Realizing you’re in a one sided relationship—or, as I referred to them in my early twenties, a relationship—is usually a slow burn you wait too long to treat. It sizzles with each unanswered text, and every friend’s birthday party they last-minute flake on attending, and every trip to Chipotle for dinner—which is clearly not a date, by the way. You get more resentful, more anxious, more frustrated, and yet for some unknown reasons remain unable to break it off (to be fair, it doesn’t help if your partner won’t answer their phone). Finally it becomes too much, and one day you straight-up snap and set all their clothes on fire (no? just me?).
Ideally with age and dating experience, we’re all able to grow in a way that facilitates approaching matters of the heart more mindfully and with a little less arson. Part of that journey requires being super-proactive by learning the signs of a one sided relationship before things get too far along on the wrong track. Because as sex and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, has seen with her own clients, these situations of mismatched emotions and their emotionally taxing effects can drag on forever.
“Anna had been in a relationship with Jack for four years,” Dr. Nelson tells me. “She was in my therapy office every week, telling me how miserable she was because she wanted to marry Jack, and Jack had no interest in getting married. Anna said that Jack was very honest with her about their setup, telling me, ‘I call him twice a week and we get together one night usually during the week. That’s enough for him.’ But it wasn’t enough for Anna. It was a one sided relationship.”
Seeing their entropic relationship play out led Dr. Nelson to recognize the telltale signs of a one sided relationship. And for your benefit, the signs are outlined below:
Check out 8 signs of a one sided relationship—plus what to do if you find yourself in one.
1. You feel that you’re contributing all of your energy and your partner is giving none
“I asked Anna if Jack ever called her, or if she always called him,” Dr. Nelson says. “She said, ‘I call him. He said he would rather talk at a time that works for me. That he has more of a flexible schedule, so he wants me to be the one that calls all the time.’”
Weird, right? And maybe it even sounds familiar: Think to your current relationship, and what the communication is like. Are you always the one sending the first text? Do you get responses maybe six hours later saying, “Sry, work’s been crazy'”? If it seems like you’re the one with open availability and your partner threw their phone in the river for all you know, it’s time to have a (face-to-face) discussion about it.
If one person is solely responsible for reaching out and checking in and taking initiative, the other person is quite obviously checked out.
“I suggested she say to him, ‘why don’t you call me this week, I’m open, just call whenever,'” Dr. Nelson continues. “She did, but he never called. She waited around and called him the following week. He said he had been busy all week and asked her ‘what’s the big deal?'”
The big deal is that schedules regardless, if one person is solely responsible for reaching out and checking in and taking initiative, the other person is quite obviously checked out. And you know what they say about tangoing? Yep—it takes two. Plus, if your partner is dismissive about your feelings, it’s never a good sign that they’re emotionally invested in or care about you…leading us to telltale sign of a one sided relationship number two:
2. Your partner diminishes all the effort you’re putting into a relationship
You’re doing the most and showing your partner affection—and now you’re kind of getting annoyed, and with good reason. If you’ve made an effort to voice your frustrations about how you often feel belittled and not a priority and your partner doesn’t see the problem or even gaslights you with that old “you’re being crazy” refrain? Well, that right there is a problem.
“If your partner downplays or minimizes your efforts in the relationship, making you feel like what you do to make things work are not appreciated, it may be too much of a one sided partnership,” Dr. Nelson says.
“If your partner downplays or minimizes your efforts in the relationship, making you feel like what you do to make things work are not appreciated, it may be too much of a one sided partnership.” —Tammy Nelson, PhD, relationship therapist
If you have a hunch this is the case, test how your partner reacts to your disappointment. And remember, body language is language, too. Not all of us are amazing at expressing our feelings verbally, but by extension of that, we also can’t wear a poker face 24/7.
So if you look visibly crushed and invoke the silent treatment when your partner’s reaction to the carefully curated playlist you created for their birthday is along the lines of, “Oh, cool,” they should notice that. And more importantly, if they do notice your visible distress and aren’t acknowledging your feelings or are acting like you’re overreacting, that’s a really big problem. The biggest problem, though? Sticking around and enduring this treatment—which is what Anna did.
“Against her better judgment, Anna kept the one-way calls going. She even made all of the plans and the dates to get together, and she put all of the effort into keeping their relationship going,” Dr. Nelson says.
3. Your relationship feels sex-based, and you need and want more emotionally
“When Anna and Jack met once a week, it was always at Anna’s house, and it seemed that it was primarily always a date for sex,” Dr. Nelson says. “Jack brought her flowers but rarely took her out for dinner, and wouldn’t suggest a night out at a movie or a club, and he never agreed to a weekend away when Anna said she wanted to get out of the city.”
