Give-and-Take

If my friend really liked me then she'd initiate more...

I ruffled a few feathers last week with my post about being willing to be the friend who initiates more with others than they seem to reciprocate. Several of us feel like we're making more time for our friendships than others are... So first a hearty thank you to all of you left comments and shared your feelings! My answer was in response to a girl asking how to build relationships when it seemed others didn't make the time.  But for many of you, you expressed that for you this isn't a strategy issue but rather one that actually hurts your feelings and leaves you feeling insecure.

Therefore, I want to jump off from that post to talk about the danger of taking the actions of others personally.

In my upcoming book Frientimacy I share amazing research about how painful it is for any of us to think we're being rejected. It's a very real feeling and it hurts.  I totally understand why we all feel so fearful about being seen as wanting a friendship more than someone else, or worrying about whether this is their way of saying "I don't want to be your friend." But if we take the busy-ness of others as a personal offense then we'll not only stay lonely for a long time, but we'll be miserable and sad, too.

Their Actions Hurt Our Feelings

In my first marriage I cried myself to sleep a number of nights. At the time I was convinced those hurt feelings were his fault. I was in graduate school and had to be in class by 7 am so our needs would clash when he wanted to stay up late watching some new show called The Daily Show instead of come to bed with me. (Ha! Little did I know how much I'd come to love that show year later!) I held an ideal image in my head that couples go to bed at the same time.  I wanted to talk and cuddle and connect with him. To make a long story short-- despite my invitations, my tears, and my begging-- I occasionally went to bed alone. And when I did... my heart would break.

To many others this story might not sound so bad.  He certainly wasn't an awful person for wanting to stay up and laugh. But I had gotten it in my head that he was choosing that over me.  In other words, I believed a narrative that whispered: "If he really loved me, he would see how important this is to me and come to bed with me."

We do this all the time in all our relationships, even our friendships:

  • If she really understood me then she'd know not to ask that question...
  • If she really trusted me then she'd have told me about that problem...
  • If she really appreciated me then she'd have done more to say thanks...
  • If she really valued me then she'd remember my birthday...
  • If she really cared about me then she'd have offered to help me...

And the one that hits a little closer to home from the last post:

  • If she really liked me then she'd initiate us getting together more often...

Our feelings are hurt and it makes sense that we'd be tempted to look for who is causing that pain. When we see them doing something we don't want, or not doing something we do want, then we're quick to assume they are to blame for our hurt feelings, insecurities, or anger.

It's Not About Us

But here's the truth, that's easier to see when it's someone else's narrative (hence why I shared from my marriage) and not our own: how other people act says more about them than it does about us.

And what it says about them isn't the bad that we often assume it is.

Take my ex-husband for example. I valued going to bed together early.  Nothing inherently wrong with that desire, but neither is it better than his needs and desires. Perhaps he valued decompressing after a long day, perhaps his life was draining and it needed more laughter, perhaps he needed more freedom, autonomy and independence in life, or perhaps his body cycle was just different from mine and he wasn't tired yet? All of those are just as valid as my need.

And here's what I know to my core now that I have experience more growth and maturity since those fights long ago: I don't believe for a second that he ever stayed up thinking to himself: "I hope she knows now that I don't love her." I absolutely know that was never the message he was trying to send.

Yet, I cried in bed, suffering, worrying, and shrinking because of the meaning I assigned to his actions.

Many a woman goes to bed before her partner and isn't crying and hurting over it.  I chose my suffering because of what I chose to think about someone else's actions.

The Four Agreements

In the best-selling book The Four Agreements, author Don Miguel Ruiz teaches that the Second Agreement, if we want to live lives full of joy and peace, is "Don't Take Anything Personally." He says,

"Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about 'me'."

In the case of a friend not calling, inviting, and reaching out-- it would be easy to take it personally:  she doesn't like me; or to blame and devalue her: "I don't need friends like that-- I deserve better!"  Our ego is convinced it either means she doesn't think we're good enough or that we don't think she's good enough.  But one way or another: someone is bad.

But no friendship will ever blossom with that fear and frustration.  The best chances we have for creating the love around us that we want is to keep putting out love and ensuring that our actions are in alignment with that desire.  We want to keep inviting and stay as warm as possible.

The Caveats

So am I saying be a stalker?  No.  :) If she is rude, ignores your invitations completely, has never once said yes, or just acts miserable when we're together-- then, you're right: move on. (It's still not about you though!)

But recognize that our tendency to assume others are trying to reject us is just our own made-up story. Most women out there want more meaning relationships in their lives and you can help show the how that's done-- most of them will thank you for it someday. (And in the meantime you get what you wanted: more time with friends!)

  • It's okay to keep inviting if she sometimes says yes and answers our invitation-- it doesn't need to be 50/50.
  • We can't expect a new-ish friend to make the same kind of time for us that she might if we were close friends.  We can keep building the relationship slowly and trust the growth.
  • If you've been friends for a while and she's not as responsive as she used to be, check in with her and see how she's doing... (she may be feeling hurt too!)... it's not stalking to keep trying to engage with those who we are in relationship with.
  • If you're trying to start friendships-- put out a net instead of a fishing line! Don't zero in on one person, but stay open to developing several friendships at once.

We're the ones well aware of how important friendship is to our life... for us to keep reaching out doesn't help them as much as it helps us.  We aren't doing them this amazing favor as much as we are gifting ourselves with the likelihood that with our efforts we will keep developing the intimacy and love with others that we crave. It is a mutual relationship if we enjoy being with them when they say yes.

