Date updated: December 15, 2006
By Marla Paul
Content provided by Revolution Health Group
The last time I heard from my out-of-town friend Jennifer was — ummm, actually I don’t remember. She zips me a friendly return email whenever I touch base to say hi, but she never checks in first.
Jennifer also doesn’t call when she’s in my city for business. When I’ve suggested coffee or dinner, she’s always booked. Last spring, she suggested we meet for a girls’ weekend, but never followed up in spite of my attempts to wangle a firm date out of her.
It’s the classic one-way friendship. You initiate all the contact and feel like you’ve won the lottery if she finally wedges you into her schedule. She does like me!
My old friend Jennifer cares about me on some level, but not enough to stay in touch.
“She’s just not that into me,” I admitted to my husband, borrowing the title of a best-selling book that bluntly informs women why the guy they like isn’t calling.
After I finally faced the sad truth about her, I decided to quit stoking the cold, gray embers of our relationship. Not that she would notice.
Then, out of the blue, she sent a birthday card, toppling my resolution to be done with her.
Thus is the dilemma of a lopsided relationship. You wonder if the friendship really exists or if it’s merely a shell of a condemned building being shored up by your outsize efforts. Maybe you should just let it crumble. And the bigger question: Do I want to be the pal of someone who won’t lift a finger to see how I am?
Relationships are rarely 50/50, but most of us don’t want to do all the work. We need to know our friends like us as much as we like them, and the way we measure that is in phone calls, emails and their desire to hang out.
Of course, seismic life events — a new baby, a new job, a divorce, a death of a family member — might temporarily throw the relationship off balance and crimp her ability to stay in touch.
But when a friendship is always out of whack, it smarts.
“The pain of rejection is real. It registers in the same place in the brain as physical pain,” says Judith V. Jordan, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard University and co-author of Women’s Growth in Connection (The Guilford Press, 1991).
Breaking up is hard to do
Lainie Friedman, 32, sure felt bruised when her once-close buddy Pam pulled a disappearing act.
Friedman, a public relations account manager in New York, had met Pam when they worked together. The two met often for dinner and exchanged frequent emails. They were so close that when Pam had a new baby and her husband went abroad on a business trip, she invited Friedman to stay with her because she was nervous.
“I helped with the baby. Then I went to the christening and the first birthday party,” recalls Friedman, who is single.
But when Friedman quit her job, Pam was MIA. “She wasn’t interested in the fact that I was looking for a job,” Friedman says. “Money (for me) was tight, and she said ‘we’ll have to have you over for dinner.’ It never happened. The only communication was if I reached out to her.”
Perplexed, Friedman says she finally asked her friend, “‘Is something wrong? Did I do something?’ She said, ‘No, I love you. You don’t know what it’s like to have a 2-year-old.’”
No, but she did know what it was like to feel neglected. Still, Friedman was reluctant to end the relationship. So when Pam’s grandmother died, she mailed a sympathy card.
Thus launched a volley of emails, and Friedman felt a burst of renewed hope. “I thought, ‘This is nice. Maybe we’ll rekindle the friendship,’” Friedman says. Pam even suggested getting together. “It’s been so long; we need to go out,” she wrote. But it never happened.
Friedman vows the friendship is really over. She expects to see the generic Christmas card from Pam in her mailbox in December, but she won’t respond.
“I have a new philosophy. I don’t believe in these one-way friendships,” says Friedman. “You don’t get anything out of them. You wind up getting really hurt. If somebody is giving me signals that ‘I outgrew our friendship or I don’t have time for you,’ I pick up on that and cut them out of my circle.”
To measure a friend’s attentiveness, she tracks who acknowledged that she moved into a new apartment or remembered her birthday.
Why doesn’t she call?
“She’s content with the pattern. She knows you’ll phone first,” suggests Terri Apter, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain.
Other possibilities: Your pal might like you but not enough to seek out your company, or perhaps she’s “used to being dominant and wooed,” says Apter, the author of numerous books on women’s relationships, including her newest, the forthcoming The Sister Knot (W.W. Norton, 2007).
“Some people at certain times in their lives have less energy to put into a friendship,” Jordan notes, particularly if they’ve had a major life change like marriage or a baby. “It is important to try to sort out if the other person is generally less available or if it’s specific to this friendship. If it’s more general, then you have to decide if you can live with the more-limited time and energy that this friend brings.”
Barbara Waldman has tried to live with the limitations of her friend Stacey. But it’s been hard work to pedal the bicycle-built-for-two alone all these years.
“At first, we had a fast and furious friendship. We were really tight,” says Waldman, 48, a paralegal and spin class instructor from Highland Park, Ill.
But after a few years, Waldman began to feel she was carrying the relationship. It might take weeks before Stacey returned one of her calls, and sometimes Waldman had to phone several times before she heard back from her.
“I thought that’s how Stacey is and I accepted it,” she says.
But then Waldman’s husband lost his job, and during that stressful time she really needed her pal. Stacey, however, was as uncommunicative as ever.
“She should have been checking in on me, and I shouldn’t have to be chasing her,” says Waldman. When she told Stacey she was hurt, her friend replied, “This is who I am. Friends of mine have to accept it or they move on.”
Waldman thinks she has. “It seems like the friendship is over because I haven’t talked to her in a year. I’ve got to let it go. It gets to me,” she says.
But she still feels immutably drawn to her old pal. In the next breath, she muses, “Who knows, maybe I’ll pick up the phone and call her one day when I’m in the mood. I miss her.”
Jordan suggests saying, “I notice I’m the one who’s always calling to get together. I need to check out with you if I am looking for more time to get together than you would really like or if we have a style difference here.” That way you’re not attacking your friend and putting her on the defensive.
Florence Isaacs, the author of Toxic Friends, True Friends (Citadel Press, 2003), suggests emailing a note or writing a script for yourself that you can read over the phone.
With email, she says, “you can write out what you want to say and look at it in the morning. It allows you to say what you want without being interrupted. It also allows time for the other person to respond and think about what the email said. . . . Very often the friendship comes out stronger than it was to begin with.”
But if it doesn’t, then you must decide whether to stay or go. “If we are feeling more and more left out, hurt, disrespected, it behooves us to begin to look elsewhere for the mutuality and connection that we all need to survive,” Jordan stresses.
How do you disconnect from a one-way friendship? If it’s truly one-sided and you stop calling, that should do it. If your wayward pal calls or emails you, you don’t have to respond, says Isaacs. Or you could end it openly and say, “I can’t see you anymore because I need a more-reciprocal relationship.”
After all, says Isaacs, “Friendship should be a refuge, not an ordeal.”
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