New Ways to Think about Friendship

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Reader’s Question

I am 21 years old and never had a best friend. I have people who I consider my friends, but I feel like I tend to be the one contacting them all the time.

My parents often tell me that I should call people who have done things for me. But these people never call me either. If I didn’t call anyone, then I wouldn’t have any relationships. Part of it is my fault. I hate talking on the phone, so I only use text messages, and even if someone does call, I am afraid to pick up. But I don’t know for sure. Maybe it is all my fault. I feel good when I meet people, but I also try to avoid that, because whenever someone mentions that we should hang out, I freeze and my hearts starts to beat. I’m not sure why.

I wish I had a relationship with at least one person who I could trust and open up to. My life is just miserable. I don’t like the fact that people expect me to call them, while they won’t call me. It’s like a one-way relationship, and I have no desire for that at all. I could just say forget it, but then they wouldn’t let it go in peace. I would have to talk it out first, and I am scared of confrontations. I feel like everyone is out to get me. I can’t relax.

I don’t feel like people have my best interest at heart. Even when they give me things or do things for me, it will come up again in the future, and they will reproach me because I might not be willing to return the favor. I don’t want to do things just because people expect it, I want to do what I want when I want, but I feel like I can’t because everyone is nice, and expecting me to be too. I am different, and I don’t have to be like everybody and do what everybody wants me to do. But if I don’t act the way they want, I won’t have them available when I want them. Then, if I ask them for something, they won’t be available, because I wasn’t available that one time when they wanted it. So it feels like there is a price for relationships. I hate that.

Psychologist’s Reply

Human beings are social animals, so I can understand why your social isolation is so painful and confusing for you. It is clear from your question that you are feeling conflicted, wondering whether your friendlessness is due to some quality within you, or is the result of the way others wish to manage their relationships with you. I would offer that the answer is both.

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As you clearly understand, people with rewarding relationships do expect it to be a two-way street. However, it seems that you feel uncomfortable with the obligations and expectations that being in a relationship would place upon you. You seem particularly concerned with ‘fairness’ within the friendship, and ultimately feel that being without a friend is easier, or safer, than placing yourself in danger of being used in some way. It is also possible that there are factors in your past which might offer some explanation for why relationships are so difficult for you. Whatever the case, working with an individual therapist would be a good starting point for learning more about yourself, as well as how to think about (and change) your situation.

Being friendless means feeling like no one knows, or cares to know, the real you. This is understandably distressing, and may be a good motivation to work on changing the way that you think about your relationships with others. Consistent work with an individual therapist can help you not only to work through how you are feeling in the moment, but also to practice strategies for changing the way you perceive how others are relating to you. If you are willing to at least explore with a therapist the notion that there is a different way of thinking about relationships, you have an opportunity now, while you are still quite young, to considerably broaden your opportunities for joy in your life.

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