If You're Burnt Out From Your Relationship, It Might Be One-Sided

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What To Do If You're In A One-Sided RelationshipSteven Puetzer - Getty Images

There are times in life when a relationship is so one-sided, you can just feel it. Remember your middle school bestie who ditched all of your plans every time she got a new boyfriend or your high school beau who always relied on you to plan dates? Chances are, your gut told you when that was the case—but sometimes it can be harder to tell when you’re in a one-sided relationship, especially as an adult.

That's because when two people come together, they carry their own desires, expectations, and boundaries, and when any of those don’t exactly line up (or aren’t clearly defined), some problems can occur, says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a clinical psychologist and Women's Health advisor based in New York City.

And it doesn’t help that your brain can overcomplicate things when you really like (or love) someone. “You might start overthinking everything they do or say because you're nervous about losing them, and want to be prepared for that possibility,” says Carmichael. Or, “you might subconsciously ignore red flags because you don't want to see them.”

Perhaps you even do both, which might leave you to wonder if you’re more invested in the relationship or situationship than they are. Ahead, experts identify signs, causes, and impacts of a one-sided relationship—plus, how to end one.

What is a one-sided relationship?

A one-sided relationship is a relationship "where one individual is offering disproportionately more of themselves, their resources, their time, their talents, maybe strengths that they have, as opposed to the other partner who is offering typically a considerable amount less," says Shawntres Parks, PhD, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Women's Health advisory board member based in West Covina, California.

These types of 'ships don't just occur between romantic partners—they can also happen between family members, friends, and co-workers. Maybe you used to be super close with one of your sorority sisters in college, but these days, it seems that you're the only one reaching out.

Or, maybe you live with your S.O. and you're the only one who seems to be doing the laundry, buying the groceries and cleaning, and your partner isn't providing other ways that offset domestic labor, such as paying all of the rent, Carmichael says. But outside of tasks, one-sided relationships can also happen when one person is more expressive with their affection but doesn't receive it in return, says Parks.

"For the individual who's giving more, they may find themselves feeling really energy depleted," Parks says. "And for the person who's giving less, they may feel very loved, valued, and cared for, without having to do very much in the relationship."

Signs of a One-Sided Relationship

Since one-sided relationships can happen between romantic, partners, friends, co-workers, parents, or siblings, the nature of the one-sided ship may differ, Parks says. For instance, maybe you have a friend who takes up a lot of your emotional space and doesn't return the favor, while your mother is always expecting you to initiate communication—the themes are still similar and count as a one-sided relationship, she adds.

However, "the felt experience may be different because there may be different cultural expectations for someone around how you should behave in a family relationship versus a friendship or versus a romantic relationship," Parks says. (As an example, in some cultures, it's common for a child to give more to a parent as they grow older, she adds.)

Here are some signs of a one-sided relationship:

  • You feel like you're the one always initiating plans. In every relationship, there's a give and take when it comes to how much effort you're putting in, depending on what's going on in your lives, says Carmichael. But let's say early into dating or a committed relationship, you're the one who's always reaching out to FaceTime. "It could be that they're not good about setting up plans in general...but it could also mean that they are less concerned with seeing you as you are with them," she says.

  • You're always the one keeping the convo going. Look, not everyone is a great texter or huge talker. That's totally fine! But if there's been a noticeable shift in their responsiveness—or they don't offer up face-to-face plans to communicate instead—you may be on uneven terrain, Carmichael says.

  • You feel nervous about using words like relationship, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. If, deep down, you want to be able to introduce this person a certain way to your friends and family or say the word "relationship" in front of them but you're worried you could scare them off, you may want to listen to that feeling. "It could be your gut sensing that you're more interested and invested in them than they are in you," Carmichael says.

  • You accommodate to their suppressed level of intimacy. Early on, sometimes a person will point-blank tell you that they have some sort of trouble with intimacy—maybe they're scarred from their cheating ex or parents' divorce, Carmichael says. When this happens, try not to digest that personal info as a form of intimacy, or else you might "start making accommodations around their barrier to intimacy," she explains. In this case, they're not worried about losing you over their intimacy issues—but you're now worried about losing them over how you respond to those issues.

  • They show little interest in your life outside of them. Maybe in the beginning, your partner doesn't show any interest in meeting your friends and family, and after you've been together for a while, they're not really interested in knowing what's going on in your life, Carmichael says. For example: On their first day of a new job, you cook them a special dinner, but when the situation is reversed, you get no more than a "Sooo, how was it?" Your partner doesn't need to do exactly what you did for them, but they should be doing the equivalent, she continues. (Read: Picking you up from your new office or bringing you home flowers.)

