How Not to Have a One-Sided Relationship

It's easier than you think to find yourself in a one-sided relationship. Here are three things to look for in a good, equal partner, and they all begin with the letter R.

Stephen Snyder, MD
6-minute read
Episode #12

Hardly anyone starts out wanting to be in a one-sided relationship. But lots of people still end up in relationships where the other person has all the power.

Let's take a look at how to avoid getting into a one-sided relationship. I'll also show you how to get out, if you happen to be stuck in one. 

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First, let's consider the kind of relationships most of us want. You know, the good kind where both people feel valued and everyone gets to have a say. For this kind of relationship, you need the right partner. Some people make better partners than others. 

What all good relationships have in common

There are three things good partners do in a good relationship. They all begin with the letter "R," so they're easy to remember. Good partners are:

  1. Reliable. They show up when they say they’re going to show up. In psychology we call this “object permanence.” You don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re going to stick around. And when they say they’re going to do something for you, or with you, you can trust that they’re going to do what they say.

  2. Reassuring. You can ask them for reassurance—any time you want—and they're happy to give it. In psychology we call this “object constancy.” You don’t have to worry that their feelings for you are going to suddenly change.

  3. Real. They want to be part of your life. They want to meet your family and friends, and they want you to meet their family and friends too. They're interested in the real details of your life—the good as well as the bad. And they expect you to be interested in their lives, too.

Simple, right? And as a result, with a good partner, you should be able to do one more thing that begins with the letter R—relax. You should feel like you can kick off your shoes and be completely yourself. In a good relationship, you should feel right at home. 

Now let’s look at one-sided relationships       

In a one-sided relationship, one or more of these three things are missing. Your partner isn’t reliable enough, they’re not reassuring enough, or they’re not 100 percent real. And the result is that you’re anxious a lot of the time. Which makes perfect sense—under those circumstances, who wouldn’t be anxious?

Why do so many people stay with partners who are unreliable, or not able to offer enough reassurance, or not 100 percent real?

You’d think in this kind of situation, where a relationship is one-sided, that pretty much everyone would immediately head for the hills, and run as fast as they could in the other direction. But obviously, a lot of people don’t.

So why do so many people stay with partners who are unreliable, not able to offer enough reassurance, or not 100 percent real? There are lots of reasons.  

Why people stay in one-sided relationships

As I mentioned before, a good relationship should make you feel at home. But many people come from homes where at least one key family member wasn’t reliable, reassuring, or real. If that’s the case, you might know intellectually what you need in a partner. But in your heart, where it really counts, you might think you don’t deserve any better. 

One-sided relationships tend to occur when you’re too dependent on one other person for attention and validation.

Maybe you’ve had to grow up to be super-attuned to other people’s feelings, because that’s what you needed to do at home in order to survive. Maybe you tend to assume everything is your fault—even when it’s not. You feel like you have to be cheerful and helpful all the time, even when you’re upset. All of these things can make you a prime candidate for being in a one-sided relationship. 

There are also lots of real, practical reasons why people feel they have to stay in one-sided relationships—family pressures and economic constraints, for example. That's especially true if children are involved and you feel you don’t have any other good options.  

The one-sided relationship roller coaster

Even in a dating situation, where you’re free to stay or go, many people find themselves stuck in one-sided relationships. My colleague Jill Weber writes about this at length in her book, Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. I call this dynamic the one-sided relationship roller coaster.

The  roller coaster begins in a down position, where you're emotionally depleted and not feeling very good about yourself. Maybe you’ve been single for a while. All of your friends have partners and you’re starting to wonder if there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. 

Sometimes you're super-attuned to other people’s feelings because that’s what you needed to do at home to survive.

Now let’s say some attractive person shows you a bit of attention. You start fantasizing about how wonderful it would be to be with this person. You buy a new outfit, maybe even lose some weight, and hang out where the object of your fantasy is most likely to appear.

With any luck, they remember who you are. They notice how wonderful you look and how good it feels to be around you. You might even hook up. This is the high point of the roller coaster ride. 

How single people get hooked on one-sided relationships

The problem, of course, is that the relationship is one-sided from the start. You’ve been working like mad to make this happen, and the other person hasn’t had to do much of anything.

People don’t tend to appreciate things they haven’t had to work for. Chances are, they’ll sense that you’re coming from a position of powerlessness. Ultimately, that powerlessness tends to be unattractive. 

Every time they disappoint you, and you accept it, a piece of your self-worth disappears.

If the other person fails to call or text you the next day, the emotional roller coaster takes a stomach-churning plunge and sends you hurtling down, leaving you worse off than where you started. And since despair tends to breed desperation, at this point the roller coaster can easily start up again with someone else. Or, if the object of your fascination does happen to text or call in a week or two, you may pick up right where you left off with the same person. 

This perfect storm of emotions can easily result in a one-sided relationship, where the other person doesn't have to be reliable, reassuring, or particularly real. But you still hang on, because you can't stand the way it feels when the roller coaster stops. And every time they disappoint you, and you accept it, a piece of your self-worth disappears. 

How to make sure you don’t end up in a one-sided relationship

So, let’s talk about what can you do to prevent falling into one-sided relationships, or how to stop perpetuating a one-sided relationship once it gets started.

  1. Don't rely on one person for all your needs. One-sided relationships tend to occur when you’re too dependent on one other person for attention and validation. (The same is true, by the way, for abusive relationships.) So, make sure you seek attention and validation from lots of different sources. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, tempting though that might be when you’re head-over-heels in love.

  2. Make an effort to see your partner clearly. This is really hard to do when someone has captured your heart. But it’s important, so make sure you make the effort. Walk yourself through the 3 R’s of how a good partner should behave. Are they reliable? Are they able to reassure you when you need reassurance? Do they include you in their life, and do they want to be included in your life, in the way someone does when they're 100 percent real?

  3. Stand up for your rights. If you have any doubts, speak up. Let them know you need a partner who’s capable of being reliable, reassuring, and real. Remember, you have the power to hold them accountable, and to call it quits if they don't meet these three requirements—which, if you think about it, are really pretty basic.

Whether you're single, dating, or married, remember you have the right to share power equally with your partner. Sometimes you have to stand up for your rights. Chances are, you'll get more respect that way.

​And if you don't, then seriously consider calling it quits.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Stephen Snyder, MD

Dr. Stephen Snyder is a sex and relationship therapist in New York City and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine. He's also the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. In 2019, he was the host of the first season of the Relationship Doctor podcast.