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….)