The two-way street of friendship

July 12, 2016

There’s a lot going on in my life and only so much time, which means I can’t do everything. As part of my ongoing effort to set limits for myself, I’ll sometimes look at relationships that are beginning to feel unbalanced. Sometimes I feel as if I am not giving enough. But more often, taking stock shows me that I am giving so much that the scale is unbalanced.  Friendship defined is a tricky thing.

Sometimes we feel that we SHOULD be giving, all the time and to everyone. But that’s not the case. We can actually pick and choose how much we give and to whom, and one factor might be what exactly we are receiving from the friendship.

It’s not that the scales must always be balanced, because there will always be times when one friend gives more than another. But sometimes, over time, it becomes clear that we are in a parasitic relationship: one in which only one friend is benefiting.

My husband and I were talking about this very topic the other night. In looking at a couple of long friendships it became pretty clear that the scales hadn’t been in balance for a very long time.  One of the best things about my husband is that he can help me weigh these things logically (for the most part) and look more objectively at them. That’s why I love discussions with him. He’s pretty amazing in that way, especially for a guy. But back to friendship defined.

When a friendship is out of balance, it can be parasitic:

In a healthy friendship, both parties are getting something. It might not be the same thing, but it is some-thing.  A great relationship is symbiotic: it benefits both friends. I value these friendships highly and am lucky to have some.

But I can also call out a few friendships which, if not parasitic, are definitely more one-sided. You probably can, too. It’s easy to identify those because you’re the one putting in most of the effort.

There are two ways this goes. One is that the other person is absolutely clueless that there is any imbalance, mostly because they are self-centered. And no, being self-centered doesn’t exclude you from my list of friends. Is that surprising? Remember, I have a high tolerance for “different.” But it DOES mean that I will eventually limit my time with you and I will stop reaching out, because I don’t want the friendship to turn parasitic. If it did, well, I’d be pretty pissed, at both myself and at you.

The other way this can go is that the friend recognizes the imbalance and has “reasons.”  I’m not that good with “reasons” because I know that people do what they want to do.  Rationales can be valid, but they can also be excuses for just not wanting to say “no, I don’t want to.”

So, what to do when you see a relationship heading down the parasitic path?

The Circles exercise

I once did an exercise in which I put myself in the center and drew orbital circles around me, going further and further out. I then placed my friends somewhere in orbit. Closer friends had a closer orbit. Closer orbits will affect us more than those further out.  That exercise forced me to really evaluate the people in my life and there were some surprises.

When I start to feel that the relationship is imbalanced, I don’t leave, I simply move the person to an orbit further out, one in which my expectations of them aren’t quite so high.  They’re still in orbit, but not close orbit, so they can’t affect me the same way as those closer.

As I get older, I find that I have more friends in far off orbit and fewer close in.  Part of that is that I set the bar high. That’s because I am a really good friend and I have no problem saying that. A REALLY good friend. If we’re friends and you need me, I’m THERE. Period. I don’t have “reasons.” I’m just there. And I’ll be there to the end and I do mean the end. The real end. Those of you who read this site regularly know that already.

So I don’t feel it’s inappropriate for me (or anyone) to have high expectations of those in our close orbit.  If you want to be in my close orbit, you’ve got to give as much as you get. That’s a fact.

Friendship is an area in which we have a lot of unexpressed “shoulds” for others and also for ourselves. So many hurt feelings come from knee-jerk reactions to things to which we might not give a second thought if we had the friendship in the proper perspective.

I’ve found that it’s easier for me if I actually consider these things so that I am not making assumptions or holding out expectations that are not in line with actions.

So, I’d love to hear what you think.

Oh, and I know that there are at least two of you who are going to think this post is about you. The genesis of this post does involve my thoughts about a couple friends, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that neither are the ones who will think it’s about them.  Aren’t people infinitely interesting? And so predictable! But even if it’s NOT about you, if you think it is, then maybe you want to go through the Circles exercise, too, so you can blow me off, guilt-free!  (I’m teasing! Or not….)


