Let’s say a friend opens up and tells you everything about their relationship and their problems and struggles. You comfort them and support them, but when you open up about your struggles they’re very dry and not as responsive. What do I do?– Anonymous
What I think you are describing here is a situation where your friend did not reciprocate the care and attention that you gave them. You listened to them talking about their problems and relationship, made space for them to express themselves and supported them. You were a good friend. But when you needed their support in the same way, they didn’t give it to you. Sounds like this person is a bad friend.
I’ve realised over my lifetime and various friendships that many people don’t know how to be good friends. I think I find myself in bad friendships frequently because I am an empath and also a major people pleaser! So I am often taken advantage of or the friendship doesn’t meet my expectations. I want everyone to be happy and I go above and beyond for my friends when they need me. I give more than I take. Because of this I’ve found myself disappointed in some people in my life.
I am learning that a good friendship is one that is balanced: both parties give and take an equal (ish) amount. Of course, there will usually be a small imbalance (as with any relationship) but on the whole, things feel even. I’ve been experiencing this problem with one of my oldest childhood friends. She takes so much from me, but hardly ever listened when I needed support.
What should we do in such situations?
I think the most logical first step would be to approach your friend about this. Explain that you felt ignored and unsupported and ask them why they reacted the way they did. Maybe they felt really affected by your problem and wanted to hide it? It could have been painful for them? Maybe they just had a bad day? Maybe their problem was so big they didn’t have the capacity to listen to yours at that moment?
You won’t really know until you communicate.
It also could be that they didn’t realise they were not being a good friend. Was this the first time? Maybe they thought their reaction was helpful and adequate. A lot of people are not very self aware and don’t realise how they come across to others. We can only know once we discuss openly and honestly. It also gives our friends a chance to correct their behaviour and be more aware of themselves and their less than satisfactory friendship.
Maybe you have already discussed it with your friend and they didn’t have a good reason – what then?
End the Friendship
This might be what a few people may tell you to do. When I would tell people about my difficulty with my friend, people asked me “so, why are you still friends with her?”. I asked myself that a few times too. It seemed obvious I needed to cut her out because being her friend was exhausting and one-sided. I used to dread seeing her because I knew it would be about her and I wouldn’t get a chance to speak.
Has this relationship been hard for you? Is it making you more unhappy than happy? If a relationship is making you unhappy a majority of the time, then you are justified in ending it. Some people may say this is selfish, but to be honest we don’t really owe many people anything. Friendships should be mutually beneficial and supportive, that’s why they are so important. They should not be decreasing your quality of life (which is what unhappiness does).
Putting yourself first is self care and is not selfish. We shouldn’t forget that. Friendships are important but your health and happiness are important too. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have to be friends with people forever just because we were friends at some point. People drift apart and friendships end. And that’s ok!
In my case though, I didn’t want to cut my friend out. I knew her since I was in school and we always kept in touch and saw each other when we could. I was attached to her and I did enjoy being around her (sometimes). She did still make the effort to get in touch throughout the years. I decided that I would like to make it work so I thought a lot about how to do this.
Reframe the Friendship
I started rethinking my friendship. What I mean here is that I changed my perception of it and of my friend. I tried to frame it differently and accept that it wasn’t a friendship that I expected and I started changing my expectations. How can this be done?
Most importantly, you need to accept that the friendship is more one-sided and accept that you can’t rely on your friend for the support you expect. Accept your friend for who they are and what their friendship is like. It may be that they don’t have the capability to be a better friend? Some people don’t have the capacity for empathy and support. Certain people are so wrapped up in their lives, they don’t think about others and how they need to be there for others too.
Once I removed my expectations of her reciprocating my friendship and giving me back as much as I gave, my experience changed completely. I actually enjoyed hanging out with her and it wasn’t so exhausting anymore. I noticed the positive things about our relationship and why we became friends in the first place. I was able to listen to her better and express myself more honestly too. I also stopped trying so hard.
This may sound wrong to some people, but I stopped putting in so much effort. I only agreed to plans if it was convenient for me. I didn’t go out of my way to accommodate her. Because I didn’t expect her to be a good friend to me, I also stopped giving as much of myself as I did before.
Giving more than she gave to me was the hard part and what made the relationship unhelpful and unbalanced. By adjusting my level of effort, it didn’t feel so bad having her talk about herself all the time and not listen to me.
The narrative we’ve been told all our lives about how being a good friend is to sacrifice everything (including your wellbeing), is not healthy. This seems to be a common story, especially in Muslim communities. We’re often expected to provide unwavering support for friends and family, even to our detriment. That is a story for another day!
We need to learn that it is actually ok not to be there for people when it is harmful. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be good friends and avoid supporting others, but we must balance it with our own health and wellness. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one else will. The best life is one lived in balance. If you feel things are tipping too much one way, then rethink and reprioritise because it could throw your life off balance.
As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately…Always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course, whereby you will reach your target (of paradise).” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Hadith 470).
Until next time,
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