You've been hearing our discussions on loneliness and friendship, and now we are hearing from you! Today we're discussing a listener's thoughts about how hard it is when they feel like they are the only ones putting forth effort in friendships. From societal trends to individual personality differences-- and some surprising additional barriers-- we tackle what to do when you want more from your friendships, but others don't seem willing to do their part.
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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper
Dr. Andrea Bonior: Yeah, yeah. You've heard me talk about social support and friendship and the epidemic of loneliness. You get that it's all very important. But what happens when the people around you don't seem to think it's that important, when it's always you putting in the work of relationships? What do you do then? Today we're addressing a listener concern about how frustrating it is when you make friendship maintenance a priority, but nobody else seems to. And there are so many reasons for this. People are too busy. They get so used to somebody else doing the social organizing, they flake out. They don't seem to value their relationships as much as you do, and you're tired of always having to hold the ball. So how do we manage this dilemma? If you can relate, you'll want to listen to today's Baggage Check. Welcome. I'm Dr. Andrea Bonier, and this is Baggage Check Mental Health talk and advice with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel, incidentally. It is also not a show about why Donald Duck never wore pants. All right, let's get to it. So you've been hearing me talk a lot about social support. We had the episode on loneliness recently. You know that this has been one of my passions ever since I wrote that book with the retina burning hot pink cover. Well, I am getting a lot of feedback from you all that you get it, which is wonderful that you understand what I've been preaching about and how crucial social support is to health. So what happens when not everybody gets the message, when you are looking around your own relationships and seeing how much effort you put in and other folks do not? Well, just tell them to listen to my show. No, in all seriousness, this is something I hear very, very frequently, and in fact, I got a letter about it. Hi, Dr. Bonior. Today I listened to your episode on loneliness, and it got me to thinking about my own situation, which is not at all lonely. This led me to a couple of observations and questions about what's going on in our society. I consider myself lucky both in having a temperament that treasures solitude I'm strongly introverted. And in living in a big city where I can easily find interesting congenial people to befriend. Hey, my little aside here, that's pretty great. I have a small set of close friends and a somewhat larger circle of good friends accumulated over many decades at the rate of about one keeper every five years. But I also make friendship maintenance a consistent priority. And this leads to my observation. Many people whom I have tried to befriend, and even a few in my friendship circle don't do this work. The reasons are no doubt many, but among the ones I see are jobs that demand too much of people's time and energy. The fact that child rearing has itself become an all consuming job compared to what it was for my parents. The idea that one's emotional and social life must center on a romantic partner and the fact that many people just don't seem to have what I consider to be basic social skills like responding promptly and definitively to invitations, taking turns extending invitations, and just plain knowing how to construct a social life that is real and in person. Now that we can do that again. So I'd be interested in your thoughts on this dilemma from both sides. And if you have any advice on how to politely ask for more reciprocity of effort from friends, I would be very interested. Best regards, a devoted listener. Thank you for writing, and I cannot tell you how much this resonated with me because it reflected things that I've been hearing for years. But I think your letter has a particular amount of credence because, number one, you are an introvert, self described, whereas a lot of times when people say these things to me, they are more the outward focused, extroverted cruise director types. And so often the answer is, hey, that's kind of the role that you have, because that's what you like doing. Not that it's always fair. We'll get into that in a little bit. The other thing is you're coming from a place of saying that you're not lonely, that you're actually satisfied by the friendships that you have. So I think that the observations that you're making, ironically, they're even more striking because they're coming from somebody who still feels like they're doing more effort than some of their friends, even though they're on the introverted side, but also somebody who's overall satisfied with friendships. So it's not just what other people would accuse of somebody standing on the sidelines sour grape, saying, it's too much work, I don't want to do it. Everybody else is the problem. You hit on so many important things. First of all, the societal trends that you mention, each and every one is something that I have thought about a lot over the years in American culture. This idea of the all holy nuclear family, I think has really wreaked havoc with friendship and social times and relationships. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to knock the nuclear family. I am part of one. But a lot of times what it represents is problematic. First of all, that it has to be the end all goal for everyone. Not everybody wants that. And perhaps even more insidious, the idea that once you have the nuclear family, it's you guys against the world you're walled off. This speaks to a larger breakdown of community. The cliche about it taking a village to raise a child, well, that's one cliche that I actually wish we're more paid attention to, because our village has kind of broken down. People are in their silos of their romantic partners. Parents feel like they're not supposed to hang out with friends very much because they should be spending more time with their kids. People who have paired off into romantic partnerships start to dwindle away from their friends that aren't in romantic partnerships or they start to feel guilty if they have close friends outside of their romantic partners. The truth is we are better partners and better parents when we have a sense of belongingness to something besides just our family. It's also very, very important for our kids to see that we value friendship and for us to teach them how to be a good friend. And then the joby job the idea that our job should come first, that we're never really off the clock, that maybe we got some increased flexibility in terms of working from home in certain jobs. But in reality it just means that we don't even feel comfortable having truly social time where we're not going to be interrupted. All of these things