Friendship, by definition, is a mutually supportive relationship between two people. Yet no relationship – whether between friends, spouses, or lovers — is ever perfectly balanced or equal all the time. At any point in time, one friend or the other may be on the giving or receiving end. In healthy relationships, things balance out over time — unless someone is dealing with a needy friend.
Of course, there's a natural tendency to want to help out close friends whenever possible but it's quite common that people find themselves dealing with friends who are more clingy, demanding, or dependent than they can handle. The friendship begins to feel like a liability with no way out, leaving them feeling beleaguered, frustrated, and sometimes, even angry.
Here are some strategies to help strike the right balance between being a good friend to a needy friend and maintaining your own emotional health and well-being:
1) Analyze the problem carefully
Get in touch with your own feelings and determine precisely why you are feeling the way you do. Is it a specific demand that was excessive? One request after another? A case of very high expectations coupled with a lack of appreciation? Or do you feel like your friend is self-centered and never responds when you're the one in need?
Because you are friends and good friendships are hard to find and maintain, the first step should always be soul-searching and thinking clearly about what has made you feel that your friend is weighing you down like a ball and chain — followed by a heart-to-heart with your friend, explaining that as much as you value the friendship, you simply feel overwhelmed and/or unappreciated.
2) Define boundaries
When someone's in the midst of a money crisis, for example, the person may see a friend as a buoy. You've picked up a few lunch checks and sent her kid a generous graduation gift but your divorced friend is asking you to loan her $3000 to meet next month's mortgage payment. You are quite certain that she won't ever be able to pay you back.
Whether it is a financial request or any other, use common sense, don't extend yourself more than you want to — or can comfortably afford to. Tell your friend point blank that you don't mind helping out from time to time but she is asking too much and you can't be the one to bail her out of her money problems.
As another example, it could be that a friend who tries to usurp more of your time than you have available to share. She always wants you to entertain her and kill time together but you're juggling care of an aging parent with a demanding job. You need to explicitly set limits to save the friendship. Tell her you can get together once a week and as much as you enjoy spending time with her, you have other responsibilities and need downtime alone, too. The point is that if you create comfortable boundaries, you won't wind up feeling violated.
3) Be cautious about setting up unrealistic expectations at the onset
Do whatever you can to help needy friends but don't be deluded into thinking you can be a savior. Some of us have a do-gooder mentality that encourages others to become dependent and discourages their self-growth. Friendships work best among equals although two friends are never equal in every dimension. For example, your friend may respect your knowledge about practical matters but no one can make you laugh the way she can.
4) Just say no
It's extremely difficult to say no to someone in need, especially a friend. We all want to be nurturing and supportive so it's far easier to say yes. But if you think you are being asked to give too often or too much, you have the right and responsibility to politely turn the friend down. Good friendships should allow for this possibility because we can't be all things to all people.
5) Take a step back
If you feel like someone is too demanding of you, you may need to step back from the relationship in terms of either its frequency or intensity. Perhaps your friend is involved in a destructive relationship with a married guy. She's poured her heart out to you over and over but fails to make any constructive change. Instead, she calls you constantly asking for support. You may need to structure your time so you both participate in an activity (e.g. go to a movie) rather than hash out her problems all the time. There's nothing wrong with telling her that YOU need a break from talking about the guy. If this doesn't work, you may need to limit the time you spend together and fill the space with some less needy friends.
6) If you need to, break loose
Of course, there are times when any of us can have one — or a series — of overwhelming problems that make us needy. We want to be there for close friends when they need us, and want to be able to lean on them. We need friends to cheer our successes and reach out to us when we feel in despair. But there are limits. If a friend is consistently draining your time and emotions and there's never any payback, you may need to sever your ties. While disappointing, people who have reached this point in a friendship and who make changes often emerge happier, realizing in retrospect that the friendship was toxic and one-sided.
Prior post on Life Goes Strong on making and keeping friendships: