Are You In A One-Sided Relationship? Why It Happens & How To Fix It
If you've ever been a part of a one-sided relationship, it's likely you're keenly aware of the intense loneliness that can exist.
They could physically be in the room sitting right next to you, but you can still feel alone because you're not being emotionally seen and taken care of.
Even though you're committed to your significant other, there's a fundamental difference between being selfless in love and loving someone who takes it all in without giving you anything meaningful in return.
Below, the characteristics of a one-sided relationship, the common signs you may be in one, what causes them, and more.
What is a one-sided relationship?
"A one-sided relationship can be defined as a relationship that lacks balance and equitable reciprocity. A relationship that lacks balance or equitable reciprocity may look like one person investing more time, energy, effort, emotional or financial support than the other," Mychelle Williams, M.A., LPC, tells mbg.
If this sounds exhausting, it's because it is—physically, mentally, and spiritually. A relationship should feel like a safe harbor to play, relax, and weather the storm together.
A one-sided relationship doesn't enrich your life significantly because the construct doesn't consistently promote meaningful connection and constructive conflict.
It becomes overwhelming and tiring for the self-sacrificing partner to manage the relationship on their own when it should be a responsibility shared by both parties to nurture and move the relationship along.
One-sided relationship definition
Signs of a one-sided relationship:
They aren't there for you like you are there for them
You notice that you do things for them, but you can't say they always do the same thing for you. Williams says that if you find yourself having to accommodate all of their needs instead of experiencing a flow of compromise, it's a red flag sign of a one-sided relationship. Take note if they're only in contact when they want something, but they aren't accessible to you in times of similar need.
You're the only one who puts work into the relationship
"Establishing closeness or connection feels exclusively like your responsibility instead of a shared one," says Williams. "If you do try to bring up the disproportionate effort contributed to the relationship, they may minimize or downplay it as if your experience is exaggerated or false."
You're insecure and feel like you aren't enough
You keep trying your hardest, but it doesn't go anywhere. Over time, you begin to question your worth and believe that your needs aren't important enough to bring up. After all, if you were good enough, wouldn't they want to make you happy? Your mind can spin in circles wondering why they aren't putting in the same amount of effort.
You make excuses for their behavior
They're always having a bad day or going through a rough patch. It seems like an act of benevolence and love to continually justify your significant other's actions, but it could also mean that you're avoiding the truth and enabling them. You're seeing your partner for their "potential" rather than seeing them as they are.
There are more negative than positive emotions when you think about them
"The relationship is plagued with the presence of blame and self-blame rather than healthy anger and guilt—which is meant to hold the appropriate parties accountable," Joanne B. Kim, LMFT, tells mbg. "There's a heightened, ongoing experience of anxiety, guilt, shame, and resentment."
You're always the one apologizing
"One person is overly empathetic in considering their emotions and needs whereas the other person is overly apathetic and indifferent to others' experiences," Kim says. To reduce stress in the relationship, you may find yourself apologizing more just to end the arguments—even if you did nothing wrong. Over time, you can tell there's a clear power inequity with how you hold space for each other.
You feel like you're tiptoeing around them
Communications around certain topics are tiptoed around because you don't want to upset them. If it is spoken about, it's not received with mutual reciprocation. So instead, you repeat interactions where you feel love from them, even if it's at the risk of you not feeling known. Anything that might trigger conflict is swept under the rug. You don't have opinions that may trigger them. On the surface level, conversations are pleasant and benign.
You're never certain about how they are feeling
Because communications aren't transparent, you may find yourself overthinking their behaviors toward you and how they're truly feeling. Because you're unsure, you might dismiss your own feelings in favor of thinking about what they're feeling. The connection may be filled with more guessing and speculation rather than facts grounded in reality and knowing where they genuinely stand.
You're the only one bringing up issues with the relationship
"One person in the relationship (called the pursuer) is the one bringing up topics or issues, and the other party (called the withdrawer) is the one avoiding issues, passively waiting for the pursuer to fix the problems and becoming defensive once the pursuer confronts them," Kim says.
You talk to friends about problems more than you talk to your partner about them
While it can be beneficial to get a second opinion, it's not a good sign if you're always running to your friends about your relationship issues. It's better to bring it up to the person that can actually solve it and give you the validation you are desperately seeking: your partner.
They freak out if you set boundaries
Boundaries are necessary and extremely healthy for a relationship because it helps reduce conflict, anxiety, and misunderstandings. "If you are in this situation as the burned-out party, and when you set boundaries, your partner, friend, or family member gets angry, that is NOT a sign that you did anything bad but rather a confirmation that boundaries are necessary," Kim confirms.
You're not on the same page about the important things
Priorities about the relationship primarily differ. Perhaps you want to take the relationship to the next stage, but they're more interested in going out. They're not excited or as receptive to hearing about the things that matter to you. You're in the same relationship, but it's as if you're both doing things your own way without much overlap. There's no reconciliation between both perspectives, and the well-being of the relationship isn't prioritized as much as individual needs.
You think you can change or control them
You often hint or give out clues because you want to change the way that they interact with you. But at the end of the day, it's not up to you; it's up to them. People don't change unless they want it for themselves, and they have to be an active participant in the growth. Forcing someone to alter who they are, even if you think it's best for them, requires manipulation—and it'll do more harm than good.
