Asymmetric Relationships: The Importance Of Assessing How Committed You Both Are

Commitment — it can be scary for some and second nature for others. When you are with someone for a while, it can become apparent when one person is putting in more effort than the other. There's no such thing as a perfect relationship, but you can still strive for a healthy level of balance and symmetry. When it feels like one person isn't pulling their weight, this can be described as relationship asymmetry.


Believe it or not, this is not just another internet term like "rizz" or "cuffing season." The concept itself was first described by a sociologist named Willard Waller, way back in the late 1930s. Waller wrote about something called "the principle of least interest," which suggests that the person who is the least interested in the relationship has the most control. Basically, when you don't get that text back, that person you're waiting to hear back from seems to have all the control. We're here to talk about what this asymmetry might look like and why it's important to recognize it. (Don't worry, there's no geometry involved.) 

What is an asymmetric relationship?

When a relationship is asymmetric, there is a stark difference in emotional investment and commitment between partners. This should not be confused with typical differences in personalities and temperaments, like one person being tidier and the other is messy, or one person being introverted while the other is extroverted. A lot of the time, it's beneficial when our differences balance each other out. After all, opposites attract. But the real problem arises when one of you appears to be taking the relationship more seriously than the other, and you feel like you aren't on the same page as your partner.


Couples in asymmetrical relationships report lower relationship adjustment, more conflict, and more aggression, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Though this study only involved heterosexual and monogamous couples, any couple regardless of identity and orientation can experience moments of asymmetry. An asymmetric relationship can create an unhealthy power dynamic, giving the person who is more committed less power. Because of the lack of reciprocity, the more-invested person may experience self-doubt and feel like they are reaching toward an unrealistic level of perfection. Striving to please a partner who does not put in the same effort as you can be exhausting. Here are a few ways to tell if your relationship is teetering into asymmetry.


Communication issues

Problems with communication can be a sign of many issues, and this includes an asymmetric relationship. Open and honest communication between partners is a pillar of a long-lasting, healthy relationship. In fact, nearly 70% of marriages end because of communication issues. When there is difficulty sharing thoughts and feelings, expressing needs, setting boundaries, and dealing with conflict, any relationship can suffer. Couples with poor communication often feel emotionally unsafe, disconnected, and even alone in their own relationship, explains psychologist Kristin Davin


If it feels like your partner doesn't truly listen to your needs or respect your boundaries as you do for them, this could be a sign that your relationship is asymmetric. It may feel like it's hard to talk to your partner or like there is a wall between the two of you. They may shut down or become defensive when you bring up an issue. During tough conversations, it's important that both of you feel like you can be vulnerable and honest with each other. Otherwise, it feels like a one-sided relationship, and no one deserves that.

Having trouble labeling the relationship

"So, what are we?" It's an important question. Another glaring sign of an asymmetric relationship is a disagreement about the nature of the relationship itself. For some people, labels can come with intimidating expectations of what it means to be a boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner. For others, they want the certainty that comes with having a label to define the relationship. If one of you thinks the relationship is more serious, while the other feels free to see other people, there is a lack of symmetry going on. 


Even if you aren't exclusive with someone, you should still have a respectful conversation about your expectations and boundaries. It's best to be clear about what the relationship means to both of you from the beginning. When one person, for example, is under the impression that this is a friends-with-benefits situation, but the other person sees it as something more, it can cause conflict that could have been avoided in the first place. It's totally cool if you want to have a situationship as long as this is what you both agree on and no one is leading the other on.

Uneven involvment

An asymmetric relationship can also look like one partner being more involved in the other partner's life than the other. This can appear in several ways. Do you seem to show up for your partner more than they do for you? Do they seem to lack interest in the people in your life, but you bend over backward to impress their friends and family? Are you the only one making fun plans for the two of you? Have you been together a while and they still haven't introduced you to their friends or family? Maybe you've noticed they don't know a lot about you or forget important details like birthdays, anniversaries, or your favorite things. 


No matter what this looks like for you, it's not fair when one person puts in more effort than the other. A relationship is a two-way street. It's normal to forget things sometimes and life's other priorities can get in the way. We're all human. But if you talk to your partner about this unevenness and nothing seems to ever change, this could put your relationship on thin ice.  

Over-reliance or lack of reliance

In a committed relationship, it's healthy to be able to lean on each other for support. Your partner should absolutely be a person you go to when you're feeling down. But they shouldn't be the only person. A problem arises when one person relies too heavily on the other. Do you feel like you're always sacrificing your own needs to please your partner? Do you always need to be with your partner or have trouble having a personal life that doesn't revolve around them?  Not only are these signs of an asymmetric relationship, but these are also red flags for codependency, which can result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and poor overall health. 


On the other side of the coin, one person may feel like they aren't safe to go to their partner for help and support. The other person may invalidate their partner's feelings or ignore them altogether. You should be able to talk to your partner about anything, and it's important for them to create a safe space for you to be yourself around them. Understanding your and your partner's attachment styles can help you express your needs in a way that serves both of you equally. 

Having trouble imagining the future

Your time is invaluable, and so is who you choose to spend it with. Some people enter our lives in the right place but at the wrong time. Some stick around for a whole lifetime. In a committed relationship, we want to make sure that each person can see a similar future together. You don't want to give all your time to a person who doesn't plan on being there in the long run. 


If one person is talking about moving in and getting married one day, and the other doesn't quite see a plan even for the next three months, this indicates another sign that there is a discrepancy between one person's commitment and the other's. Talk to your partner and see if you are on the same path in the relationship timeline. If you can't see a future with someone, it's okay to let them know. Remember, your time is yours

Can you mend an asymmetric relationship?

Your relationship is not necessarily doomed if there are issues with asymmetry. Most couples will have moments when things aren't always evenly balanced, and recognizing the ways your relationship may be tipping to one side can help you work things out. But both partners have to be committed to improving things. It takes two to tango, right? 


If you really want your relationship to work, it can. You can start by talking with your partner about how you feel and hearing their point of view. They may not have realized the imbalances that were taking place and may want to fix their behaviors. Just don't wait too long on someone who may never change. If you and your partner are open to it, talking to a professional who specializes in couples therapy can be a great way to examine these issues and be given the right tools to fix them.

When to end things

If it's the first time you and your partner are having an issue with symmetry and balance, sometimes having a conversation about it can be enough of a catalyst for change. But if this has become a serious pattern in the relationship and nothing has changed, it may be time to let them go. Your happiness comes first. This doesn't always mean the relationship has to have a messy end where you never see each other again. You can accept each other for who you are and use what you've learned in the relationship as a tool to grow.


Sometimes we end up wanting different things in life and outgrowing each other. It's okay to accept that it's not always meant to be. You deserve to feel valued and wanted in your relationships. Maybe you don't feel quite ready for the kind of commitment your partner wants, and that's okay, too. No matter how you are feeling, remember to be honest about that, so no one gets hurt.