that you mentioned are spot on and they are societal shifts that seem to be getting worse. In the United States, we don't have as many communal gathering spaces as we used to. We don't have as many civic organizations. It's harder to gain true proximity to friends and neighbors when you don't have the gathering places, when you don't have the neighborhood pub, when you have the suburban silos where people pull into their garage and never see their neighbors. And of course, the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of this. It made us even more walled off and it's hard to come out of that. But there are also individual factors like social anxiety that get in the way for folks like fear of rejection. Some of your friends might not take the initiative on planning things or showing reciprocity on invitations because they're frightened that their apartment doesn't measure up or that they'll try to get something off the ground and people won't come because they don't like them enough. Some people are scared of actually taking up space, so they'll say yes to invitations, but they won't assume that people would actually say yes to theirs and carve out time for them. As to the lack of social skills like responding definitively to invitations, this is a problem that has just grown so fierce. It's very similar to the flaking out problem. And I think technology makes this worse because we all have even more options. We don't want to commit to anything because we're going to see that somebody else was doing something else and oh, why didn't I go to that restaurant instead of this one? We have too many choices. We don't want to commit to just one thing what if something better comes along? And technology, of course, allows us to flake out more easily. If you can text at the last minute and say that you're backing out of something, it's going to make it more likely that you back out compared to if you knew that the person just wouldn't see you showing up and would be worried or upset. So many of these things require societal solutions. More gathering places, more communities built with spaces, more civic organizations, more focus on building strong social relationships at school and at work, a more communal sense of parenting, more embracing of alternative ways of being besides just the siloed nuclear family. Honestly, that's what I'm hoping some of the public health interventions for loneliness will start to address on that societal level. But I realize what you're also asking is this individual question how to politely ask for more reciprocity of effort from friends. I think it takes looking at each individual situation and seeing what the barrier is. For instance, maybe with a certain close friend. You know, it's probably a planning issue. They rely on you to plan because they're terrible at taking the initiative or putting together details. If you remove the planning burden altogether, that can be helpful. Like you start to have a standing date. Nobody has to plan it. Nobody has to start a nine page text chain about which dates will work best. You just decide with this friend or group of friends that every second Saturday we are going to have brunch. Whoever can make it, will make it, and it's going to be at the same restaurant. Nobody has to have the onus of planning. So if you know that planning is an issue, sometimes that can be helpful. If you know that somebody is in their sort of silo work with them on their terms, maybe they need a couple of extra weeks in advance to have notice, because it takes them a lot to arrange their family schedule in order to be able to get time. Maybe if their job is totally all demanding, you can ask them what would be helpful. Do they want an accountability partner for actually putting their laptop away and going to a happy hour after the day is done? Which brings me to the point about actually talking to them about this, which can be incredibly awkward, and you don't want to come across as ungrateful. Of course you're grateful for their friendship. You don't want to come across that. You are condemning them for their lack of effort, like they're not measuring up, like they're getting a D in friendship. But you can talk very specifically about how the dynamic affects you sometimes. You can use humor about it if that's the kind of relationship that you have. And I hope it is. Hey, I feel like I've picked the restaurant the last five times. Do you want to arrange the next one? So we're not always subjected to the whims of my cravings? Hey, I've been kind of overloaded lately. I really want to see you, but I don't have it in me to plan something. Do you think you could take that on this time? Tell me when and where and I'm there. Hey, I love that you're in this great relationship and I truly am happy for you. I miss you, though. Do you think we could make a point to get a little bit more one on one time coming up this month? Hey, you know how much I love seeing you. I sometimes worry that we're only doing the things that I want to do, though. I was wondering if we could collaborate more on plans and plan some stuff coming up that it doesn't feel like it's just coming from me. Hey, just checking in. Did you get that text about whether we can do dinner next Tuesday? I hadn't heard from you yet and I'm trying to plan my schedule. Thanks. Being polite but direct about what you're looking for sounds so easy, and I know it's not, but it's often the most effective way to get things to change. And of course, the closer these relationships are, the more you can allow yourself to be vulnerable and honest about that dynamic. Choose a non rush time and really talk to them about it. Hey. I sometimes feel like it's just me running the show here. To be honest, sometimes that feels kind of out of balance for me. You know how much I love hanging out with you, but I sometimes worry when it's always me doing the inviting. Now, again, for some people, this is just their default mode. They're not planners, they're not initiators. And this goes back to the idea that not all of our friends can be all things to us. So you have to have a cost benefit analysis with each of these relationships at some point. Sometimes to say, if I do have to take on a more active role in the planning or the strategizing or the contacting that I want to, does it still work for me? And I've tried to get things to change, but they just can't. Then I'm just going to accept this. But I'm really glad you wrote because the points that you make about these cultural characteristics that are contributing to this are exactly what we're hoping to change. So thank you so much for writing and for everybody listening. Why not send that text and get something on the calendar? Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonier, and this has been baggage check. With new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on instagram at baggage checkpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to like 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, cover art by Daniel Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.