What to do when a friend doesn’t value your friendship as much as you do

What to do when a friend doesn't value your friendship as much as you do

If I asked you to reflect on the most meaningful people in your life, it would be no surprise if your mind immediately went to your family, kids, or partners.

In many cultures, we raise children to believe that familial, caregiving, and romantic relationships are more crucial for our fulfilment than platonic bonds.

The old adages that ‘you can’t choose your family’ or that ‘blood is thicker than water’ have persisted for generations despite little evidence to support their helpfulness.

There is an unspoken rule that our partner, spouse, parents, or siblings must be given priority over our friends, particularly once we enter adulthood with its plethora of responsibilities.

However, emerging research continually suggests the opposite; deep and intimate friendships are consistently linked with greater happiness, better health, and even a longer life expectancy.

But making and sustaining friends is easier for some than for others. What about those of us who struggle to make new friends? Or those of us who find themselves with flaky friends or in unbalanced friendships where we value the connection more than the other party? Can an uneven amount of effort in a friendship ever be healthy?

Anna Goldfarb, friendship expert and author of Modern Friendship, said that, in reality, perfectly balanced reciprocity in friendships is quite rare.

“There are countless reasons why one friend may not be able to be as present and reciprocal,” she said.

“Lots of happy friendships are unbalanced, especially if one person in the friendship has more capacity to reach out than the other.”

Parenting demands, caregiving responsibilities, a demanding job, or significant life transitions can all impact our ability to initiate contact and plans with friends. Our capacity constantly changes and doesn’t always reflect a lack of caring or valuing the connection.

Goldfarb explained that an even 50/50 split of effort in friendships is far less important than ensuring both parties feel happy, satisfied, and respected.

“It’s only a problem if one friend notices they’re becoming resentful of the imbalance.”

“The unhealthy part is the resentment a friend is harbouring, not necessarily that the connection is unbalanced.”

How to navigate mismatched investment in a friendship

Desire is another concept we usually reserve for romantic relationships. However, Goldfarb explained that desire is critical in creating and sustaining any connection, platonic or otherwise.

“Desire is like the gas in a car. Without desire present, your friendship car is going to stall out,” she said.

Goldfarb’s forthcoming book delves deeper into the factors that influence desire in friendships, including the concept of choice theory. Choice theory states that all humans have five basic genetically determined needs: survival, power, love and belonging, freedom, and fun.

People naturally pursue and give more attention to connections that best help us meet one or several of these needs. This instinct doesn’t make us selfish or indicate that our friendships are transactional or insincere. It is a natural and healthy part of building a solid social circle that helps us lead the life we want.

Goldfarb gives examples of friends who help with childcare responsibilities or have skills that benefit your career. Sometimes, the need may be for release and fun, so we prioritise seeing people who have us crying with laughter whenever we see them.

We all have limited time and energy, so it makes sense to carve out more for people who help us meet our needs and cope with the constant demands of modern life. 

Friendships built on other factors, like history or shared values, which don’t meet these needs may be among the first casualties when your schedule becomes overwhelming.

It can be tricky to discern whether a friend is simply swamped with other things or their desire to sustain the friendship has dwindled.

We may feel unsure whether to try to pick up the slack on our end more or give the individual space. In this instance, Goldfarb suggests naming it and asking them: “Are you overwhelmed by life, or are you taking a step back from this friendship?”

Asking this question may feel nerve-wracking, and the answer has the potential to hurt your feelings, but knowing the truth will always benefit you in the long run because you can then spend your time and energy in friendships where your efforts are better appreciated and reciprocated.

We all have limited time and energy, so it makes sense to carve out more for people who help us meet our needs and cope with the constant demands of modern life. 

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As with so many relationship conundrums, Goldfarb highlights that honest, respectful communication is the key to navigating an imbalanced friendship.

If you know you are approaching a period in which you’ll be inundated with work for a few months and have less capacity to reach out, let your friend know that in advance. It can be as simple as sending them a note to say, “I’ll be super busy for a while and may not reach out as much, but please contact me or send me funny GIFs whenever you can. I miss you and can’t wait to reconnect when life settles down!” 

Getting ahead of the challenge of your limited time and energy removes the anxiety, fear, and ambiguity about why the dynamic has temporarily changed. It reassures the other party that it’s not personal and may give them more insight into your life and how they can best show up for you. 

Another way of creating more synergy in your friendships is by aligning how you spend time together with other goals or needs you currently have. 

“You can always re-negotiate a friendship,” said Goldfarb. “That looks like saying, ‘Hey! I’d like to spend more time together. Is there anything I can help you with? Any goals you’re looking to achieve?’ 

“Maybe your friend wants to move their body more – ask if they want to be walking buddies. Maybe your friend wants to network more – ask if they’d like company to any networking events. Identify what needs are important to your friend most and then propose a way you can help your friend meet those needs.” 

Creating shared goals or activities which support mutual values and goals is a great way to benefit each other’s lives and maximise your limited time and energy. It can also deepen your bond by giving the friendship a new layer of meaning and purpose. 

However, if one party isn’t open or responsive to making these changes, Goldfarb said it may be time to step back and explore other connections. There is no need to terminate the friendship altogether, but you also can’t continue to run yourself ragged chasing someone who is either uninterested or unavailable. 

Reframing a one-sided friendship as an opportunity for exploration and growth can alleviate the pangs of isolation or loneliness that often accompany shifting dynamics within our closest relationships. Rather than rushing to sever ties, consider that friendships, like the tides, have ebbs and flows.

Our ever-evolving selves deserve dynamic connections that evolve in tandem with our journeys. Embracing change becomes our greatest asset in nurturing resilience and authenticity and creating a life and relationships that continually adapt to meet our ever-fluctuating needs and identities.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.