Asymmetric Relationships Aren’t Typically Healthy—Here’s How To Tell if You’re in One
An asymmetric relationship—which can include two or more people—is rooted in a difference in emotional investment from partners (and doesn't so much refer to the natural unevenness that can come as a result of mismatched circumstantial or personality-based qualities). For example, it’s not inherently an issue if someone in the relationship is tidier or makes more money than another or craves more alone time; or, maybe one person has a higher libido, or is significantly older or younger. “There’s rarely complete reciprocity on every dimension,” says relationship expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for Bumble and Tinder. “But it’s when there’s asymmetry in terms of commitment that the longevity of the relationship comes into question.”
A 2016 study of 315 unmarried, opposite-sex couples found that both the more-committed and less-committed partners in asymmetrically committed relationships (ACRs) reported lower relationship adjustment, more conflict, and more aggression than people in non-ACRs. It’s worth noting that this was a small study that didn’t take into account folks in relationship structures beyond those that are heterosexual and inclusive of two partners. But, though not explored in the research, asymmetric commitment is likely unideal for folks of any identity or orientation in any kind of relationship structure.
Why a relationship with asymmetric commitment can easily become problematic
The dangers of uneven commitment, in particular, can be linked to the ways it creates an unhealthy emotional power dynamic. Essentially, the person who’s more committed holds less power, as the lack of reciprocity they receive causes them to feel self-doubtful and defensive, says relationship therapist Tracy Ross, LCSW. “In order to gain the other person’s commitment, they might also feel as though they have to work toward a carrot, some level of perfection that they can never quite reach,” she says.
“People crave certainty in relationships, which is why the lack of a definition, label, or status can be so disorienting.” —Jess Carbino, PhD
And that kind of striving is nothing short of exhausting and diminishing—particularly when there’s no guarantee that the other person will come around. “People crave certainty in relationships,” says Dr. Carbino, “which is also why the lack of a definition, label, or status can be so disorienting. Without that, people start wondering, ‘How do I behave? How do they behave? What are our expectations?’”
Amid the uncertainty, if one person in the relationship is treating it as casual and the other(s) views it as significant, it’s a lose-lose, because no one's goal is being met. This can breed just as much resentment in the less committed person as in the more committed. “The latter might get stressed out by feeling like they always have to call the shots, or they could feel overextended, depleted, or even overwhelmed by the fact that someone needs or wants more of them than they’re willing to give,” says relationship expert with eharmony Laurel House.
Below, the experts walk through the clearest red flags of an unhealthy asymmetric relationship in need of some re-balancing.
5 telltale signs you’re in an asymmetric relationship (and it probably isn't doing you any favors)
1. You struggle to communicate openly and honestly
Perhaps, you have the nagging feeling that certain topics are off-limits in conversation, or that something is being left unsaid when you speak about your relationship and the future, says Ross. “Or, maybe you feel as though you can’t be your true self without getting shut down, or you can’t reveal your actual intentions for the relationship for fear of scaring away the other person,” she says. In any of these cases, asymmetric commitment could be the culprit.
2. You can’t agree on a relationship label
Labels aren’t everything, and the degree of investment you put toward a relationship certainly doesn’t have to be encapsulated by one. But at the same time, if there’s a discrepancy in what you’d call each other or one of you doesn’t feel comfortable with forgoing labels altogether while the other does, that’s a signal that you may be approaching the relationship itself in fundamentally different ways, says Dr. Carbino: “Labels confer meaning, which also gives you social currency and a sense of security within the relationship.”
3. You’re more or less involved with their friends or family members than they are with yours
Getting introduced to another person’s friends and family is a key sign of commitment: They trust you enough to bring you into the fold, so to speak. By contrast, not being introduced to those folks is a sign that the person is keeping you at a distance, says Ross. Either situation is valid depending on the depth of the relationship, but a large discrepancy between how integrated one person is versus the other tends to signal unequal involvement.
4. You seem to rely more or less on them than they do on you
If you see another person as your go-to support system and that feeling isn’t reciprocated, you could be headed for a tricky power dynamic. Even if you’re not dipping toward codependence—that is, you still have a strong sense of self and a personal life outside of the one you share with your partner—if you feel as though you need them more than they need you, the relationship could quickly breed resentment on either or both ends.
5. You want to take the next step, and they don’t (or vice versa)
Ah yes, the timeline issue. People don’t always progress in a relationship at precisely the same speed, and sometimes time is all you need for one person to catch up. In this case, communication becomes particularly essential for creating both clarity and confidence in the relationship, says House: “A partner might be interested in having a commitment, just not right at this moment. What you need to decide is whether you can accept where they are now, and wait patiently.”
Of course, that’ll be tougher to do if the difference between your timelines is vast. For example, if one person is zooming down the committed-relationship highway, and the other person can’t make a mutual plan for a month down the line, you’re likely in an asymmetric relationship that could leave you both less than satisfied.
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