Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Beggars for Affection

The case of asymmetric friendships.

Some friendships are asymmetric: One person wants or craves the other’s company while the converse is not true. In the limiting case, one friend has nothing at all to offer to the other, and the relationship resembles that between a beggar and a benefactor. Of course, even in the most symmetric of friendships, there are asymmetric days: One friend suffers a loss of some sort and is feeling down, or is ill, hurt, or frustrated, and the other tries to lift his or her spirits. But in symmetric friendships, this happens only occasionally, and who needs cheering up changes. The tables get turned.

 Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels
Source: Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels

Not so in asymmetric friendships. There, the distortion becomes chronic. One friend is always giving and never getting anything in return.

There is, it must be noted, a kind of asymmetric friendship that does involve an exchange but of the wrong kind. Thus, if you attempt to pay for someone's affection with gifts—as a queen might do with a favorite—then on the surface, you do offer something in return for the other's affection, but the currency is not the right one. It is not your company the other wants, so at a deeper level, you remain a beggar, though possibly a rich and powerful one.

It is asymmetric friendships that interest me here. Do people always know they are in one? What should we do if we have a beggar for affection friend or else we find ourselves begging for someone else’s affection?

Let's look at the matter from the beggar's viewpoint first. The affection beggar may not realize what the relationship costs the other. It may seem to a perpetually gloomy person, for instance, that a friend with a cheerier disposition has an endless supply of optimism. That is simply untrue. No matter how optimistic or energetic a person is by temperament, he or she is likely to feel depleted if constantly trying to lift someone else’s spirits. If someone repeatedly enters your cool waters so he or she could cool down, your waters won't be so cool after a while. Nonetheless, a benefactor friend who is a good person may feel under an obligation to continue giving: time, energy, optimism, whatever the friend needs or requires.

What I wish to suggest here is that there is no such obligation in friendship. A friend is not a therapist, not a social worker, and not a benefactor. We alternately play these roles for each other in friendship, but no one has a duty to assume one of these roles vis-à-vis a friend permanently. A therapist and a social worker, after all, are doing a job. A friendship should not feel like a job for one person. To be another's benefactor, especially on a regular basis, is not a duty. Of course, if someone—friend or otherwise—has done you a favor in the past, you may have a duty to reciprocate, but if the other has done nothing and perhaps, can for nothing but impose, then things stand differently, and to attempt to portray the issue as one of obligation to friends is to confuse duty with charity.

The giver, it must be said, may not feel burdened or exhausted if he or she secretly enjoys the asymmetry for reasons the other would resent if those reasons became known. For instance, in Cousin Pons, Balzac describes two characters, Schmucke and Pons. Schmucke believes himself superior to Pons, and that solidifies the friendship. Balzac writes:

Schmucke understood [that Pons is inferior] and loved poor Pons the better. Nothing so fortifies a friendship as a belief on the part of one friend that he is superior to the other. [1]

But while a benefactor with Schmucke's mindset may not feel used or burdened, the reason for that should give us pause. To the extent a relationship based on a questionable downward comparison could be called a friendship at all, it is a degenerate case of one. If, on the other hand, one person is so desperate that he or she doesn't mind the downward comparison, what we have is a relationship incompatible with one party's self-respect. Either way, the case is hardly evidence of the sustainability of asymmetric friendships.

Do people know they have an asymmetric friendship when they do? Those on the benefactor side generally do. If one is always giving and getting nothing, one is unlikely to miss the fact that a debt has been incurred without repayment. By contrast, the fact one is on the receiving end may easily be missed, despite warning signs. Say a person is invariably the one to get in touch. The other never initiates contact. That's a pretty good indication of what is going on. But it could be explained away, wishfully: The friend whose company we desire is being too passive! Too lacking in initiative! Not making enough time for one’s friends! That this is so should come as no surprise. The person who got what he or she needed may not think to ask: Was it enjoyable for my friend?

