elPadawan/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: elPadawan/Flickr Creative Commons

When patients tell me about problem relationships, most of the time, there were signs from the beginning, and one issue is most often the key. That issue is balancing your and the other person's level of risk. Here is how to start off on the right foot and avoid heartache later.

Ask yourself if you and your new friend are taking equal risks. What do I mean by risk? There are many kinds. Telling how you feel about the other person is an emotional risk. If you are more into the other person than they're into you, then you are putting yourself at risk of being hurt. If you have revealed more of yourself than your friend, then you have taken a risk. If you have given something of value, emotionally or otherwise, then you are taking a risk.

Risk is good for relationships. Without risk, nothing will happen, so opening the relationship with a small amount of risk is necessary to get things going, but then it is time to wait and see what the other person does. Healthy people are sensitive to unblanced risk and feel emotionally compelled to restore balance. If you tell sensitive things about yourself, the other person should open up an equal amount with you. If you travel a long ways to meet, the other person should find a way to match your expense and effort. It doesn't have to be in the same currency, but any imbalance should quickly and naturally be brought back to even.

In this way, taking an early risk is a test. If the other person does not feel a need to equalize, then you should take note and be cautious. If there is no response, that is a red flag. Maybe it would be OK to say something, but that is a risk in itself. Speaking up about your feeling of inequality is giving a piece of your emotional self. If you are prepared for the other person not to respond, then it is alright to take that risk. On the other hand, if the response is not adequate, watch out.

Those who are comfortable with an unbalanced relationship — one where you put yourself more at risk than the other party — are the most likely to turn out not to be true friends. For some reason, their own wellbeing is taking up too much room, and a balanced relationship is a lot less likely to be possible. Friendship can't be bought.

Poeple who have suffered early in life have a tendency to assume that they are expected to give more than their share. They may expect that if they go above and beyond the call of duty then somehow they will be rewarded. Charity is only rewarding when you are truly giving with no expectations. This works best when your own needs are well taken care of. Similarly, if your new friend seems to be ready to take risks with you and allow an unbalanced relationship in the other direction, beware. A solid relationsip isn't based on charity and should in all cases be risk-balanced.

Most of the misogynistic things men do are, in my view, driven by a need to avoid emotional risk. There are many justifications and rationalizations, but if the behavior imposes an uneven risk, then it should be seen as a red flag.

If you experience an imbalance, my advice is to try once more, maybe say something or just wait, and if there is no reciprocity, then let the relationship go. As you continue to build a relationship, it is helpful to keep thinking in terms of even risk. As you invest more, that is, put more of yourself at risk — if each step has been met with equal risking on the other person's part — you should feel confident that your new relationship is a balanced one. It doesn't mean that it will be perfect, but it does mean that your basic platform of give and take is working as it should.

For more on relationship and other human problems, see my website and blog at: http://www.howtherapyworks.com.

Jeffery Smith, M.D.

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