You hide or sugarcoat the relationship with your loved ones
You don't feel comfortable sharing certain aspects of what's going on with your friends and family. They may raise questions about your partner and how they treat you that you don't want to hear.
The relationship is at a standstill
One-sided relationships are usually stagnant for both parties because there's not a focus on development. The relationship tends to be characterized by accommodation and peacekeeping in lieu of sitting through the discomfort of having challenging talks that lead to change. Because the relationship isn't progressing, it starts to affect the way you view yourself and other areas of your life. You feel like you're stuck or in a rut.
Signs you may be perpetuating a one-sided relationship
Here are some signs that you're the one allowing all the work to fall on your partner's shoulders rather than mutually participating in the relationship and carrying the load with them.
You don't want to deal with the problems head-on
When times get tough, it's easier to leave than stick around. There's fear around confrontation and intimacy. You don't want to rock the boat, so you would rather focus on the fun and enjoyable aspects of the relationship and keep communications lighthearted and easy.
You think about yourself more than the relationship
You feel comfortable thinking about how you're feeling and what you're OK with giving, regardless of what your partner may be asking of you. Your emotions and your preferences take center stage, and the relationship, and your partner, comes second.
You're not actively supporting their personal dreams and aspirations outside of the coupling
Maybe they want to have a career-change or travel to an exotic location on their bucket list. You may encourage and ask them about their interests, but it's mainly up for them to figure out on their own.
You don't follow up on the things important to them
They're dealing with a stressful situation at work that's taking up all of their time, or they're going through a rough patch with their family. Rather than checking in with them about it, you would prefer to have them bring it up if it matters to them.
You're not always vulnerable, leaving them to speculate what's on your mind
You might feel weary about sharing your innermost thoughts because it makes you feel weak or unworthy. You don't open up about the good and the bad all the time, preferring to keep it to yourself.
What causes one-sided relationships
Kim says it can often be traced to the family origin where there were few boundaries or a lot of chaotic dynamics in play.
If family members regularly engaged in emotional avoidance at home, emotions that are perfectly normal to express could have been received with negative attention instead of acceptance. Family members who expressed these normal emotions may have been labeled as being too much, too emotional, or overly sensitive.
"Individuals who grow up in these environments can grow to take too much or too little responsibility or take responsibility for things that aren't theirs to own," Kim notes.
"Unless they learn otherwise, through therapy or other forms of self-development, these exhausted individuals will likely replicate what kinds of relationship dynamics they were used to because, frankly, that's what their bodies know," she explains. "Familiar chaos can feel less scary than unfamiliar peace and harmony."
Keep in mind
How to fix one-sided relationships
"Transitioning from a one-sided relationship may be difficult because there was probably never an explicit conversation about boundaries and expectations," Williams says. However, it's not impossible. It can be corrected, but it'll take a lot of hard work, reflection, honest communication, and if it's needed, therapeutic help.
Here are tips from Williams on how to move the relationship to a healthier place and transform the dynamic into one where both parties feel mutually heard and understood:
Get real and ask yourself the questions you may be avoiding
"Be honest about the person that you are in a relationship with. What behaviors appear to be consistent across their relationships? Are they unique to your relationship? Is this person safe to talk to? Do they listen? Do they accept feedback well?"
Do a relationship inventory to explore your personal boundaries and deal-breakers
"Take an assessment of what you are contributing to the relationship to see what you can realistically maintain in a manner that honors you, your time, and your resources—emotions count as resources too. With this, explore your boundaries. Having boundaries looks like being clear about what you absolutely can and cannot tolerate and honoring that. You don't have to have any ultimatums because people don't respond well to them, but you can emphasize what's important to you."
Be open and make time to talk about what's going on regularly
"Set aside some time to speak about your new boundaries and how you have been feeling in the relationship. It is important that you practice being intentional with what you are doing and why you are doing it to make sure that they ultimately honor your boundaries."
Communicate, communicate, communicate
"These conversations will be ongoing, and they will only work by [you] being radically honest about what you need, who the person is, what they have agreed to, and what they are showing you. The only way to find balance is to discuss and collaborate on what can realistically happen. Explore any barriers that may be present, and then you can decide how long, if at all, you are willing to stay in that capacity without experiencing what you need."
When to end it
If you're experiencing too much anxiety, guilt, shame, and resentment, those are signs that you have absorbed far more responsibility than you were supposed to, leading to emotional burnout and oscillating feelings of numbness and anger, Kim says.
If you've reached your breaking point, she recommends doing what's best for you and ending the relationship.
Additionally, if your partner isn't willing to hear you out or adjust their behavior, that's a sign that it may be time to move on.
"If the partner responds with defensiveness, blame, or gaslighting, then it's not likely that much will change in the relationship anytime soon," Kim says. "Unless the partner voluntarily chooses to own their own choices and responsibilities, the relationship is set up to stay one-sided. The irresponsible party has a vested interest in keeping the one-sidedness going and maintaining the status quo because they could afford to not do anything further."
If these signs are clicking for you, know that this isn't on you. It takes two people to effect structural change in the dynamic, not just one person, no matter how much work you put into it.
Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.