An Expert Explains the Psychology Behind a One-sided Relationship

When it comes to navigating the murky waters of a relationship, we like to turn to experts in the field for trusted advice. We tapped Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., for intel on the psychology behind a one-sided relationship. According to Campbell, this type of romantic relationship is one in which the power is imbalanced and one person is "putting in a lot [more] in terms of resources (time, money, emotional investment) [than the other] and getting little to nothing in return." Campbell let us in on everything you need to know about a one-sided relationship, including how to tell if you're in one.

Meet the Expert

Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino.

one-sided relationship
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What a One-Sided Relationship Is

Campbell explains that a one-sided relationship involves one person investing much more time and energy (and, in some cases, money) into the relationship than their partner. "Sometimes one person 'carries' the relationship for a period of time, such as when a partner is ill or things aren't going well," she explains. "But, in order for a relationship to be healthy and satisfying, it takes effort from both people. One person can't carry the burden over an extended period."

Red Flags to Lookout For

You're putting in more effort than your partner

According to Campbell, one indication is simply the feeling that the relationship is inequitable or unequal. If you feel like this is the case, "you might document how time is spent, including who does what," she advises. "This will help the under-benefitted person identify how things are going and better understand the extent of the one-sidedness."

Your priorities are different from your partner's

"Maybe all of your money and free time goes toward the relationship, whereas [your] partner's goes toward other things, such as buying clothes, paying for a gym membership, and spending time out with friends," Campbell explains. Both partners need to prioritize each other over anything else for the relationship to be healthy.

You frequently make excuses for your partner's behavior

Do you find yourself making excuses all the time for your partner's behavior? That's a sign you are compromising and sacrificing too much. "If you have a date night planned and the person is very late or makes other plans, they clearly don't value you or the relationship as much as you do," Campbell says.

Your partner is controlling

A controlling partner is a sign that the power is imbalanced and the relationship needs to change. "Insecure partners try to control the other by limiting their contact with family and friends, dictating what they should wear, how they should act, etc.," Campbell explains. "This is something that typically happens gradually over time, little by little. It's a very dangerous situation and a big sign that things need to change."

How to Move Forward in a One-sided Relationship

If you feel that you're in an imbalanced relationship, Campbell suggests documenting your time and making a concrete list of observations. If after making these observations, you feel that things are one-sided, you need to communicate your feelings with your partner who otherwise won't know that a problem exists.

However, initiating change can be the hardest part of navigating a one-sided relationship. "The problem with one-sided relationships is that often it is just one partner initiating these 'talks' because being in what we call an over-benefitted situation (getting more out of a relationship than you are putting in) can be quite comfortable," Campbell explains. "So your partner may not respond favorably to the complaint."

In fact, "researchers call this pattern 'demand-withdrawal,' which involves one partner is initiating a discussion or requesting a change and the other withdrawing from the conversation and avoiding discussion," she elaborates. It's a very unhealthy and a common pattern in one-sided relationships. "If the over-benefitted cares about the other's well-being, they will seek to improve the balance and take on more of the work or put in more effort," says Campbell.

"If a partner does not change after being made aware of the imbalance, the partnership might not be a good fit and the under-benefitted person should consider moving on," she adds.

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