How to Deal with a One-Sided Friendship
In a time when the need to be physically distant has trumped many a girls' night, maintaining friendships, especially with those you were only "semi-close" to, can be difficult. As such, sometimes friends simply drift apart — something that's commonplace with or without a pandemic. Nonetheless, the sting of a lost or one-sided friendship, even among acquaintances, can still leave you feeling raw, hurt, and maybe a little confused.
When a friend doesn't invest as much time or effort into your relationship as they used to (or, if you're being honest with yourself, ever), it's easy to interpret this as rejection, says Danielle Bayard Jackson, Florida-based friendship coach and founder of Friend Forward. This kind of dismissal from a friend can feel similar to the pang of being rejected by a potential or former lover, says Han Ren, Ph.D., licensed psychologist based in Austin, Texas. What's more, research shows that being brushed off by a friend can trigger the same areas of the brain that are set off by physical pain. Translation: It really sucks.
Even if the person isn't upset with you, "as humans, we have a tendency to personalize things and make it about us," says Ren. That's why, for some people, the hurt feelings from a one-sided friendship can cut a little deeper. (Related: Science Says That Friendships Are Key to Lasting Health and Happiness)
The extent to which you personalize the dismissal depends on many factors including past traumas or relationships, says Ren. For instance, thanks to previous experiences with rejection, you may find that you tend to seek external validation from others (IRL or online) to feel you're worthy of friendships or someone people want to be around, explains Cortney Beasley, Psy.D, licensed clinical psychologist in San Francisco, CA and founder of Put In Black, an online platform aimed at demystifying health and wellness practices for the Black community. But "your worthiness as a person is not for other people to determine," she adds. Putting too much emphasis on what others think about you can be quite damaging to your mental health and general self-esteem, and encourage feelings of anxiety, stress, and depressive thoughts
So, how can you handle a one-sided friendship or what feels like rejection from someone you considered a friend? First, know that your feelings are valid, but there could be more to the story. Here's how to uncover what's amiss, decide if the friendship is worth saving, and repair and move on.
How to Decode a One-Sided Friendship
Before you jump to conclusions (guilty!), you'll want to uncover what's really up with your friendship. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover your pal is merely missing your signals or going through their own stuff RN.
Your friend may not be deliberately trying to ghost you, says Jackson. Not everyone is going to meet your expectations for, say, initiating conversations or response time, so you could be misinterpreting these differences as rejection, or what she calls "imagined rejection." In reality, your friend may be struggling to adjust to maintaining relationships during quarantine or dealing with another personal matter that is dividing their attention. "You aren't running into friends and co-workers in your usual social backdrops," says Jackson. "Now, if a friend wants to see or talk to you, they have to make a plan and carve out time." The pandemic is forcing people to reimagine their relationships and what it takes to foster them. (Related: How to Deal with Loneliness If You're Self-Isolated During the Coronavirus Outbreak)
The Friendship Curve, Etc.
However, there are instances when it's clear someone no longer wants to prioritize your relationship. Understand that this may have nothing to do with you or your efforts, says Jackson. You and your friend may have different priorities or could be at different life stages. Outgrowing friends and drifting apart is common — it's called the friendship curve — though it doesn't make it sting any less. Your friend might be going through a difficult time or a mental health issue, and they don't have the capacity to invest in others. If it's a new friendship, the person could be introverted and unopen to exploring new connections. (Related: How to Make Friends As an Adult — and Why It's So Important for Your Health)
Lastly, a painful truth is that not everyone is going to like you and that's okay. Some personalities just don't mesh well together, and forcing a friendship isn't going to make you happy in the end.
An Unspoken Discord
There could be a more direct reason for the missed connection: a conflict.
Even if your friend doesn't confront you about an issue, you can likely tell something's up if they're suddenly aloof and distant, passive-aggressive, or deliberately excluding you from events or invites, says Ren. Still, it's common to miss these signals entirely as your friend might be avoiding a confrontation by pretending all is well. The person may rather silently leave the relationship instead of addressing the issue. "Living in this virtual world where you have access to many things, it's easy for people to feel they don't have to put in the work or deal with the stress that may come with a relationship because they can move on and meet other people," explains Beasley.
Decide Whether to Confront the Issue
Whatever the reason for the falling out — miscommunication, misinterpretation, poor timing, different priorities, or a direct conflict — the only way to know for sure what happened is to talk to your friend directly. But should you? Will that offer closure? Repair the friendship? Or do more harm than good?
A few things to consider, according to Ren:
- Do you have the emotional bandwidth to have this conversation?
- Are you willing to put in additional energy and labor toward this friendship?
- Is the friend likely to have this conversation with you? If so, will they be honest?
- Do you want this person in your life in the future? If so, why?
Bear in mind your friend may not be willing to clear the air or could brush your feelings under the rug if you do talk, so you still may not get the closure or answers you were hoping for.
If you do reach out, and your friend agrees to have a chat, you want to express how you feel without placing responsibility on your friend, says Beasley. Saying something such as "I feel sad because we're not spending time together. I don't want you to feel obligated, I simply wanted to see if there was anything we could talk about that would help the situation" can jumpstart things, she says. If you can repair the friendship, great, but "you may come to realize this is not someone who is my person, this is not a person that I want to bring into my future, or this relationship doesn't serve me as evidenced by how they responded to my attempts to repair it," says Ren. (Related: Is Your Friend an 'Emotional Vampire'? Here's How to Deal with a Toxic Friendship)
How to Heal from a One-Sided Friendship
Whether or not the friendship continues or if you come to some resolution, hurt feelings are still a likely reality. Luckily, you can put the pain behind you with a little effort and self-love. Here, a few expert tips to help get you started on the path to healing.
Acknowledge the emotions.
Repressing emotions has sticky consequences, such as misguided resentment or irritation that can manifest in indirect ways or impact other relationships, says Ren. Instead, take notice of what emotions arise from your interactions (or lack thereof) with this friend, and acknowledge how you feel — jilted? sad? angry?
Then, do whatever you need to do, whether that's crying or just sitting with the hurt. Be patient with yourself, allowing ample time to let these emotions be, quiet, and then pass. You can consider talking to another friend or a therapist or try writing in a journal as a way to release some of the weight of these emotions. (Related: The One Thing You Can Do to Be Kinder to Yourself Right Now)
Change the negative narrative.
While it's natural to feel as if you're somehow at fault for a flatlined one-sided friendship, moving on means changing that narrative, says Jackson.
Start to observe when you engage in negative self-talk, such as 'did I talk too much?' or 'am I not enough?' Notice if you're ruminating over these feelings.
If the negative self-talk is playing over and over in your head, try singing them instead, says Ren. "It's harder to take yourself seriously when you're singing something like 'I'm worthless' or 'I'm a terrible person.'" You'll realize how silly that sounds and give it less credence.
Reconnect with others.
Instead of trying to "replace" this friend, focus on simply staying connected to others. Spend time with people you know you can count on (i.e. a dependable cousin or grade-school friend) to remind yourself about your worth as a friend and confidante, says Jackson. You'll be reminded about the ease that comes from mutually dedicated relationships.
Think of what lessons you may have learned.
You may be surprised that there are some good things that come out of an abandoned one-sided friendship, says Ren. For one, sadness and grief highlight that the relationship you lost was important to you. This allows you to start considering what characteristics of the relationship you valued, so you can seek these out in any future friendships, says Beasley. Hold onto the hopeful reminder that this negative experience of a one-sided friendship doesn't determine how your next friendship will go.