  • They cancel plans a lot. Let's say you have plans to see a movie together Sunday afternoon, and you get a text that morning saying that they're super tired, so they need to reschedule. That in itself isn't a bad sign, but if they're casual about dismissing plans with you over something flimsy, chances are, you're more invested in them than they are in you, Carmichael says. And if more likely than not, you're working around their schedule—like, they generally call the shots on what you'll do together, where, and when so that it's convenient for them—that's one-sided, she adds.

  • They use work as a reason to keep you at arm's length. While a person who is career-driven and motivated is definitely hot, it's not healthy if they're using it as an excuse to not see you. If they're often using work to avoid making definitive plans or justify bailing at the last second, they could be using their professional life as a crutch, Carmichael says. When they have free time, are they trying to spend it with you? If not, you're looking at, you guessed it, a one-sided situation.

  • You’re the one who wants to work on things. Communication often comes from only one partner in one-sided relationships, says Paulette Sherman, PhD, a psychologist and host of the Love Psychologist podcast. If you find yourself always apologizing—even when you’ve done nothing that warrants it—or are the only one willing to talk it through issues, it can signal the relationship is totally off-kilter.

  • There's little talk of the future from their end. The goal in most relationships is to have a future together, right? So if you're thinking that way (good for you!), you're most likely going to express that at some point, either in the form of far-out plans (a wedding) or actual where-are-we-going (aka "DTR") conversations, says Carmichael. So if someone avoids talking about the future with you, it's generally because they don't want to—maybe not because they don't see one, per se, but because they aren't quite ready to verbally address it yet. If you find yourself frequently wanting to have those talks, it's safe to say things are one-sided, at least at the moment.

  • Your priorities are different. Just as talk of the future can signal an imbalance in your relationship, so can your priorities around things like finances, free time, or how you show your appreciation for one another, Sherman says. In a one-sided relationship, you might help them pick out an outfit for an important business dinner but you don’t feel that same support, or perhaps you spend time intentionally choosing a birthday gift for them while they make plans with friends once your birthday rolls around. The give-and-take is completely off balance.

This dynamic of one person always leading aspects of the relationship often causes an "emotional and physical exhaustion that comes from the person who is overextending themselves," says Parks. Not only can it lead to resentment, anger, frustration, and disappointment, but also "anxiety in the sense that you may find yourself projecting into the future, worrying about whether or not your needs will ever be met," she says.

Causes of a One-Sided Relationship

Several factors can cause a one-sided relationship to happen, even if it takes time.

Poor Modeling

Maybe you grew up in a household where your family had unhealthy relationship boundaries, so now that you're an adult pursuing your own relationships, you don't know how to enact boundaries. You might "find yourself stepping into patterns that existed in the relationships that you saw growing up, and those may not have been the most helpful or healthy patterns," Parks says.

Functional Dysfunction

Similarly, maybe you've been in a lot of one-sided relationships before, so it's a pattern that feels comfortable for you. Maybe "you've come to accept it as your role, and you may even see it as a strength—how much you're able to give in a relationship," Parks says. So, for you, it's normalized—but in reality, it's not healthy.

Lack of Self-Awareness

In this scenario, maybe you're in a relationship with someone you're giving a lot to, but they're not self-aware enough to know how much they are or aren't giving. Because they "lack that self-awareness and [they're] not assessing the state of your relationship, [they] may be missing how much or how little you're giving there," Parks adds.

Dynamic Shifts

When you're in a relationship with someone—especially if it's long-term—you're bound to experience highs and lows together. Say you started off dating your S.O. two years ago, and things felt very equal in the beginning, but they lost their job six months ago, and now it seems like you're giving a lot, and not receiving much in return. In this case, "environmental circumstances like illness or injury or losing a job or any other kind of life stressor that starts off as a thing that feels temporary, becomes chronic," Parks says. It's important to note that this type of one-sided relationship can be healthy, as long as the person who isn't able to give as much support knows that is conscious about it.

Impact of a One-Sided Relationship

While a one-sided relationship isn't inherently toxic, especially if it's caused by a dynamic shift, it is possible for them to become unhealthy. This might happen when you're no longer actively or consciously choosing to give to the other person because you feel resentful that they haven't supported you back. Let's go back to your partner who lost their job six months ago—maybe the plan for your life together was for them to go back to school to change careers. However, after they get their graduate degree, they don't transition into another career, meaning, your agreement isn't being honored anymore, Parks says.

"If the agreements that existed at the beginning of this intentional and conscious one-sided relationship are not being honored at some point in the relationship, then that's the place where something that was once helpful and healthy is no longer helpful and healthy," she adds.