17 comments on “The two-way street of friendship
  1. ryder ziebarth says:

    This is a great exercise in examining friendships, Carol, and puts them into perfect perspective. I have always used a gardening metaphor to weed out my friendships or, conversely, through on some miracle grow. Like you, I am a good friend, too.I’ll go the extra mile and a half, even if we haven’t been in touch for years. But if I reach out several times, and get no response, or empty promises to see each other “soon,”then I have learned ( after many years, I might add) to prune with sharp clippers I don’t hold grudges–I simply get rid of the dead wood, albeit with some sadness sometimes. Like you, my universal orbiting stars burn out with unreturned calls, repeated promises to get together that never transpire and cancelled dates. I’ve gotten wiser in my old age and self -centeredness in a relationship is a biggie– non- reciprocation is an even bigger-biggie ( an I am not talking about birthday gifts.)As a gardener, it comes naturally for me to pull out weeds, and divide overgrowth;same thing with friendships which no longer serve the same purpose as when they were first planted in my life.Less is more in a garden, the borders, the backdrops, all serve to encircle and support the center of the garden where the most beautiful plants flower and and thrive. This is my metaphor, but yours is a wonderful one, too. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I completely agree with Ryder. I’d do all I could to help someone, whether it’s a close friend or acquaintance. People matter deeply to me, and friends? I love my true friends. But after awhile if someone doesn’t reach out to me, doesn’t respond to me, doesn’t take the initiative after it’s always been me doing so, or pushes me away in various other ways it’s not time to cut them off completely but to put them in the outer circles.

    It’s too hurtful to try and hold onto people when they clearly have different ideas on what a friendship is supposed to be. That hasn’t only happened to me but to many of my girlfriends who tell similar stories. That’s just life. Try as we might sometimes it’s just healthier to let go and let some float away into those outer circles.

  3. This is perfect. And I’d expand it to include all relationships, not just friendships. There are plenty of people in my family (cousins and such) who are extremely parasitic and I’ve chosen not to spend my energy or time fostering relationships with them. It took me a long time to realize that I wanted relationships where I worked as hard as the other party in maintaining the friendship. It’s not always the same work, and sometimes I’ve worked harder (and sometimes they’ve worked harder). But I never felt used or taken advantage of. Relationships should be easy and comfortable; they shouldn’t be a chore.

  4. Brianna says:

    I agree with MaryBeth. This would be particularly useful in boyfriend/girlfriend relationships:)

  5. erica avery says:

    This was an amazing read. I honestly feel like this is bigger than just friends but can even go as deep as family members and associates as well

  6. Relationships are not just ART they are SCIENCE.

  7. Ellen Dolgen says:

    This is so smart! I think relationships are like flowers. They need water to grow and sometimes they need to be dug out of the garden!

  8. Sometimes we grow in different directions because of what happens in our lives and those directions don’t always continue to intertwine. It may be that I’ve moved many times in my life and had to adapt. Life happens.

  9. Laurie Stone says:

    Yes, we’ve all had the friend clean-out. I had to say goodbye to a decades-long friend because I didn’t feel well treated. We still see each other infrequently and are polite but that’s it. Funny thing is it suits me fine. I think as we get older, we know who we are more and what we require in a friend. Great post.

  10. Laurie Oien says:

    Just LOVE the orbit term! I have put a few friends out in my distant orbit (not knowing that I had already developed an orbit circle exercise) and decided we’re still friends, but just in a different way! I agree that some friends are still good and nice people, but we just don’t have a close connection. Those friendships still need to be respected and appreciated.

  11. sue says:

    I love the Circles exercise Carol. Sometimes I feel as if I’m the one keeping the relationship going and if I didn’t make the effort to stay in touch it wouldn’t happen. As I get older, I’m more discerning with my friendships and rather have a small number of quality friendships. When my husband and I got together (both second timers) his friends slowly faded away as they couldn’t really accept the change. Life is too short – great post as usual. Sue from Sizzling Towards Sixty.

  12. Rachel says:

    This is really interesting perspective, I agree with you! I think we definitely are more selective with who we keep in our inner circle as we get older!

