Asymmetrical friendship - what to do?
September 13, 2019 4:34 AM   Subscribe

So C and I met at work, and became friends. By the time her contract ended we had started catching up for lunch offsite, and we were saying we should keep in touch, so I gave her my number and she gave me hers. Two weeks later I messaged her to catch up and we have caught up about once a month for the last six months or so, always at my instigation.

I don’t have any trouble getting C to come out when I ask her - she doesn’t say she’s busy a lot or anything like that, but it’s always me who does the asking. It just feels a bit weird.

We are due for a catch up but I’m not sure what to do - I would like her to contact me, but I don’t know how to get that across to her without sounding rude. How would you do it? Should I just wait a few weeks and see if she contacts me?

Also there is a bit of an age gap - I’m 37 and more senior at work (though really not very senior and with no influence over hiring) and C is more junior and in her late 20s. I don’t know if she realised how old I am when we first became friends- people often think I’m younger (sorry about the humblebrag!!) but I have made it clear since so that she knows. It doesn’t bother me but it might bother her. Should I be worried?

I like C and I would like to retain the friendship, but I don’t want to keep hassling someone who isn’t interested. What say you, Mefites?
posted by EatMyHat to Human Relations (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I seem to attract these situations frequently. Sorry to say that usually I end up just letting it go. A friendship is a two-way street and if someone isn't willing, for whatever reason, to proactively put in a smilar effort, it just won't work. At least it almost never did for me. Life is short. Spend time with people who want to spend time with you. They are out there.
posted by jtexman1 at 5:12 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have a friend who complains about this sort of thing a LOT. She ends up being the initiator with me more, for some reason, but I think that just goes that way because we're long distance. Meanwhile, I have a friend group here where I find myself being the initiator with the entire bunch. I'm trying to plan some field trip activities right now about things where others were "oh, lemme know if you do X" and nobody is getting back to me and I'm annoyed AF right now on that one. One of them in particular will want to go to stuff but has told me he's never actually going to get up the nerve to ask. So it's been made clear that I have to ask. Okay, fine, I just want him to indicate if he wants to! I'll do the asking but I want folks to mention/respond or not if they want in rather than my having to poke everyone every few weeks to check again.

Sometimes that is just how the relationship goes, though. Some folks are better about asking than others. Some definitely want to go if asked but will never get up the nerve or get around to it or whatever.

Girlfriend Circles talks about this a lot.

"You Think Mutuality Means Equal Initiation. Oh so many friendships never get off the ground due to the fear in us that whispers, "I invited her last time, the ball is in her court now." So not true.
We all have strengths to give to our friendships; and initiation and planning are just that-- a strength that we all have in varying degrees.
I'm good at thinking up things to do and reaching out when I have the extra time and head space. I never think, "Oh I had them over last time... it's their turn." I think, "Oh I want to see them again, let me email them to see if they can come over!"
And they reciprocate in the friendships in plenty of other ways. They thank me for inviting them over, they helped make a night of meaningful conversation and memories, they asked about my life, they showed interest, they shared their stories with me. I got what I needed: time with friends.
Mutuality is important. But mutuality is not 50/50 in each task, but it's whether we both are contributing to the friendship, overall.
If you're the one who wants it, then make the ask. Don't let your fear of rejection stop you from initiating what you desire."

"We use language like "the ball is in her court" and "I don't want to impose" and "I invited her last time so this time I'll wait to see if she reciprocates." We justify our wait-and-see approach by reminding ourselves that we sent the last email or initiated the most recent plans, and we conclude that we're always the ones doing the inviting. Not this time, we say. This time it's her turn.
While we may not call it a fear of rejection, we are in part acting out of that fear. We don't want to come across as desperate. We don't want to feel like we're putting ourselves out there all the time, unsure if it's wanted. We've been told we don't need to put up with any behavior that isn't perfectly mutual. We want to feel like they like us too. We want to feel wanted. We definitely don't want to be the ones who give more than we receive again. So we protect our egos and wait her out.
In the meantime, our budding relationship never gets momentum so it never really happens. And we're left complaining that no one out there seems to be interested in a mutual friendship.

