During lockdown, I’ve worked through feeling somewhat abandoned in my relationships. Conversations with friends I used to talk with regularly, if not daily, became sparse. And on particularly bad days, I would look at my phone and feel a weighted pressure of sadness in my chest when no new texts came in. Sometimes this led me to wonder if my loved ones were mad at me, and other times I was more so just felt deflated by the reality that they simply hadn't thought of me though I had clearly thought of them.
Always being the one to initiate made me feel like I value my relationships with others more than they do, and that what we have is nothing more than a one-sided friendship. And even if my anxieties and insecurities were nullified by a great interaction (that, again, only happened after I reached out), the lack of forethought on their part still left me feeling hurt.
I have a feeling that I'm not alone in my plight, either. If the CDC’s recent report on growing rates of anxiety and depression symptoms during this time are indication, others may similarly feel left behind by loved ones who seem to not have time for them right now—or, at least, not enough mental bandwidth to consider proactively reaching out first.
That said, there are strategies for dealing with these shifts in friendship or family dynamics in such a way that can help you reclaim a sense of power, confidence, and self-worth—even when you feel like you're suddenly in a one-sided relationship.
Be aware that everyone copes with stress differently
When you’re dealing with your own issues—and only your issues—on a daily basis, it gets easy to forget that others may react to stress in ways different than your own, says clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD. For instance, your impulse may be to call a friend and vent, whereas that friend might feel like receding from the world to introspect. And while these differing stress responses may exist all the time, when external stressors are ubiquitous and felt in a largely universal way—like in this tension-filled pandemic landscape—maintaining a sense of perspective and objectivity can get more complicated.
“It's hard to get a 50/50 balance in any aspect of friendship, and I think initiating is a classic. [During] this time, it's even more pronounced.” — clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD
These heightened states of stress may be more amplified by the fact that our in-person interactions have dwindled for more than half of the year, leaving us to dwell on and manifest self-doubting thoughts that don't serve us or our relationships. “It's hard to get a 50/50 balance in any aspect of friendship, and I think initiating is a classic,” says Dr. Bonior. “[During] this time, it's even more pronounced.”
Navigating relationships in this time that's lacking human connection is clearly complicated, but the emotionally fraught nature of the situation is also (unfortunately) common right now. Even my friends and family members who’ve been harder to contact have, themselves, complained about their friends or family being less chatty or much flakier since the pandemic began. It seems that, to some degree, we're all dealing with this, so what to do about it is the real question.
Either bring up your feelings about the one-sided friendship gently, or just let it go
Depending on the relationship, you can choose to address the fact that you feel like you're in a one-sided friendship because you're always the one to suggest Zoom calls, socially distant walks, or even just text first. If you go this route—and with a best friend, sibling, or parent, it can absolutely be worth broaching—Dr. Bonior suggests steering clear of accusations. Instead, make it more of a conversation than a confrontation by leading with an “I feel” statement while also asking if there’s anything you can do to make your catch-ups easier on them.
Maybe they prefer phone calls to Zoom because they can simultaneously cook dinner. Or maybe they’d love to chat, but don’t have the energy to do weekly, hourlong virtual hangouts anymore. Or maybe, as one of my closest friends let me know early on in the pandemic, they feel like withdrawing more and will be around, but just a little less often than normal.
Dr. Bonior also suggests being honest with yourself about whether “you can learn to live with” not having an expectation of certain people in your life to reach out first. I have friends who fall into that category, and my reasoning is that they just have a different threshold for needing to reach out. One is very introverted and rarely calls anyone first; another lives with multiple roommates and already has friends around her all the time. Both are always happy to hear from me when I reach out, and I've learned to be accept these realities of our dynamic and simply not take their social tendencies personally. After resolving to be less upset about reaching out first, I've realized what's most important: I still get so much out of these relationships.
Find the support you’re seeking elsewhere
If you’re feeling lonely because of one or two specific people not reaching out to you first, you can consider branching out to your other connections and also reexamining your needs. "Think about what you're hoping for out of some of these interactions, and whether [you can get what you need] in other ways,” Dr. Bonior says. For example, if you’re looking for entertainment, you can take up a new hobby or join a virtual class instead of relying on socializing. If you’re frustrated with work and need to vent, she suggests meditation or taking a long walk when you don’t have anyone at the moment to talk to.
Of course, human connection is irreplaceable and necessary, but maintaining the bonds we have right now means adjusting to and understanding other people’s circumstances. And, extending that empathy can strengthen our relationships, regardless of who sends the first text.
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