Relationships aren’t always going to be totally balanced. That isn’t a bad thing.

A painted scene shows a woman leaning on her friend’s shoulder. The friend is faced away, looking off to the side.
Holly Stapleton for Vox

We shouldn’t give up on others so easily.

Would you give your mother nearly $10,000 to help her avoid catastrophe?

The question wasn’t rhetorical for comedian and writer Ashley Ray-Harris when, in September, the 32-year-old got a call from her mom. The family had a week to come up with close to $10,000 or else Ray-Harris’s mother would lose the house that once belonged to her parents.

In a karmic turn of fate, Ray-Harris had the funds. She’d slowly set aside $10,000 for a new car — her dream car, a 2017 Mazda CX-5. Instead of a down payment, Ray-Harris used her savings to keep a roof over her mother’s head.

The choice was never a choice at all. Reciprocating care and support to the woman who raised her was the only option. Throughout her life, Ray-Harris’s mother had spent money on guitar lessons, horseback riding lessons, and private school tuition — not to mention food, clothing, and shelter. “I’m able to help my mom with this because she put me in a place to achieve my dreams,” Ray-Harris says. “Obviously, I would pay that back to her.”

A not-insignificant number of strangers on the internet would have advised Ray-Harris to do just the opposite. In a moment of frustration, Ray-Harris posted about her family’s circumstances on X (formerly Twitter) and received a wide array of responses. Many people were moved by Ray-Harris’s readiness to come to her mother’s aid; others shared stories of similarly shouldering a large expense for their loved ones. What she wasn’t expecting was the number of replies from people who said they would not have offered the money to a parent. “People have different relationships with their parents,” she says, “but just the number of people who were like, ‘I love my mom, but I would never do this for her,’ seemed to come from a somewhat self-centered place.”

The support we’re willing to offer a close intimate (a parent, say) will vary wildly from what we feel we owe a stranger. Constant asks — for time, attention, affection, and money — can wear on a person’s patience, especially if they’re being called upon by multiple people in their lives. Silently keeping score in relationships may lead us to turn away from others when they need us most. From being too “at capacity” to support a friend to permanently resigning from bridesmaid duties, some people are tightening the reins on their emotional output in relationships of all stripes. Asking a friend for a ride home from the airport could be considered a moral offense. Dedicating a few minutes to watch over a stranger’s belongings at a coffee shop is a few minutes too long. Depending on your circumstances, offering time and support is too great a weight to bear without certainty you’ll get something in return.

As a result, some are sensing a “lack of reciprocation” with friends, an imbalance within relationships, and an intense focus on the nuclear family over community. People are undeniably spread thin, financially, emotionally, and for time, and they’re turning inward to seek reprieve. On a broad scale, this individualistic mindset can contribute to the ongoing loneliness epidemic and diminish avenues for social support. Although we are limited in our resources of time and emotions, we shouldn’t resign from duties of care and in the process relinquish ourselves from a tit-for-tat mentality. We can give of ourselves to those we interact with because we want to, not to even the score or to expect something in return.

Why we all need extra support right now

If it feels as though more people are in need of something, from the menial to the consequential, it’s because they are. There are more emotionally vulnerable people than ever. Most notably, the Covid-19 pandemic wrought suffering for many — the loss of life, employment, and social support led to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use. Seventeen percent of Americans say they feel lonely daily; 12 percent of Americans reported having no close friends at all in 2021, up from 3 percent in 1990. A majority of adults are stressed by inflation, the economy, and having enough money to buy essentials. Half of adults say they or a family member experienced a mental health crisis, with mental health disorders reaching “epidemic rates” in children and adolescents.

During times of heightened emotional demand, there are two choices: leaning into collective care and support or shying away from others. “Where there’s need and stress, you can choose the path of individualism and pushing people away and never being there for anybody else because you’re so consumed with only preserving and protecting yourself,” says connection coach Kat Vellos, author of We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships, “or you can band together with other people and collectively pool your resources, whether those are emotional resources, financial resources, communal respect, social capital resources, and share the things that you have so that you can lift each other up and actually lighten the load for multiple people at one time.”

Working collaboratively for the betterment of all becomes increasingly difficult in the absence of trust in one another. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 64 percent of Americans believe their trust in one another has shrunk. Half of Americans attribute this lack of trust to “a belief that people are not as reliable as they used to be,” according to the Pew survey. A lack of faith in others to come to our aid in a time of need supports the idea that we must be self-sustaining. “It’s up to each person to choose the world they want to live in: Is it one where you’re not going to look out for anybody else, but you maybe can’t expect anybody else to look out for you too?” Vellos says. “Or is it a world where you can be generous and compassionate with other people? Even if the amount we’re able to give varies day to day or hour to hour, but you know through investing in those relationships that when you need help and you need support, somebody else is going to be there for you, too.”

Why we shouldn’t “keep score” in relationships

A functional relationship requires a few ingredients: trust, consistency, and spending quality time together, says Kasley Killam, an expert in social health and connection and the author of a forthcoming book on social health. But perhaps most crucial is responsiveness, or how attentive we are to another person’s wants, needs, and goals, according to Richard Slatcher, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Georgia. Responsiveness can take the form of both instrumental support — like helping a friend move — and emotional support, such as listening closely in conversation. Research has shown that responsive partners convey warmth, understanding, validation; they strive to make their partners feel valued. When that responsiveness is reciprocated, what results is “upward spirals of responsiveness that ultimately enhance relationship quality for both people,” according to the authors of a 2010 study.