The truth is that there are just many, many people out there who have so much to offer a friendship-- but initiating and scheduling may not be their forte. That doesn't mean they don't love us or want to be with us. And it certainly doesn't mean they don't have other meaningful ways to give to us. It just means they aren't going to assertively send out the invitation. Or if they do, it won't be as frequently as it might be for some of the rest of us."

You're not bugging someone who isn't interested. I asked a lady out on a friendship date, she indicated interest/reciprocated the first time and then ignored my second ask, so there you go. Your situation is different.

You can't force someone to switch back and forth on initiating. We can't make others do what we want. You aren't "hassling someone who's not interested." If she's responding to the friendship otherwise and not blowing you off or ignoring your asks or whatever, then this is actually going pretty well. She wants to see you, she just doesn't manage to execute asking or initiating. This is not a case of the other person not being interested.

So I don't really have a solution for you about the initiating business, but otherwise I think your situation is okay, you know?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:22 AM on September 13, 2019 [88 favorites]

I'd say don't worry about it. If you enjoy her company, and are willing to make the effort, just keep on doing what you're doing. It's not entirely fair that you're doing the emotional labour of keeping the relationship going, but anecdotally, I have a friend like this, where I have to make the plans every time, and they're still among my very best friends 25 years later.

If she's not interested in being your friend, there will be other signs, like making excuses. Seems to me that she's just a bit lazy about this part of being a friend.
posted by pipeski at 5:24 AM on September 13, 2019 [9 favorites]

You could try not contacting her at the usual time and seeing if she contacts you; if she doesn't and you don't want to wait it out, you could send a message saying something like, , hey! It's been a while. How have you been?" Without mentioning getting together- it may prompt her to mention it. The next time you meet up, when saying goodbye, you can say, " let me know when you want to hang out next- i know things can get busy, don't want to bug you too much!"

Beyond those practical suggestions, it's more of getting yourself into the mindset of accepting the friendship for what it is, or not accepting it. Chances are she appreciates your company if she comes out when you invite her, but just expects you to be the inviter. You may be able to change that with one of the above.
posted by bearette at 5:27 AM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

I mean, I will try to be the best guest possible when invited, but I'm not a very good host? So if you're both enjoying time together, and you're both playing to your strengths, just roll with it. There's a lot more musical duos where each partner does different things than the same things, you know?
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:29 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

So, I'm someone who values friendships and works hard at maintaining them... but I rarely instigate in-person social time. Mostly this is because I lose track of time really quickly and don't realize, sometimes, that it's been months until, well, it's been months. Also as someone who is single I tend to assume that those with kids are busy and wait for them to surface; similarly, with older friends I defer to them a bit out of some family-instilled sense of not bothing one's "elders." There could be things going on like any of that with C. If you do enjoy the time you spend together, keep instigating! Friends who, like me, are poor at first contact will be grateful.
posted by TwoStride at 5:44 AM on September 13, 2019 [14 favorites]

That’s a really good quote above. Equal friendship doesn’t have to mean equal initiation of invitation, period. It would be different if she were putting you off or disengaging while you’re together, but you take pains to say that is not the case.

I think the main problem here is that you have placed a bit too much value on her calling you, everything else seems fine.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:05 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

What everyone is saying is true, that you don’t have to I It I ate equally. However I have also found that if I’m not so close that they are imitating with me, then I don’t have the energy to put in to the relationship. It is ok to not want to be the one always initiating the contact. We can remain friendly, but that may be all
posted by raccoon409 at 6:08 AM on September 13, 2019

I am terrible at initiating contact. I am happy when others do it. I also think that in your case, you might want to suggest that you make the date a recurring one - "hey, it seems like we are managing to get together about once a month and to make sure we don't let our catch up lunches get lost in the shuffle, I'd like to suggest we establish a standing date and resto - how about the last Tuesday of every month at [restaurant]?" Then the initiative is just a reminder - "hey - I see our lunch is up next week - see you then!"
posted by girlpublisher at 6:20 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

The truth is that there are just many, many people out there who have so much to offer a friendship-- but initiating and scheduling may not be their forte.