  13. Amanda says:

    I’m a really good friend too. If you say you need me, I’ll be there. If you don’t, I won’t. It is simple and based on honesty and loyalty. My friendship also goes out to only a small few. I don’t have time to fiddle faddle with people who don’t want to be friends and I’m ok with that.

  14. Krista Dial says:

    I was actually talking about this with my husband this past weekend. I have several friendships that seem more and more out of balance. I’ve realized they’ve become a one way street, in a sense. I like how you use the orbit analogy. I’m definitely going to put this exercise into practice…

  15. I think this becomes more and more apparent as we get older. There’s no time for relationships that are simply one-sided.

  16. Rick Deville says:

    Excellent article, really helped me.

    I have been through a friendship where 1) I’m not sure it was a real friendship, 2) my awareness and expectations of who this person really was was entirely wrong, 3) I’m not sure if I did anything to bring about her rapid change in tone with me, and 4) I’m sure I was dealing with a person with one or more personality and mood disorders.

    Let’s call this friend (or should I say “friend”?) Tara. Tara works with me in the same company. She’s a couple years older than me, now in her mid-40s, and has been in this company a couple more years as well, not a supervisor, more of a senior colleague. Tara was divorced/single when we met, and I am married.

    Some background: Tara had married young, she married her husband when they were classmates in grad school, and then were classmates during an arduous 5-year training program, and then another year in practice working together until they had – what I heard to be – an ugly divorce (he had taken money from her, I heard). She never spoke much about him, occasionally mentioned she thought he was an alcoholic, but said they probably would have stayed together if they had had kids (they never did, she didn’t talk about that).

    So she had been in her early thirties, divorced and single. She proceeded to go through several relationships, none lasting more than two years (one man she mentioned she had been “almost engaged” to, not sure what that means). She had also been through several jobs in the same field, with different companies.

    At our company, she worked two floors above me for the first couple years after I joined. She was always friendly and cordial with me, I only saw her occasionally. But I began to hear that there was some rift between her and our other staff on her floor. I never heard what exactly had happened, but know Tara to sometimes be defensive, irritable, and territorial about her work – which she occasionally expressed in angry emails to the team!

    The chiefs of the department had to switch her office for other purposes, so they transferred her downstairs to my floor, a quieter floor.

    Our friendship started pretty quickly then. I had been one of the few coworkers who she had been casually friendly with even before she came downstairs and I felt sorry for her about how the others were treating her upstairs. Although I didn’t know the details about what happened up there, I felt that she was a good worker who was being unfairly maligned.

    We hit it off quickly. Mornings and afternoons chatting in each others’ offices, lunch together in the team breakroom, went to conferences together, walks to the company store together. We began emailing and texting quite frequently. Text conversations almost every day. Book and movie ideas, political discussions, you name it, fun chats. Her mother passed away and I spent several long phone conversations with Tara, although she later told me she generally did not like to talk on the phone. Tara describes herself as an introvert, she certainly is, and when she had her door closed and needed to just get her work done on her own, alone, I let her be. Some days she wouldn’t show up to work and I’d text to see if she was ok, she’d tell me she was having “a really bad time” and just needed to be alone.

    We saw each other at concerts, where she hung out at intermission with me and my wife. Went to a few company excursions with her, she was friendly with my wife too.

    Occasionally, I now realize more clearly, she didn’t treat me as a friend, though. Couple times going out with others from work, she drove me to the venue, and then just left me there without a ride at the end of the evening (once some boyfriend she was all nuts about came and took her away from our group, once she said she just needed to leave, and left me standing there alone in the parking lot calling Uber!). I asked her a couple times if she wanted to join me and my wife for dinner before a concert, and she always said she “didn’t want to be a third wheel.” When my wife and I went on a double-date with her and her then-boyfriend (later fiancee), to a festival (an excessively PDA-filled showing on their part), they just suddenly declared in the middle of the day they were leaving since he didn’t feel well. Another time we went on another double-date with them to dinner and a concert, at the end of the music, they just left without staying a minute to say goodnight. Except for one evening when I invited her (single at the time) to join me and my wife and my parents for a Christmas garden festival and nice dinner, I realize now she never wanted to go out with us unless it was to serve as a double-date for her and a guy! She never invited me out or over to her house.

