They say communication is a two-way street, but the same is true for every aspect of a healthy relationship. Trust, admiration, appreciation, support, and empathy are all forms of energy that partners give and receive. When that energy only flows in one direction, though, they risk falling into a one-sided relationship.
When the dynamic only allows one person to receive, it traps their partner into the role of the giver. The imbalance in emotional labor isn’t just draining, it can sour a relationship in the long run. But what is one-sided love, why is it an issue, and how can couples handle it together?
Today, we’re answering each of these questions with help from the Gottman Institute’s extensive research on relationships and how to build them.
Let’s start by breaking down one-sided relationships and the issues they create.
What is one-sided love in a relationship?
“Great relationships are built on respect, empathy, and a profound understanding of each other. Relationships don’t last without talk.”– John Gottman (Eight Dates: A Plan for Making Love Last Forever)
Unrequited love is a popular theme in romance and for good reason. It evokes the kind of longing, angst, and drama that drives us through a story. While it’s a staple in novels, film, and theatre, one-sided love plays out differently in real life — and real relationships.
One-sided love is when only one person is interested in the relationship. That means there’s no connection to build on, no bridge to bring people closer together. Even in stories, unrequited love is an obstacle that makes it impossible to form a bond.
For established couples, one-sided love comes down to a partner investing time and energy without getting it back. They’re forced to bear the emotional labor alone, despite being in a relationship. That can lead to resentment, frustration, and tension, but however it manifests, it’s simply not a sustainable dynamic.
In The Relationship Cure, Gottman writes that deep levels of intimacy aren’t nearly as important as paying attention. Being attentive in a conversation matters more than the topic or argument itself.
As he puts it, successful couples listen. They’re receptive to each other emotionally and connected by reciprocating what their partners needs. These principles aren’t limited to communication, either.
Signs you are in a one-sided relationship
“Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company.”– John Gottman (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work)
No two relationships are the same, which can make it harder to spot the signs that something is wrong. Despite how common they are, issues like financial stress, insecurity, and harmful behavioral can show up in ways that are easy to ignore.
Recognizing the symptoms is the first step to tackling the problem head-on. Let’s look at a few signs of a one-sided relationship and the traits they share.
1. One partner initiates, and the other only responds
Meaningful interactions play a huge role in how we bond as people. We talk, spend time together, and share experiences. In the process, we learn about each other and deepen the emotional intimacy that connects friends, family, and spouses.
While we tend to separate the different relationships in our lives, they’re all based on mutual respect, emotional connection, and appreciation.
With one-sided love, these things only ever come from the giving partner. They take responsibility for the relationship, from planning date nights to setting boundaries around quality time. Conversations don’t happen unless they initiate them. That means the only way to have meaningful interactions is to constantly reach out, even when they need support first.
2. One partner has to make most of the decisions alone
A danger with relationship issues is that they don’t just affect the fun stuff. One-sided love can get in the way of important decisions that partners are meant to make together, like budgeting, future planning, and household responsibilities.
Making big decisions is hard enough in our personal lives. When all the decision-making in a relationship falls on one person, with no input from their partner, the burden can be overwhelming. This can be especially harmful when dealing with judgemental partners who like to criticize every choice after the fact.
3. Only one partner takes accountability for conflict
When it comes to conflict resolution, an imbalanced dynamic will often force the giving partner to be the peacemaker too. Because their partner never takes accountability, apologies are just as one-sided. Even when they’re the wronged party, the giving partner has to start the conversation, take responsibility for the conflict, and apologize to smooth things over.
4. Emotional labor isn’t evenly shared
Many of life’s problems exist outside the relationship. When they come up, partners who share a healthy bond turn to each other for support, comfort, and guidance.
The Sound Relationship House is one of the most important theories from the Gottman Institute. It compares a secure partnership to a house and equips couples with the tools to build theirs from the ground up. The house has 7 floors, or steps, for couples to follow.
The third floor — turn towards — teaches couples how to tell when one partner is seeking attention, affection, or affirmation, and how to respond positively. Turning away, on the other hand, means rejecting any emotional labor or bid to connect.
5. Unequal and unfair expectations
In many cases, the issue of one-sided love isn’t limited to emotional intimacy. If a person refuses to invest time and energy into their relationships, an imbalance is likely to show up elsewhere too.
At home, the lion’s share of chores will fall on the giver. They might sacrifice their ambitions to accommodate their partner. Even in a dual-salary home, they’re expected to contribute over and above what’s fair.
Common causes why relationships turn into a one-sided love
“Most couples don’t get any training in relationships, and often they don’t learn how to communicate with each other until they go to therapy,”– John Gottman (Eight Dates: A Plan for Making Love Last Forever)
1. Unresolved personal issues
Conflict in a relationship isn’t always interpersonal. At times, internal issues can pull a person’s focus from their relationship or actively harm it. High levels of stress, unresolved trauma, and insecurities are all inner hurdles that can keep partners from being fully present with each other.
2. Lack of strong communication skills
Gottman says that the price of love isn’t perfection, it’s practice. Relationships need couples to be attentive and intentional, which means working on communicating openly and expressing themselves fully. Couples that avoid sharpening their skills end up neglecting the tools needed to build a sound and secure relationship.
3. Conflicting desires, goals, and expectations
While relationships should never force a person to change, couples need to have aligned values for long-term success. Irreconcilable differences don’t mean a relationship is doomed, but partners should agree on what the relationship means and what happiness looks like together. Without this common understanding, there’s a risk that somebody will end up sacrificing their aspirations or the sake of their relationship.
4. Past relationship experiences
Our past experiences inform how we deal with things in the present. Chaotic relationships, manipulative partners, and harsh treatment can create trauma that follows us. While it makes some people avoid relationships, a bad romantic history can also leave us more desperate for validation and connection, even if the love is one-sided.
Tips on how you can turn a one-sided relationship into a healthy one
“In satisfying relationships, partners incorporate each other’s goals into their concept of what their marriage is about.”– John Gottman (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work)
Make time for the internal work
Even in a good relationship, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a partner. Building a relationship is a daily task, but doing the inner work is crucial too – especially if issues in one area trigger something in the other.
Have an open dialogue with your partner
When a previously healthy relationship turns into one-sided love, it’s probably time to sit down and have an honest talk about it. This isn’t an easy step, but it’s the first one on the road to reconnection. If your partner is receptive to your feelings and willing to work on things, then there’s always hope. If things continue as they are, it may be worth asking if it’s worth staying in the relationship as it is.
Consider couples therapy
That said, even a couple that is ready to turn things around may not know where to start. In these cases, professional counseling can offer them insight into where things went wrong, support as they work through it, and guidance on their journey back to each other.
Couples therapy is also a great way to have difficult conversations in a neutral space with a set time. Partners can get an objective third-party perspective from their counselor, who can mediate when needed. A good therapist will also de-escalate at the end of the session so couples go home in a clear headspace, ready to rebuild as a team.