Whether it’s a friendship, romantic relationship, or even professional relationship, most people have the experience of at some point feeling like one person is more invested in the relationship than the other. The way these relationships tend to sustain themselves is with the less-invested person leading the other on (intentionally or unintentionally), creating a hard-to-break cycle of being alternately given and starved of affection.
Too often we want to discontinue these addictive relationships but are unable to for a variety of reasons: the person says they’ll change, or they’re in your social group and you don’t want to make things uncomfortable for others, and so on and so forth. It’s hard to develop any kind of real protocol for how to deal with this dynamic since it is so nebulous by nature, but there are a few things that generally help.
This is easier said than done, but if you can’t change the dynamic you can at least try to lessen its effect on you. Particularly in romantic situations, the key is to stop prioritizing the person if they do not reciprocate your efforts. My friends and I have been in situations like this throughout essentially the entirety of our short romantic lives, and I have seen a number of frustrating scenarios play out—all of which were detrimental to the self-esteem of those involved.
It’s important to remember that the other person’s behavior is about them, not you. By remembering this you can try to wean yourself off your emotional investment in them; if they want to come around they will, and if they don’t know how, you deserve better.
This applies to friendships as well, and is a good strategy for when you don’t want to or cannot confront someone. By internally lessening your dependence on and emotional investment in them you can continue to have a friendship in some way and not definitively burn any bridges, but the friend’s behavior won’t have as detrimental an effect on you. (It can be hard to know when to do this versus when to confront someone, though.)
Although they may seem content to dip in and out of your life and become distant when it suits them, these people are often surprisingly inclined to break personal and emotional boundaries. They know that you, a person more stable and dependable than themselves in your relationship, are liable to be there for them when they need it even though you can’t say the same for them. The precedent this sets subsequently leads them to feel entitled to your good nature and support whenever they need it.
However, it is not fair to have this expected from you if they’re not equally willing or able to provide it, and it is completely reasonable and healthy for you to draw stronger boundaries in this regard. It’s really difficult to not automatically put your all into supporting someone you care about, but in an imbalanced dynamic, setting these boundaries really is just another aspect of setting emotional distance and not letting yourself be taken advantage of.
If more subtle strategies of internally and/or quietly distancing yourself from those who take advantage of you don’t seem to be helping, it might be time to try to speak to them about it (even though this will probably be uncomfortable). Only you can be the judge in any given situation as to whether the relationship is worth having an awkward conversation about, but if the person actually cares about you, they will understand your need to talk about it and value the fact that you feel you can be honest with them.
Time and Environment
As much as you can try to improve your relationships with people, sometimes all you can do is wait for a situation or your feelings to change. There have been multiple people I wasn’t able to move past until I hadn’t seen them for a very long time and other, more fulfilling people or things had entered my life. I find it also helps to completely change your environment, so as to not have to constantly be faced with associations you have with them and people who know them. Of course, this is logistically difficult, but life has a tendency to naturally change your scenery periodically.
Most of all, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not able to actually strictly set these boundaries. Distancing myself from people who I know are bad for me—but make me feel good for temporary spurts of time—is still incredibly difficult for me. As long as you know that these people’s behavior is the result of their own problems and does not have anything to do with you, you’ll be okay.
By Calla Selicious
Visual by Sabrina Oliveira