Sometimes, one party will endure a season of extended giving — perhaps after a friend loses a job or has a baby — but ideally, both sides will offer just as much as they accept. “A relationship is worth it if the benefits outweigh the costs — if you get as good as you give, so to speak,” says Pat Barclay, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph. “If the costs start to outweigh the benefits, then people might not want to keep giving if they feel they’re being asked too much.”

The problem is, we’re notoriously biased when it comes to estimating how much of ourselves we extend to others compared to what we get in return, says Beverley Fehr, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg. Remembering all of the good deeds you’ve done for your sister comes far easier than recalling the times she brought you groceries when you were sick, cared for your pets while you were on vacation, and listened to you vent about work. “Partly, we have that bias in the interest of self-esteem or self-protection, wanting to feel good about ourselves, like ‘I’m the one who gives all the time,’” Fehr says. “But the other piece of it is that it’s just easier to remember our contributions than to remember another person’s contributions to a relationship.”

We don’t consciously keep score, Barclay notes. However, if resentment overtakes enthusiasm whenever a friend asks a favor, “that’s a sign your brain has been tracking that maybe they haven’t been pulling their weight,” he says.

When we feel like we’re the only ones doing the heavy lifting in a relationship, we’re likely to turn away from those connections. A friend may spend all of their emotional reserves worrying about getting their kids to school, making it through the workday, and having enough money for groceries. Attending your birthday party may not be a priority. As a result, both sides are deprived of what could have been a rejuvenating social encounter. The edicts of self-care would have us believe that safeguarding ourselves, not giving more of our energy to others, is the balm to emotional exhaustion.

But if society is made up of an emotionally tapped populace, there may not be enough support to go around. “The more [emotionally] needy people there are out there, the more demands there will be and it will be harder to meet each one,” Barclay says. “Furthermore, the more needy people there are, people who generally need emotional support, the less capacity each person will have … to be able to help others. So as conditions get worse, you might expect people to have less ability to help simply because there’s too many people to help and they don’t have as much capacity to give.”

Focus on the self encourages individualism

In the absence of policy changes that would provide more of a social and financial safety net, Americans look internally to improve their circumstances. Since the 1970s, self-help media has provided an avenue for people to improve their lives when so much — wages, costs — is out of their control. The rise of the wellness industry commodified self-care as something that can be purchased and experienced alone as a means of restoration. Even the popularization of therapy-speak reinforces the notion of tending to the self above all others. This focus on the individual as the sole determinant of happiness allows people increasingly to look inward for ways to better their lives.

This individualized approach to emotional fulfillment breeds what Kaisa Kuurne, a sociology lecturer at the University of Helsinki, and her colleague refer to as a “capable actor.” To outsiders, a capable actor is a highly productive member of society, but they find it difficult to ask for help or to express vulnerability. “It’s a side effect,” Kuurne says, “of individualism. That it can be potentially stigmatizing to be needy, so then you’re not really the moral individual.”

If you consider yourself efficient and independent, you may assume others in your life are, too. The capable actor theory explains the sentiment of those in comedian Ray-Harris’s X replies who encouraged her to leave her mother in the lurch, Kuurne says: that others’ apparent inability to care for themselves leaves them somehow unworthy of support. To think this way is to deny our collective vulnerability, Kuurne says. Sacrificing time and resources for another isn’t wasteful; it can imbue meaning and purpose and joy, says Killam, the social health expert. “Connection is a joy,” she says. “It’s not a chore. And if it feels like a chore, then maybe we need to reevaluate what our values are, what our priorities are.”

Purposefully prioritizing responsiveness

There are plenty of valid reasons we might be unable to support those in our life: family demands, work stress, money troubles, a mental health crisis, lost patience for a particularly time-consuming friend. However, we should avoid thinking of our relationships as transactional, but consider them mutually beneficial, connection coach Vellos says. They are people who enrich your life and whom you can count on in a time of need — and vice-versa. “If somebody views every interaction in our capitalist environment as some type of transaction,” she says, “they might unfairly categorize a very natural friendship interaction as some kind of transaction.”

We have to be motivated to view connections as a wellspring of meaning, says Slatcher, the University of Georgia professor. Considering others’ wants and needs does not mean ignoring your own; it means becoming more discerning in how to offer the appropriate support. Bolstering responsiveness in a relationship involves some trial and error, Fehr, the University of Winnipeg professor, says: You must discern whether a friend wants you to simply be a listening ear or hopes you spring into action to offer practical support. Acting out of self-interest is not particularly motivating, a 2022 study found. Instead, people are more likely to help in personal relationships when they feel like it is a reflection on their character.

So what, then, do we owe each other? To actually be there for someone, we must spend time together and be open to vulnerability. Among all of life’s demands and responsibilities, we may not have the time to check in with a friend, let alone get together with them. “You’re rarely in the same place as your intimate unless you arranged it intentionally,” Kuurne says. But if we don’t dedicate the time and space to those we love, they won’t know how to support us — and how we can support them — and thus won’t be as responsive.

Life is not a one-person show, but a company of players in an ensemble act. When someone we love is in need, as was Ray-Harris’s mother, we come to their aid not because we want something in return, but because our well-being depends on theirs. And if life gets too busy, too hectic, too chaotic, too much that we can’t prioritize those we love, it’s time to recalibrate.

“Because what are we actually living for?” Killam says. “It should be our relationships and the joy that comes from spending time with people you love.”

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