If a lack of reciprocity in your friendship is negatively impacting you, here’s how you can make a change.
Human beings need quality friendships.
They help us develop our social skills, provide important companionship and support, and are even associated with higher levels of oxytocin, the ‘love and connection’ hormone.
Friendships look different for everyone, however for most of us they are sources of enjoyable companionship, mutual respect, love, and support.
But what happens when you find yourself in a ‘reply only’ friendship, where interactions only occur when you initiate them?
A lack of reciprocity is a common complaint people have about their friendships, regardless of whether the imbalance is real or just our perception.
Dr Marisa G Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert, explains this as a byproduct of ‘responsibility bias’ – the tendency for human brains to take greater notice when we take responsibility for things than when others do.
“Often we are oblivious when our friend has consistently been the first to reach out, but we easily recognise when we are,” said Franco.
“We have to intentionally ask ourselves about the dynamics of our friendships to recognise the times when we aren’t showing as much investment.”
It’s natural for roles to shift and evolve over the course of a friendship, and the responsibility for keeping in contact doesn’t necessarily always have to be a perfectly equal split.
However, if the imbalance has started to make you doubt the person’s investment in the friendship, or is negatively impacting your self-esteem, it’s important to make a change.
Our childhood can influence our adult friendships
It can be tempting to allocate all the blame for an unequal friendship to the other party, however as all relationships are a shared responsibility, it is important to also consider the ways we may be contributing to the issue.
Many of us follow deeply entrenched behavioural patterns that impact how we show up in our relationships, often without ever consciously realising we are doing so.
These habitual patterns of how we interact with others are known as attachment styles, which Franco explained can significantly influence our friendship dynamics.
“Our attachment style is shaped by our early relationship with our parents,” she said.
“Some of us have a secure attachment. We feel comfortable getting close to others, are relatively confident, can work through conflict, and balance our friend’s needs with our owns.
“People with anxious attachment, however, fear abandonment so they often feel rejected even when it’s not warranted, have trouble reaching out, and tend to withdraw at signs of conflict, because they figure their friend will abandon them if they brought the issue up.”
These friends may ghost you to avoid confrontation or go silent when they are having a difficult time personally out of a fear of burdening you with their problems.
“People with avoidant attachment are uncomfortable with intimacy, tend to not place high value on friends, don’t display much vulnerability, and need others to reach out to them to continue the friendship.”
These types of people may be misconstrued as disinterested or dismissive, when in fact they cherish the friendship, but have a hard time expressing it to others.
Developing a better understanding of our own attachment style can help identify our strengths and limitations when it comes to communication and be a starting point for moving your friendship forward in a constructive way.
How to address your concerns with a ‘reply only’ friend
While it is important to take responsibility for our own needs being met, it doesn’t mean you just have to put up with a flaky friend or someone who shows disinterest in the friendship.
We live in a world where casual, fleeting interactions online have replaced deeper connection for many of us, whether because of conscious choice or circumstance.
One challenge with this is that two people might have totally different views of their relationship with one another.
“We don’t often have a common definition of ‘friend’, especially with social media’s co-opting of the term,” said Franco.
“Some people would define an acquaintance in the way others define a friend. Half our friends aren’t mutual and they’re technically not ‘friendships’ if they’re not mutual.”
Arriving at a shared understanding of the nature and extent of your friendships may alleviate a lot of angst and disappointment that can come from unmet or unrealistic expectations from the people in our lives.
However, getting to this point may involve a few vulnerable or awkward conversations, starting with simply admitting that the inequity in your friendship is bothering you.
“First, bring it up, focusing on what you’d like to add to the friendship rather than its deficits,” said Franco.
This can be as gentle and non-confrontational as saying ‘I love hanging out with you, but I’ve noticed I’ve been the first to reach out the last few times. If you’d be willing to initiate, it would make me so happy’.
If your friend is willing to take this feedback on board and make changes to the relationship dynamics, it can be a great opportunity to set some healthy boundaries, leading to a deeper, more fulfilling friendship.
If not, it’s important to remember that it may not be at all personal. They may simply be unable to commit to reaching out more consistently because they lack the time, energy, or emotional capacity to do so.
However, if you are truly unsatisfied with the reciprocity or support you get from a friendship, Franco suggests taking some space from the person in question.
“It’s important to remember that we can’t force people to be our friends,” she said.
“If it seems like we’re the only ones invested in the friendship, I remind people to walk away and not work harder. There are others out there who will be ready for us.”
Does it really matter who makes the first move?
It’s natural human behaviour to jump to conclusions when we receive radio silence from the other half of a friendship.
Most of us are psychologically hardwired to assume the worst, and in a situation where we feel like we are making a lot of effort to maintain a relationship and receiving little back, this can quickly lead to unhelpful false beliefs, such as that the other person doesn’t care about us or that we are being taken for granted.
It is far more likely, however, that the other person is simply unaware of this pattern, or has different expectations and needs from the friendship, perhaps because they have an avoidant or anxious attachment style.
It is worth questioning how important it is who reaches out first, especially if once you spend time together it is fun, rewarding, and socially and emotionally satisfying.
Human behaviour is complex, and not always conscious or deliberate, so try to avoid taking your friend’s behaviour personally, but do voice your concerns and feelings in a way that feels right to you.
It may bring you closer together than ever, or it may cause conflict or even a relationship breakdown. Either way, you will be rewarded with a better understanding of your needs and patterns in friendships, and be better placed to make new friendships that are mutually enjoyable and fulfilling.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on November 24, 2021 but has since been updated to include new content.