Yes, god yes, I am so bad at having friends, I am actually the scheduler for many of my online friendships, but those involve things we're doing multiple times a week, streaming stuff online. For friends I see less often, I'm like--surely we just talked. Surely. In... May? Hmm. You don't have to keep putting forth this effort if it doesn't make you happy, but if she never equivocates about going out and she seems to be enjoying herself when you hang out, she may just not be socially organized, that doesn't mean she doesn't like you. If she doesn't want to be friends, there will be other signs.
posted by Sequence at 6:21 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Does it bother you that she doesn’t initiate or are you just worried she doesn’t want to meet and only meets because she feels obliged. If you enjoy these lunches and if she seems to enjoy them just keep initiating them. She is an adult with control over her social commitments. And you are not in her line of reporting or even employed by the same company so this is a social or at worst professional contact social interaction. There is no imbalance here you need to consider. If she doesn’t want to go to lunch she can decline. If she does that a couple of times in a row perhaps consider if she is trying to give you a hint but otherwise go to lunch.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:25 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

Some of this may just be mismatched expectations of how often to see people. Hanging out once a month would be a lot for me even with someone I like very much. I don't see my best friend that often, and I love them and would take a bullet for them any day! She may like you very much, but you're just already at her natural limit for how much she's ever going to want to catch up.

Or she may just be someone for whom initiating doesn't come naturally. Folks like that can often step up, but have no reason to do so if they are comfy in the current dynamic and have no sense that you're not, if you haven't told them. Honestly it doesn't even have to be a direct ask, if you're not comfortable with that. I have a friend who's mentioned in the context of her dating life that it really means a lot to her to not always be the one making the plans, and makes her feel appreciated when someone else reaches out sometimes or takes on the planning burden. I can take a hint and want my friend to feel loved, so even though it's not my strongest suit and I still am not doing 50% of our meetup planning, I initiate sometimes, and I make sure that if she's initiated but there's something I can do to meet her partway, like buying the tickets or making the reservations or bringing something tasty to her house when invited over, I do that.

In your shoes I think I'd suggest you go ahead and reach out. While you're meeting up, it would be a great time to say "hey, what do you think about making this a standing date?" or "I'm kind of swamped right now but I don't want to miss seeing you next month so it would be really helpful if you could take the lead on our next meetup, pick a date and let me know when and where to be" or whatever.

Alternatively, you could just try to reframe this for yourself - you're friends with this person for a reason, there are clearly things you really value about her and strengths she has as your friend. Initiating isn't one of them. Maybe if you make a decision to accept that and focus on the other things she brings to your dynamic, you'll feel better about it than if you fret and wish it were different.

Or it's fine for you to just decide that you'd rather put your energy into people whose levels of reciprocal social stuff are a better natural match for yours, and let this one fade until/unless she puts in some matching effort. Your call and either way is a totally reasonable choice to make.
posted by Stacey at 6:33 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sometimes that is just how the relationship goes, though. Some folks are better about asking than others.

THIS. If she was blowing you off (“I’d love to catch up but I’m just so busy this month”) or canceling plans frequently then I would recommend dropping her. The fact that she always wants to get together means she likes you and wants to see you. There can be a mismatch in a number of ways here: maybe she’s always the scheduler for the bulk of her other friends, so she values that in your friendship she doesn’t have to take the initiative. Maybe she only plans things a day ahead but you prefer to plan them a week ahead so you always reach the planning stage first. Maybe due to the age difference she subconsciously views you as the person in charge in the friendship and defers to you.