  • You feel tired. That burnt-out feeling isn’t just reserved for career exhaustion—a one-sided relationship can start to wear you down, too. “Sometimes when you are tired, it’s because you are giving and not getting a lot back,” says Sherman. Sure, nurturing a relationship takes work, but you should feel more energized rather than drained physically and emotionally.

  • You start to second-guess your worth. When you do all you can to make the relationship work and to make your partner feel seen, it can feel like a blow to your self-esteem when that isn’t reciprocated, says Sherman. In actuality, it’s not a reflection of your worth or ability to be loved, but sometimes a decision your partner is choosing to make (and an unkind one, at that).

  • You make excuses for them. It’s one thing to show your partner grace if they’re having a bad day or let you down in a small way. Maybe they just forgot. You’ll forgive them this time—things will be different tomorrow. But if it becomes a pattern? Take note of the red flags you’re ignoring, Sherman says. If you keep making excuses for your partner’s behavior, it’s time to evaluate the relationship.

Here's what to do if you're in one-sided relationship:

If you mentally checked off some of the above signs, know that it's not necessarily the end of the world (or the relationship). There are ways to change the relationship and make it better for all parties involved.

Name the issue.

The first thing to do is name the issue in a nonjudgmental way, Carmichael recommends. For example, think: This person doesn't seem to be as invested in me, rather than I'm an idiot for being so into this person who I'm clearly not good enough for. That way, you have a general idea of how to proceed.

Assertively communicate.

Once you realize you're in a one-sided relationship and you know you can create change, assess whether or not this is a relationship you want to stay in, Parks says. If you want to end it, that's one thing—and there are some details on how exactly you can do that below. But if you "want to provide opportunity for growth in this relationship for things to become more equitable, then you want to practice self-advocacy and communicate," Parks says. Talk to your partner and tell them what you've observed about the nature of the relationship.

The key here is to make sure the conversation is about your observations—not accusations, Carmichael says. "You don't want to push them even further away because they're not living up to your standards or you're trying to guilt them into being closer to you," she says.

So, maybe phrase it this way: I've noticed I'm usually the one to reach out for plans with you. I'm just wondering if that's because I'm more interested in seeing you, or if because you're just someone who appreciates when the other person initiates. This gives you a chance to learn why they're behaving the way they do, and they'll be more likely to tell you the truth when they don't feel attacked.

If their answer is that they just really enjoy the ease and comfort of having you initiate and plan dates, you can say something like, That's great to know! I'd love it if you could be more reassuring when I invite you somewhere, just so I know we're still on the same page. But if their answer confirms what you were worried about—that they're they're just not feeling the same way you are—you get to decide if that's good enough for you, Carmichael says. The power is yours to make the next move.

Create a plan for the future.

If you've talked to your partner and they're open to accountability and change, create a plan forward together. So, if your partner wasn't communicating or initiating intimacy, for example, chat about whether they take on more of an active role in that area, Parks says. If your one-sided relationship is with a parent, maybe you set up a weekly time to call instead of one person initiating daily calls to the other.

Or, say you have a friend who always calls and uses you for emotional support, but never bothers to check on you. In this case, maybe they start asking if you have the capacity to provide support before they lean on you. Whatever your plan is, make sure you can "move the needle in those relationships toward a place where things are more balanced," Parks adds.

Try joint therapy.

It's never a bad idea to try joint therapy with your partner, Parks says. "When there are multiple people involved in the relationship, then multiple people need to be in therapy if the goal is to maintain the relationship," she says. "It's rarely ever one person's issue." Both people in the relationship—whether they're the one giving more or taking more—create that one-sided dynamic, so it's imperative that they're both present to talk things through with a professional.

When You Should End a One-Sided Relationship

Although every relationship has its ups and downs, at some point, it might not be worth it to continue it. Here are some signs that you should consider ending a one-sided relationship:

  • The other person doesn't make any changes to their behavior after you've talked to them.

  • They're very reactive in such a negative way that "they're unwilling to give you space to voice your concerns," Parks says.

  • They dismiss your concerns and make you feel like they aren't valid at all.

A caveat: Some one-sided relationships are harder to end than others, such as your relationship with your mother, Parks says. She'll always be your mother, "but maybe you choose to have different boundaries in that relationship," i.e., your communication or time together is more structured than it used to be, she explains. That way, you'll "have the healthiest version of a relationship you could have with that person," she continues.

While it might be hard to end a one-sided relationship, it might be the best thing for you at the end of the day. For extra support, Parks encourages pursuing individual therapy to help you explore the dynamics that allowed you to enter that relationship in the first place.

Meet the Experts: Chloe Carmichael, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and Women's Health advisor based in New York City. Shawntres Parks, PhD, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and Women's Health advisory board member based in West Covina, California. Paulette Sherman, PhD, is a psychologist and host of the Love Psychologist podcast.

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