I'd rather error on the side of having reached out one too many times than to have stopped one time too few? If I can not take it personally then I can go down swinging for love and friendship.

Does that make sense, in general?  I know it's easy to try to find the exception... but overall can you see that it's better to put love out there than to keep track of scores, and better to assume the best of others than take it personally? I'm not saying it's easy but I think it's worth practicing!

Defending the Introverts, Defining Mutuality

If I had to put money on the table next to what I thought was a primary barrier to women building new friendships, I'd put it next to a mistaken view of what mutuality means. Sure, lack of time will be listed as a more common excuse, but when a woman decides to be more proactive about fostering healthy friendships around her, the fear of unequal give-and-take can stall many budding friendships before they have a chance to get started.

Our Fear of Unequal Give-and-Take

We use language like "the ball is in her court" and "I don't want to impose" and "I invited her last time so this time I'll wait to see if she reciprocates." We justify our wait-and-see approach by reminding ourselves that we sent the last email or initiated the most recent plans, and we conclude that we're always the ones doing the inviting.   Not this time, we say. This time it's her turn.

While we may not call it a fear of rejection, we are in part acting out of that fear. We don't want to come across as desperate. We don't want to feel like we're putting ourselves out there all the time, unsure if it's wanted.  We've been told we don't need to put up with any behavior that isn't perfectly mutual. We want to feel like they like us too.  We want to feel wanted. We definitely don't want to be the ones who give more than we receive again.  So we protect our egos and wait her out.

In the meantime, our budding relationship never gets momentum so it never really happens.  And we're left complaining that no one out there seems to be interested in a mutual friendship.

Our Misunderstanding of Mutuality

On Friday evening I was sitting in a room with two friends.  Both lean toward introversion when it comes to interacting with people.  (Which means they have amazing people skills but being around people can cost them more energy than it gives them.) I was basking in the glow of how intimate those relationships felt, both of them so able to engage in deep, beautiful, meaningful conversations.  Their questions were thoughtful, their intuition spot on, and their love so genuine.

But if it had been up to either of them to get the three of us together it wasn't likely to have happened. I initiated.

As I had the week before.

And as I had the week prior to that.

The truth is that there are just many, many people out there who have so much to offer a friendship-- but initiating and scheduling may not be their forte.  That doesn't mean they don't love us or want to be with us.  And it certainly doesn't mean they don't have other meaningful ways to give to us. It just means they aren't going to assertively send out the invitation. Or if they do, it won't be as frequently as it might be for some of the rest of us.

This is not limited to introverts.  Take any self-awareness inventory and there are always types of people where scheduling and initiating will not come naturally for them. I've been studying the Enneagram which has nine types of people, and three of the types are withdrawing types, which means they tend to step back or retreat when there is stress (which any new situation can cause.) So that's at least a third of our potential friends who won't be out there trying to schedule time with us.

Even beyond personalities and types, we know that we all have different love languages.  Someone with the love language of quality time might tend to be more aware of reaching out with invitations than someone with the love language of gift giving.

Just add stress and busy-ness to any of our lives (even those of us who are extroverts, schedulers, and assertive types) and we may not reciprocate in the way you want, when you want.  But that also doesn't mean we wouldn't make great friends who will give to you in other ways!

What Does Mutual Really Mean?

As I sat there Friday evening thinking how lucky anyone would be to have these two individuals in their lives, it occurred to me how few people will get that opportunity if they only build a friendship with someone else who reaches out an equal amount.

Mutuality cannot be confined to 50/50 scheduling.  Equality doesn't mean sameness.  Being in a give-and-take relationship doesn't mean we give-and-take in the same ways.

For those of us who live with someone-- we know that having someone else divvy up the household chores doesn't mean we each vacuum half the room and cook half the meal. It means I tend to track our finances and he tends to make sure dishes don't pile up in the sink. Balance doesn't mean we split up every chore, but that we both contribute to the overall picture.

Somehow, in friendship, we have elevated the scheduling and initiating "chore" to becoming the litmus test for an equal friendship.

What we risk if we wait for equal initiations is missing the gift that introverts or non-initiators can bring to our lives.  And we risk feeling rejected if we wrongly attach that meaning to their lack of initiation.  And worst of all, we're still left without the friendships that we crave because we just sat and waited, allowing the momentum to falter.

Give. Give. Give.

I am all for balanced friendships.  I don't want you to feel used.  I want you to be in a relationship that feels mutual.

But if you are a GirlFriend who is good at initiating-- then do it. Generously. Invite her five times in a row.  Be the one who is okay calling to start the conversation. Give where you're best, knowing you will be blessed by how she gives to you in different ways. And know how lucky you are that you have the ability to give in a way that starts friendships!

And if you recognize that you're someone who struggles to initiate-- then at least be sure to tell your friends/potential friends how much you appreciate it when they do. Express your gratitude, lest they ever feel that you're not interested. Tell them what it means to you that they keep calling. Recognize that this gift they give is a necessary ingredient in the building of a friendship.

What we need is a little less judgment of each other and a little more hopeful curiosity to discover and appreciate who the other person is.

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I blogged on the perceived imbalance in give-and-take friendships for a two-part series for the Huffington Post: In Friendship, Do You Give More than You Receive? and Six Ways to Bring Balance to Your Relationships if you're interested in more reading on this subject.