What you need to know about relationship inequality.
Posted Nov 25, 2019
“But I have enough love for both of us!”
Jasmine stopped and considered her words as she described her relationship with Ed. He was special. Unlike previous loves who had simply disappeared after a brief time, Ed was honest. He told her that he didn’t love her, that to stay in her life and pretend that his feelings were otherwise would only hurt her more. He winced as she protested that her love was enough to carry the relationship until he fell in love with her. “Jasmine," he said quietly. "Stop. It’s not going to happen.”
Crushed by this reality, Jasmine was now in therapy, weeping over the breakup of a love relationship that was painfully one-sided.
Most of us have seen or experienced instances of lopsided love. It happens when:
- One person falls in love, but the other doesn’t.
- Someone has a crush on an unattainable person — perhaps a celebrity heartthrob, perhaps a school sports hero or cheerleader — usually during the early teen years when a real-life love relationship might be overwhelming.
- One partner is incapable of reciprocal love: the addict, the narcissist, the person whose level of neediness or selfishness precludes equality in love.
- One partner is wary of commitment for a variety of reasons while the other yearns for a deeper connection.
There are, to be sure, times in any relationship, when love can seem unequal: when one partner is focused on school or a demanding new job or in early parenthood when baby care, fatigue and the stress of this major life transition can cause one or both partners to feel a bit more distance from the other. The key difference, however, is that this is transitory inequality. A truly lopsided love is ongoing with one partner wielding power through distance, indifference, or unending neediness.
How can you tell the difference in your own life, looking past hope and aspiration to the painful truth that yours is an ongoing unequal relationship?
- If one person is doing all of the emotional work in the relationship. Are you always the one who calls or texts? Who makes plans? Whose loving words are met with a strained silence or totally ignored? Is your partner unwilling to participate in working out relationship problems? Sheila and Brian are a case in point. Brian feels that Sheila's confrontational, argumentative communication style is eroding the goodwill in their relationship. He has told her repeatedly that he would like to talk things over quietly, collaboratively, and reach a compromise. But Sheila isn’t into compromises. “It’s her way or the highway,” he says sadly. “No discussion. No compromise. It’s like her opinions and needs are the only ones that count.”
- He or she would never do for you what you are willing to do for him or her. If you find yourself giving and giving, listening, sacrificing time and your own priorities repeatedly while he or she never does the same for you, you’re in a lopsided love relationship. If it’s always all about him or her with little or any sensitivity to your needs, it’s time to evaluate the relationship and your reasons for staying.
- You walk on eggshells around this person, unable to relax and be yourself. He or she holds all the power. “I worry all the time about Ben,” a client I’ll call Anna told me recently. “He puts me through so much with his drinking and money problems and his bad temper. But I don’t think he could manage without me, not really. I want to help him. I want to be a perfect partner for him.” But what about Anna? She sighed. "I know. It's all about him. Sometimes I get really mad about that. But I love trying to help him be happy."
- You can't count on him or her and you find yourself making excuses for your partner to those who love you. You may have had this fantasy that, once you had a partner, you would have someone who would be with you in good times and lean times, someone by your side at family holiday celebrations and seeing in the New Year. And yet, he or she opts out time after time. And people who matter immensely to you are noticing. “Joe never kept his promises to be there for me at family gatherings or even to buy groceries or help pay bills for a change,” Taylor told me in a session not long ago. “He never had money for food or rent, ever, even after he began to supplement what he made as a musician with a day job. I wanted to be supportive of him in all ways, but my friends and family started pointing out to me that not only didn’t he bother to help pay our living expenses, but also he never bothered to show up in my life, even when I really needed him. It bothered them long before it became intolerable for me. I realized I was always making excuses for him until I just couldn't anymore."
- You’re not a priority in his or her life. If he or she always chooses to give time and attention to everyone but you, your love is decidedly lopsided.
A number of studies have examined lopsided, one-sided, asymmetrically committed relationships.
A study by Jesse Owen and colleagues in 2013 observed that “The partner who loves the least has more power in the relationship.” The study went on to conclude that unclear, unequal relationships may be more common these days in the wake of people sliding into lives together — moving in together, having children — without making formal commitments like engagement or marriage and that uncertainty over where a relationship is going can make partners more self-protective and less nurturing of the relationship itself.
In a 2017 study of asymmetrically committed relationships at the University of Denver, Scott M. Stanley and his colleagues found that relationships, where the female partner was less committed, were most likely to break up within two years, that a female’s level of commitment was the most important indicator of whether the relationship would survive.
This might mean that women, in general, are more willing to tolerate a relationship with a partner who is less committed. But whether you’re a man or a woman, there are some factors to consider as you think about your own lopsided love.
Take a realistic look at where this relationship is headed. If, for example, he claims not to be the marrying kind, believe him. Don’t hang on with the hope that someday, some year, he’ll change his mind. The timing may not be good. He (or she) may be phobic about commitment. Or he’s just not willing to marry you. Whatever the reason, it’s important to hear what your partner is saying, weigh that reality and then make a decision that feels right for you.
Ask yourself what you are getting out of this lopsided relationship. What do you get out of giving and giving and getting little, if anything, in return? Some people are dedicated rescuers, martyrs, nurturers and/or enablers. How do you feel this will work for you long-term if nothing were to change?
“It made me feel good about myself to be there for someone who was a troubled lost soul,” my friend Ellen told me. “I had to marry two husbands with addiction problems, guys who gave me nothing but heartache, until I realized that I could help those in need without marrying them, for heaven’s sake. Now that I’m a nurse, I help people all day long, then I go home to peace and quiet.”
Decide what you can live with and communicate what you can’t. Despite the challenges, some find ways to live and find a measure of happiness with a partner who is demanding and rarely, if ever, reciprocates the partner's loving commitment.
It can be a matter of deciding what you can live with, what matters most to you and what you can let go. Another major part of your decision to hang in there — or not — may be your partner’s reaction when you try to communicate your needs and concerns. If you invariably feel dismissed, unseen, and unheard, it may be time to think about moving on.
Let go of the dream that your relationship can change. If you've done everything possible to encourage a bit of reciprocity to no avail, it may be time to let go of the dream that your love could be deep and enduring, if only he or she would change and would see, appreciate and reciprocate your love and devotion.
Letting go of that dream is much easier said than done. But if your partner has told you, in words and deeds, that he or she does not have the desire or the ability to change what you can’t live with, it may be time to make the decision to let go of this dream — and to move on to discover a more enduring and reciprocal love.
Scott M. Stanley, Galena K. Rhoades, Shelly Scott, et al. Asymmetrically Committed Relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Vol. 34, issue 8, pp. 1241-1259, December 1, 2017.
Jesse Owen, Galena K. Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley, 2013. Sliding Versus Deciding in Relationships: Association with Relationship Quality, Commitment and Infidelity. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 12:2, pp. 135-149.
Scott M. Stanley, Galena K. Rhoades, S.W. Whitten. Commitment: Function, Formation and Security of Romantic Attachment. Journal of Family Theory Rev, 2010 December 1: 2(4), 243-257.