    She shared with me here and there some relatively private details about her life and family (although I now realize she left a lot of details about prior work and relationship life to herself). I used to ask about how she was doing all the time. I really felt more and more that I cared about her. In a purely platonic way, I’m happily married! But I cared and felt sorry for hardships she was going through and wanted (and offered) to help in any way I could.

    One notable time I offered her advice I now realize may have been a major mistake. Thing is with Tara, she is very self-assured and confident that whatever she is doing is the right and smart thing to do, no matter what common wisdom says. She had embarked on her newest relationship and after only a few weeks of dating, he had moved into her house, she was planning to buy a baby grand piano to convert her home office into a music room for him, they went ring shopping, and she was planning on quitting her job and moving with him across the country in about a year to live closer to his parents. I only suggested to her that this relationship was moving very fast and she should keep her head on her shoulders – if she was sure it was the right thing, fine, but I was just hoping she wasn’t making rash decisions. (of note, I have kind of made the “instant relationship” mistake myself, and it didn’t turn out well!!). She became quiet – noticeably perturbed at my suggestion to merely think carefully about what she was doing – and tersely told me she had been through many relationships and could easily see that she had found the right man. After just over a month of dating, she knew everything that was bad about him and could live with those things.

    On the other hand, I told her about some private health issues I had. And a few months into our “friendship” my wife had a baby, my new son. And she never once asked me about how those things were going, about how I was doing or the baby or my postpartum wife! Not once!

    It’s remarkable to think now, but in the months before my son was born, I asked her (at first casually, then with a heartfelt written letter) if she wanted to be the Godmother to my son. She said yes, she was honored.

    The major rift happened about a week before my son was born. She had been dating a guy for about 2.5 months and was very content and excited to be in a relationship (the same boyfriend from the double-dates I mentioned). On Monday she was friendly, joking around with me, had a nice chat and walked to the store with me ….

    Tuesday morning … not a word. No good morning, no nothing. She shut her office door all morning, seemed very angry when I saw her come out of office in afternoon, I tried to talk to her and she abruptly and rudely cut me off in mid-sentence, closed her door in my face. And she remained like that the next week until I had to leave work for the birth.

    I texted her a few times, I was concerned about her very sudden change in behavior. After my son was born, she never texted back. I was reading about depression and noticed her symptoms seemed to match almost entirely (at least from an external view). She finally wrote me a text saying she was overwhelmed and needed some space. Although she said she knew I was trying to be a good friend to her, my periodic checks on how she was doing were increasing her stress, she needed space. I understood. I sent her an emoticon text every week or so to let her know I was there if she needed to talk, but I otherwise kept silent and gave her space all that time.

    When I got back to work a few weeks later, I found out from another coworker that after a couple weeks when she was very upset, people had thought she and the new guy had broken up, she came in one morning to announce they were engaged. Other than flashing the ring at me with a smirk over her shoulder, she never mentioned it to me.

    Continued silence from her. A few weeks later I wrote to her, congratulated her again, but said I hoped we could clear the air between us. I said I had valued our friendship, and hoped we could resume more cordial interactions, if only for workplace harmony. She eventually replied, again stating that she was an introvert and my interactions with her were making coming to work difficult. My “constant need for attention from her” were “very draining.”

    Brief list of possible reasons for all this:
    1- self-centered, borderline/narcissistic personality disorder(s)
    2 – insecurity/desperation being single for so long
    3 – involuntary/circumstantial childlessness
    4 – jealous/controlling boyfriend/fiance

    I’m curious your thoughts on this painful/confusing situation.


    • Well, here’s the thing. Very early she signaled that she was not the kind of friend you wanted or needed. At that point, if you’d read the signals, there would’ve been no need to continue. It’s my experience that we can analyze someone else all we want, and think about reasons for their behavior which may or may not be true–but in the end, it really doesn’t matter why–letting go is the best course of action. Why give it any energy?

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