When you do get together, is she engaged in the conversation and present (not constantly on her phone, not cutting the time short to go elsewhere)?

You may also see this change with time. I have a suspicious, cautious nature, so I don’t go from 0-100 in my friendships. If I’d met a new friend at work it would take me a while to be informal enough with them to be texting them, making casual plans, inviting them along to stuff, doubly so if we were different ages, BUT that doesn’t mean I dislike them or don’t want to see them.

Of course, you’re well within your rights to be annoyed by this! Just decide whether your level of annoyance is high enough to risk derailing a new, growing friendship by bringing it up. There isn’t really a good way of saying “can you please put some more work into our friendship” when you aren’t long-standing friends, IMO. The recommendation to make a standing friend date is a great one.
posted by sallybrown at 7:14 AM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have a friend who is an ex-coworker and we have a standing lunch date once a month. At the end of each lunch, we pull out our phones and pick the next date. Maybe you could start something like this, so it doesn't feel like either one of you has to initiate something unilaterally.
posted by something something at 7:15 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

Also there is a bit of an age gap - I’m 37 and more senior at work (though really not very senior and with no influence over hiring) and C is more junior and in her late 20s.

this is relevant but has nothing to do with anybody bothering anybody. youth>age functions about like female>male in traditional social conventions except that it has some actual justification behind it, not just entrenched prejudice. the assumption is that someone older has more self-confidence, more knowledge of what is socially correct, and more resilience and ability to take rejection in stride. and, not incidentally, more money. therefore it is right and appropriate for the older person to do the inviting, without the worries over Is this overstepping and Am I being too forward and Are they just being kind that a younger person would presumably have.

most people don't adhere to this consciously and some don't at all, but it's a widespread pattern and not necessarily indicative of any personal passivity in this friend. if you're sure there's no reluctance behind her agreeing to see you, you could try directing her a little bit if you think you can do it subtly. like instead of saying Do you want to go see that movie? say Call me when that movie comes out, so we can go see it, I can't wait. or whatever. invitations to invite.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:20 AM on September 13, 2019 [7 favorites]

jenfulllman -- What a wonderful post. Thanks!
posted by DrAstroZoom at 8:24 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are subtle but important difference between pulling back on instigating friend hangs because:
1. you just don't feel up to instigating this month, maybe wait a few weeks, confident that one of you will pick it back up soon (fine)
2. you don't feel like you're getting enough out of the friendship to warrant the effort (fine)
3. you want to test the other person to see if they will pick up the slack you drop (not fine)

In a healthy friendship, #1 will be a non-issue.

With #2, if one friend (or both!) is not responding, cancelling often, or just not enjoying the get-togethers, friends can drift away with no hard feelings, sometimes even drifting back together eventually.

With #3, testing someone on something without their knowledge is setting you both up for failure. You can't tell her you want her to initiate contact without you initiating contact. Meanwhile, she's either oblivious or confused, and you are in all kinds of pain. It's just bad all around. Basically, if you ever feel strongly you want to do this, do #2 instead and save yourself the heartache.
posted by lampoil at 9:03 AM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have this same issue with people. In the majority of my relationships (except romantic ones), including family, I am the initiator. I can say that the reason I want equal initiation is because as life changes and as we change, our relationships may not suit us and initiation is one way of conveying interest. In my mind, if I or they wanted to hang out, I would initiate. My behavior reflects this. So for the people who I don't want to hang out with, I don't initiate. I am also good at scheduling and commitments to social events but do get exhausted at coordinating when I'm doing that for everyone. I also think that a lot of our relationships play out via text and social media so people may not feel as much of a need to get together.
posted by ColdIcedT at 9:26 AM on September 13, 2019