Sometimes, an affection beggar’s eyes may be opened when he or she becomes the benefactor in another friendship. For that you are a beggar for someone's attention and love does not mean that other people may not become beggars for yours. Role-reversal may lift the curtain. If we find ourselves on the other side, we may gain an insight: Perhaps, a friend we need feels about us just the way we feel about our own needy friend. One wants to help but senses that it is unfair to be repeatedly asked to do what one is being asked to do.

I wish to point out, finally, that the issue of asymmetric friendships should not be confused with that of inequalities between friends. It is true that it may not be easy to maintain a friendship with someone in the face of great inequality. Consider, for instance, the case of journalist Neil Drumming who was close friends with author Ta-Nehisi Coates before Coates wrote a New York Times bestseller, but who says the friendship fell apart after that:

I know Ta-Nehisi's the same guy—warm, funny, curious, loves comic books. But he's also a famous writer who lives in Paris, accepts prestigious awards in a tuxedo that he owns, and gets shout-outs from Toni Morrison and Jay Z. He's changing in ways that I'm not. And when people change, they grow apart. And it makes me worry about our friendship.

Like when we're making plans. A couple of months ago, Ta-Nehisi, our other buddy, Rick, and I were supposed to meet for Sunday brunch at our old West Side haunt, The Half King. The Half King is a pub, not a dive, a respectable pub with good service, good beer, and decent food. The morning of the scheduled meeting, he texted to ask if we can meet at the swanky Hotel Marlton instead. His explanation? "I'm becoming that dude."

Rick [a mutual friend] was understanding. He joked that since eating in Paris, everything back home must taste like dog food. Ta-Nehisi's response? "It's close."

The Drumming/Coates case, however, is not a case of an asymmetric friendship in the relevant sense. It is rather a case in which the bond could not survive one friend’s stardom. Just why great inequalities may lead to the dissolution of even very close relationships is an issue that deserves a separate discussion. Asymmetric friendships in the sense that interests me here involve cases in which only one partner has something to offer that the other wants. So on one side, the relationship is based on a largely misguided sense of duty, or on pity, or worse—on a tendency to compare oneself to one's friend and come ahead.

Since the issue is simply one of enjoying each other's company and people can enjoy the company of those very different from them, friendships can be symmetric in the relevant sense despite great inequalities. One person may be much more successful, or more popular than the other, there could be a difference in age, and so on, but so far as the friendship itself is concerned, there is symmetry: both are givers as well as beneficiaries. Both get something out of spending time with the other person.

That a relationship that involves considerable inequality is nonetheless symmetric may not be apparent to outsiders. Many years ago, I knew two young women who were friends. From an outsider’s point of view, the friendship appeared asymmetric. One friend was popular and well-adjusted. The other was excruciatingly thin and appeared to have a psychiatric problem, not big enough for an observer to conclude she was actually unwell but serious enough for one to wonder whether she was well. She had parents who loved her dearly but had very few—if any—friends.

Some wondered what the popular friend found in this young woman, and at one point, the young woman’s mother, who knew me and whom I knew, solicited my help in determining whether the attractive friend had an ulterior motive of some sort. The mother was very protective of her daughter and concerned that her daughter’s heart may be broken. (The mother intuited correctly that a friend, and not just a romantic interest, can break one’s heart, particularly—as in this case—when the friend is the only one you have.)

I agreed to help and observed the pair for a while. As best as I could tell, the two had a beautiful friendship. The popular young woman had no ulterior motive. The two simply liked each other. In fact, the sickly young woman was transformed in the company of her friend. She became animated and funny. Most anyone would have enjoyed her company when she was in the state her friend’s presence put her in.

This suggests that how capable we are of giving may depend on what qualities the other person draws out of us. If that is so, we have a strategy: befriend people who neither make us feel as though we ought to be perpetual care-takers nor make us want them to be our therapist or benefactor. One can look for a therapist or a benefactor if one needs such a person, of course, but not among one’s friends.

Follow me here.


[1] Balzac, H. (1899). Cousin Betty, Cousin Pons, and Other Stories. Philadelphia, PA: The Gebbie Publishing Company, 110.