Well. At least there were flowers. I waited until nearly age 30 before someone bothered to get me a little Whole Foods mason jar of roses. I guess a suitor once gave me an iPhone 5, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, welcome to sign number three. “If the relationship is primarily for sex, and you want more than that, you’re giving too much: It’s likely a one-way relationship, and it may be time to get out,” says Dr. Nelson.
“If the relationship is primarily for sex, and you want more than that, you’re giving too much: It’s likely a one-way relationship, and it may be time to get out.” —Dr. Nelson
There is a disclaimer to this rule, though: “There’s nothing wrong with having a purely sexual relationship, if that’s what you both want. If it’s working for you, great,” Dr. Nelson says. “But in Anna’s case, their sexual relationship wasn’t even fulfilling all of her sexual needs. She wanted sex more than once a week and she began to suspect that Jack’s distancing was more than just about his busy work life. She wondered if he was in another relationship, or worse, if he was married.”
This sense of fear really applies to dating in general. One really fun dating trend, for example, involves finding out you’re in the middle of someone else’s open relationship. And when you start to date someone new especially, there’s always that looming fear that they’re seeing other people. Ultimately all of the smoke and mirrors is a common deal-breaker in one sided relationships when the sex isn’t even worth the turmoil anymore.
Are there any other signs to look out for? Let’s go through a quick lightening round of a one sided relationship, along with relationship expert Susan Winter.
4. Where you go and what you do together is never your choice
That might mean hanging at the bar with their friends every Saturday night when you were really interested in seeing that new movie, or have an early yoga class that you want to feel rested for.
“You are mute in this relationship,” says Winter.
5. Your partner creates the relationship rules
The structure has been their way for as along as you remember, and there’s little compromise when it comes to changing the dynamic. If you want to go see a movie Saturday or pack it in by 11, that isn’t even an option. Your relationship traditions work against you now; this is just the way things are done.
“It’s their design, your input isn’t necessary or appreciated,” says Winter.
6. Sex is for them, not you
“There’s a serious disconnect in the giving and receiving aspect of your physical intimacy,” says Winter.
We already grazed upon this, but let’s say you are having sexual relations with the frequency you like. Is the quality there? What about the equality. Think about the last time your physical needs were focused on and satiated, then get back to me.
7. Your thoughts and opinions don’t count
“Your thoughts and opinions are minimized to the point of irrelevance,” Winter says.
This might not even be with a dramatic shutting down but little micro-dismissals. Pay attention to how you partner reacts when you bring up your feelings. Do you feel heard and seen, or like you’re talking to a GD wall?
8. You’re more in love with them than they are with you
That’s the bottom line: “You’re the partner with the greatest emotional investment,” says Winter.
How to proceed if you think you’re in a one sided relationship
First, take a sec to breathe: Because this doesn’t automatically mean your partner doesn’t love you.
From there, contemplate what you’re lacking the most with this person: “In order to create a more balanced relationship, put some time into thinking about what you really want,” says Dr. Nelson. “Do you want more companionship? More sexual time? Put yourself first and share your needs and desires with your partner.”
And then, express your concerns: Big declarations of self-worth and personal needs are really important to share…as long as you can break away when the person hears you, but isn’t listening.
Still, if you think this is union is worth fighting for and the person you’re dating is just, for lack of a better phrase, being f–king dumb right now, things could work out great! It could turn out that they were simply clueless about your feelings or absentminded when regarding texting, and that you bringing it to light made all the difference.
The key thing to remember is that in every relationship, there’s always one party who’s kowtowing to the other a little bit more. It’s just a matter of how unequal the dynamic is. Because sure, a one-sided relationship can work, but very rarely can it work well and without resentment. Balancing the scales is something you need to continuously do.
“You may have to take some risks to get what you want,” Dr. Nelson says. “In the long run, it will be worth it to feel like you’re getting what you deserve in a balanced and giving relationship.”
Ultimately, the biggest key for figuring out if you’re in a one sided relationship only starts with recognizing the signs. Once it’s crystal clear, then you need to pause, assess, and ask for what you want. This is all about recognizing the love you want and deserve—and expressing your needs. And also, of course, being able to leave a bad situation before you go all Firestarter on someone.
Originally published on August 18, 2019. Updated on March 13, 2020.
Feeling suspect that your S.O. is cheating on you? You might want to look out for the common traits of a serial cheater. And if you’re still in the throes of early love and want to make it legit, here’s how to successfully define the relationship.
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