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Imbalanced relationships have to heal or end.

All healthy relationships require give and take. That’s not to say relationships are transactional, where everything has to remain evenly balanced, like scales of justice. Keeping a “score” of who does what isn’t healthy, and an element of trust and selflessness is the foundation of harmony. But mutual support is necessary. Without it, you may find yourself in a one-sided relationship that doesn’t feel right.

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The difficulty is, many people aren’t able to identify an unbalanced friendship or romantic relationship. Many people grow up without knowing how to set healthy boundaries, and they’ve normalized overgiving or an inability to say no. Others lack the self-awareness to know when they’re taking up too much space or asking too much of others.

This applies to all relationships: be it family, friends, or a romantic partner. Being able to identify when you’re in a one-sided relationship is the first step toward creating healthier relationship models. And if that’s not possible, it’s time to reconsider the future of the relationship itself.

What Is a One-Sided Relationship?

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All relationships require investment. First and foremost, that investment is time or energy. In some circumstances that investment may be a form of emotional attachment or financial support. Intuitively, most people get a sense when a relationship is one-sided. A one-sided relationship can translate as feeling as if you’re making all of the effort, are underappreciated, or your energy levels feel depleted or drained. Other signs of a one-sided relationship include:

  • Consistently being the person to initiate contact — either phone calls or in-person meetings.
  • Being the person who is supportive emotionally, without the same in return.
  • Always having to follow what the other person wants, with little room for compromise.
  • Not being listened to when expressing needs or boundaries, or having needs or boundaries repeatedly crossed.
  • Having an expectation to be always available, or facing anger or blame if not able to support in certain contexts.
  • Doing more in terms of activities. For example in a romantic relationship, doing more of the cleaning, cooking, and household chores, without this being agreed upon.
  • Experiencing double standards, such as someone expecting you to drop plans to meet up at short notice, but not doing the same when the roles are reversed.

No relationship is perfectly balanced. All relationships go through stages and cycles, often where one person has to step up and take more of the slack. A truly one-sided relationship is imbalanced at its core. Imbalance is part of the dynamic, deeply ingrained over a period of time. Fortunately, there are clear and direct ways this can be addressed.

An imbalanced relationship doesn’t mean things have to end. Instead, it pays to follow the three-step process of identifying, communicating, and deciding. By doing so, you may find a better way to be part of the other person’s life, or understand when it’s time to let go.

Identify Why You Feel the Relationship Is One-Sided

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A vague sense that something isn’t right in your relationship is a call to investigate further. Can you identify exactly why you feel the relationship isn’t balanced? Consider the nature of the relationship. Is it a fairly new friendship, or a relationship where this dynamic has been present for a long period of time, and you’re only now noticing the imbalance?

It’s common for people to become aware of one-sided friendships when starting to set boundaries. As your self-esteem and self-confidence grow, you may voice your opinion more, express when behaviors don’t feel okay, or simply not tolerate things that you used to. All of these can surface imbalances.

Once you’ve identified the reason, consider your expectations. Is what you’re looking for fair or attainable? Could it be that the relationship balances in other ways, such as one person making more effort in different areas? If you have a tendency to overgive, the only adjustment necessary may be your own way of approaching the relationship.

Communicate What Isn’t Working in the Relationship

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Relationships live and die through their communication. Nowhere is this clearer than in one-sided friendships. Once you’ve identified what doesn’t feel right, checked your expectations are reasonable and made any necessary adjustments, the next step is to have an honest conversation with the person. For example, you might say: “I’ve noticed lately that I’m the one messaging first to arrange a meeting. This doesn’t feel good to me. Can we discuss this?”

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The person’s response reveals a lot about them. The sign of a solid, healthy relationship is the ability to take on board feedback or the expression of needs. The root of many feelings of one-sidedness is a lack of communication. Simply being aware of someone else’s perspective can improve the dynamic. Communicating lets you know where you stand, and set boundaries. If the person becomes overly defensive, deflects, tries to make you feel guilty, or shuts down the conversation, that’s a red flag.

Decide What to Do Next

If you’ve established clarity around what doesn’t feel good and made the effort to communicate, your next choice is in deciding what to change. Let’s say you have a friend who has communicated that they’re available to meet once per month. Your choice is to accept that or decide not to invest further. Either way, make sure to communicate as best you can.

Many people continue to stay in one-sided friendships or relationships, don’t communicate or express their needs, and let resentment or bitterness build. That often comes from a feeling of powerlessness. However, the empowered approach requires the courage to talk openly about issues, whilst knowing that you’re not in control of another person’s response.

A one-sided relationship is an opportunity to update the framework of the dynamic, to explore the way in which you’re overgiving or not setting boundaries, or a sign that the relationship has evolved and is no longer compatible. It requires brutal self-honesty, knowing when your expectations are too high, or knowing when you’re overgiving. But the ultimate decision — to work on transforming the dynamic, or choosing to leave — is with you.

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