Relationships are an essential part of our lives, whether we want them to be or not. They can affect us positively or negatively and a one-sided friendship can certainly have its impact.
We all need community, and the tools that foster that experience. For that reason, I sought out the insights of psychologists John Carnesecchi and Saba Lurie who helped me explore unrequited friendships, how to navigate them and what we can learn from them.
Hallmarks of an unrequited friendship
It’s not difficult to notice when you’re the only one giving in a relationship. It’s draining. The relationship feels forced. You initiate everything: conversation, spending time together. Even the act of being vulnerable is unbalanced.
I know it’s easy to enter relationships as a result of proximity, convenience and over-excitement but we need to raise our expectations. Intentionality is expected in a relationship; it’s normal to be invested in the people you say you care about.
In my experience, this all became apparent when I started keeping my distance because I was tired of the lack of reciprocity. The “friend” didn’t even notice my absence, it seemed.
I realised I had stepped into a true friendship when they noticed little things I had said in conversation. They took a true interest in the details of my life. The difference was clear.
Dealing with unrequited friendships
When it comes to detecting an unrequited relationship, our feelings can be a guide.
Carnesecchi explained over email that feeling drained by a relationship is a key signal something needs to change.
“You will not feel the eagerness to share details of your life. They will make you feel dragged down. There is a certain discomfort that overcomes you during your interaction.”
There’ll often be the feeling of wanting to withdraw or limit interaction with the person in a one-sided relationship, he suggested. Because we all instinctively know what’s good for our soul.
“If your friend is unresponsive and lacks empathy and interest, maybe it is time to reevaluate the companionship. If you have an untrusting feeling, it becomes a heavy burden to bear. There is a reason for the mistrust; you should take a deeper look at the dynamics. In any relationship, you want to feel connected,” he said.
A lack of connection can create a gaping hole in any relationship. Talking about superficial things can only get you so far; you have to get to a point that there’s a want for intimacy on both sides.
“Being stuck in a friendship is not taking the high road; it lacks respect for yourself. Ultimately, [the] emotional damage can cause more harm than good,” Carnesecchi explained.
Introspection is the first step to dealing with a relationship that might be non-reciprocal. The examined life is the one worth living.
“As far as navigating this space in a healthy way, it may help to be thoughtful and honest with yourself about what the dynamic is,” Lurie shared.
“What makes the friendship unrequited? Is it due to some sort of rupture or misstep in the friendship, or was the friendship always off-balance? How has this friendship developed over time? Are [you] left with a feeling of dissatisfaction after your interactions, or [do you] experience a sense of yearning to be closer?”
It’s important to clarify your feelings and thoughts about this relationship before taking any action.
“You might even feel the opposite way: perhaps you feel annoyed by the frequency of your friend’s check-ins or wonder if they feel closer to you than you do to them. In either case, it may help to consider, what is it that you gain from maintaining an unrequited friendship? Do an honest inventory of how it is impacting you to be in the relationship, and how you feel towards this friend.”
Lurie suggested dealing with it one or both of these ways:
“If you find that your friendship has suddenly become unrequited and you’re not sure why maybe there’s a conversation you can have with the other party.”
“Be thoughtful about how you’re investing your energy and your love.”
It’s worth pointing out here that a change in behaviour could signify your friend is going through a tough time themselves, so a conversation is always a good starting point.
The next option is setting clear boundaries.
Setting boundaries in one-sided friendships
Boundaries are meant to keep us safe. Ensure you’re comfortable with what you’re giving in a relationship and that you’re not overextending yourself unnecessarily. Boundaries can come in the form of how much you communicate, how much effort you put in and how much you let the person in.
When it comes to setting these boundaries, effective communication is important. Carnesecchi suggested using these techniques when you eventually have that hard conversation:
”When communicating and ensuring your feelings are being addressed clearly always remember to use three skills in communication: empathy (putting yourself in their shoes), mirroring (repeating what you heard so you got the message right), and clarification (ask questions if you don’t understand or want a deeper understanding).
“This allows the message to be heard and also gives you peace of mind that you communicated as best as possible so you can make future decisions about the friendship,’ he said.
The people who object when you set boundaries are the ones who took advantage when you had none.
”You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm” – Unknown
Observation is a crucial element in maintaining friendships and noticing the right signs can save you from a world of hurt.
There’s a progression in friendships and there are things you’ll notice that may sway you one way or the other. It’s mostly the little details: Do they check in? Are they giving off any negative attitudes? Do they show they care when you’re having a tough time? It can also be the bigger details, like a lack of reciprocity in absolutely everything.
It can be worth defining friendships
I don’t know about you but when I see a possible connection with someone, I dive all the way in. I’ve learnt over time that you can’t force it, however. You shouldn’t skip stages. Rushing into relationships has a kind of ecstasy that comes with it, but it can be problematic in the long run.
I started grouping my friendships and it’s helped a lot; acquaintances, casual friends, close friends and intimate friends. I try to observe patterns and progress relationships accordingly. You can’t have a deep relationship with everyone, you can desire to, but you have to be self-aware. Discern when to stay in your lane and keep things where they are.
Remember, some relationships are seasonal
The truth is sometimes relationships are seasonal and we have to learn to be okay with that. Pushing for a relationship that has reached its end can make it seem unrequited. We might want the relationship to continue but one person’s will does not a relationship make.
Accept things as they are and embrace the flow of relationships. Maybe they’ll come back to you?
At the end of the day, we all need people. No matter how much this new culture tries to push the extremities of self-reliance. We all need community and it’s not weak to want it.
A part of the journey of developing deep friendships might be going through and learning from unrequited ones. The pain of the lessons might bear the fruit of intentionality and intimacy in other relationships or even give that once unbalanced friendship a new chance to thrive.