Are your friends really good mates? Here’s how to tell

Feel like you’re doing all the work in your friendship? What to do if there’s an uneven dynamic with your mates.

While friends that are an easy fit can be seriously good for you, uneven friendships can do the opposite.

Fresh research has thrown a new spotlight on just how healthy friendship can be, showing that friends are beneficial for nearly everyone, everywhere.

“Friendships are one of the untapped resources people can draw on to pursue a happier and healthier life,” the study’s senior author, William Chopik from Michigan State University, said when the results were released last year.

“They literally cost nothing and have health and wellbeing benefits.”

Trouble is, not all friendships are created equal, and some can even be unhealthy.

While some research shows that competitive social interactions can increase inflammatory activity in the body, other studies show that negative interactions with friends can affect mood and psychological wellbeing – and not in a good way.

How the pandemic inspired social pruning

According to some experts, the pandemic motivated some of us to prune our friendship networks, which may have seen some of those less healthy relationships fall by the wayside.

That doesn’t surprise psychologist Brenda Heideman.

“Rather than being ‘in’ our life, the pandemic facilitated the dynamic of being able to stand back and become an observer of our own lives,” Brenda says.

“This left space for choice when it came to friendships and how we spent our time.

“The pandemic also shifted many relationships – we learned who we could rely on and for many, it exposed tensions and cracks in existing relationships.

“We sought out more meaningful connections, becoming closer to some and pulling away from others.”

The power of heart friends

Brenda describes the friends you can rely on as heart friends, and says they’re different to the two other types of friends – fun friends and friends of allegiance.

“While fun friends are people you enjoy and have shared interests with and friends of allegiance are those you make though networks of mutual benefit, like work friends, heart friends are the intimate, enduring and unconditional relationships that have a history and a shared understanding.

“These are the people we can share our heart with and naturally share with in times of joy or stress.

“These are the friendships we turned to in the pandemic.”

What a friendship with an uneven dynamic looks like

Regardless of the type of friendships you have in your life, as well as noticing any that regularly deliver negative or competitive interactions, being aware of uneven friendship dynamics is important, too.

“True friendship isn’t necessarily always even in dynamic all the time,” Brenda says, “with each person in the friendship having different or greater needs from time to time.

“An uneven dynamic is more a persistent pattern of behaviour where one party is doing more of the listening, more of the giving.

“It’s when you don’t feel heard, or when you speak to your friend they turn it back to their own experiences, or when your choices aren’t respected and you don’t feel you have an equal voice.

“You habitually leave those interactions feeling frustrated or cut short, and so that you don’t feel like your sense of self is valued.”

How to rebalance your friendships

While breaking up with a friend can be an option, Brenda says it shouldn’t be taken lightly – particularly when it’s a heart friend that’s involved.

“Breaking away from an intimate friendship can be very painful and shouldn’t be an impulsive decision.

“Instead, it can be productive to first discuss the issues and give the friendship a chance.

“Another non-confrontational option is to try to work on changing how you are in the friendship to redress the imbalance and gently set new boundaries.

“Try using ‘I’ statements, expressing your needs and wants in the friendship and giving your friend a chance to respond differently.

“And if needed, pull back a little from giving too much, and if this doesn’t create a changed dynamic, it’s then easier to pull back even further.”

Written by Karen Fittall.