Some people aren't good initiators. Thank goodness my friends have all accepted this aspect of my personality, because otherwise I would literally have no friends. I just don't think along the lines of inviting people out, it feels intrusive to ask them, no matter how illogical that is. My best friend spent years asking me to hang out and do things, and even though I said no 70% of the time because I am also an introvert, she never got miffed or insulted, and just kept asking. And here we are, the best of friends. So unless you get the feeling that this friend of yours specifically does not like hanging out, I absolutely wouldn't sweat it.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 10:30 AM on September 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

Don't just wait for her to contact you - it is a test that she doesn't know she is supposed to be taking.
Option 1: you reach out and when you are face to face, initiate a conversation about the relationship. Try to do it in a way that let's her be honest without having to be rude. So instead of "do you secretly wish I would just disappear out of life" you might say, "I notice I do all the initiating. I'm wondering if it would feel more comfortable for you if we met less often" If she says yes, than you can tell her that you'll leave the ball in her court, she should reach out when she feels ready. If she says no, then you can either take her at her word and feel more comfortable initiating or you can let her know that you would like her to initiate more often. Or, better yet, schedule the next one right then and there.

Option 2: Ask her to initiate. Send her a message saying that your schedule is pretty open - she should let you know when she is ready to pick a date or make a plan. Then sit back and see what happens. But at least this way it is clear to her that the ball is in her court.
posted by metahawk at 10:35 AM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think you have to choose which you want more: the friendship or equality of initiation? Is the friendship worth it to you to always initiate?
posted by medusa at 10:42 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

You could try not contacting her at the usual time and seeing if she contacts you;

I really don't recommend making "tests" for relationships - they almost invariably set people up to fail and it's not satisfying for you, or them, ultimately.

You like seeing this person, she seems to like seeing you; I would just accept the shape of the friendship for what it is. I have friends like this where I always initiate, but I'm also quite introverted and like being by myself a lot, so I don't instigate a tonne of things.

The initiating is not the friendship, the time you spend together is. Initiation is trivial, really, in comparison.
posted by smoke at 5:15 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I very much understand your position as I find myself in the same situation in almost all of my friendships. I am going through the same thing right now with a group of friends. I wish someone else would be the instigator!

However, as a communication scholar I can appreciate the concept of reciprocity in a different way. You want equality in the Ask. A reciprocal exchange of invitation. To you that means a lot. However this may not be a Thing for her. Consider this: When you see your friend does she reciprocate in the conversation? That is, when you make a personal disclosure about your life does she then also offer up information about her life? If she does, then there is reciprocity and you can feel assured that she values you and wants to be your friend. Maybe she just sucks at arranging things. If she does not, and you find her closing off during conversation then maybe the relationship is nearing its end.

Perhaps you invite her out again and make plans for a standing date. Every first Tuesday at local coffee shop or wine bar at x time. Then you text or call a few days before to confirm. It takes away the burden of the Ask. I found this approach to be very successful.

Good luck!
posted by ChristineSings at 7:24 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am a pretty good initiator but realistically I use up a lot of my initiative on my inner circle. I am always super excited and grateful when acquaintance-type friends invite me to hang out though! It's nice to have someone else ask me sometimes. Maybe your friend is like me.

I also think there's something to what queenofbithynia says about the age gap; I have a comparable younger friend and it used to bum me out that I did most of the initiating there but I realized it was sorta my role as the grown-up, and that in fact my friend showed that they were invested in the relationship in ways that generally did not include Making the Plans.
posted by ferret branca at 8:23 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is almost always the initiator, because her work schedule is not flexible and mine is - her available free time is more rare. I have always let her know that the reason I don't initiate much is not because I don't treasure her, but because I understand that her plate is sometimes really full and I don't want to impose on what little bit of self-care time she has. Perhaps C feels something like that - that you are just a busier person with more demands on your time - but is too shy to tell you.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 10:07 PM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

« Older Best printer for heavy cardstock (laser or inkjet)   |   English majors of the world, unite Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.