effort by waiting until they get in touch.
Get support from people you trust
Losing a friend hurts, even when you chose to end it.
Spending time with other loved ones can help you feel less alone and remind you that people do care for you and value your company.
The loss of any friendship can take a toll on well-being, but realizing someone you care for doesn’t have the same regard for you can cause deep emotional pain. Besides loneliness and confusion, you might also notice:
If you’re struggling to cope with painful or unpleasant emotions, therapy can have a lot of benefit.
A therapist can help you come to terms with and process feelings of grief, loneliness, or depression and teach skills for building new, healthy friendships.
The bottom line
True friends accept help when they need it, but they also make sure to offer you the same.
Everyone needs help from time to time, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting some of the same support you provide.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.