Thoughts on friendship asymmetries

Alex Barrera
3 min readJan 2, 2017
Image credits: Henrik M F / Pause for thought (Flickr)

Yeah, I know, weird title. But I wanted to explore a little bit more this topic. Some weeks ago I explored how I deal with friendship.

I didn’t go deep into the asymmetries in friendships, so let’s try to go there today.

So, the concept shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Most healthy relationships are based on the idea of mutual benefit. Rationally speaking, we are talking that one side gives 50% and receives in exchange 50%.

The reality is slightly different, though. First of all, what do we mean by giving and receiving? Well, in essence, people connect with each other because they’re looking for something. Aren’t we all? So for some people, it would be comfort, security, love, tenderness. You name it.

The relation between what you receive and what you give needs to be fair.

Each person looks for something different. What’s important is that for most, the relation between what you receive and what you give needs to be fair.

Now, the problem is that ‘fair’ is a subjective notion. As I said, for most people, 50/50 is the norm. Sometimes these numbers can and will hover, but as long as it’s seen by both parties as a fair deal, things will work.

But the question is, and what happens when the relationship tilts to a 10/90? How do we react? This is what I call an asymmetric relationship.

Most people will react poorly to such an imbalance. We hate to give more than we receive, “what’s in it for me?”. It’s what Dan Ariely would call, a predictively irrational behavior.

When such an imbalance happens, most people will kill the relationship. They feel cheated; they feel like the other person is taking advantage of them.

I must confess I don’t like being on the receiving end of asymmetric relationships. I’m human after all. But in all honesty, I know I’ve been on the other side of this. I haven’t given my all to some people that wanted more from me. I never did it on purpose, but it’s there anyway.

So, how do we deal with this situation? Well, I’m learning that there are other ways to deal with such relationships. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should let them die.

The first thing is to remove your ego from the equation. We feel cheated because we’re looking for something in exchange. You want to ‘win’ something. What if we just dropped that? What if you just took what it’s giving to you? Think about it as a donation in the good karma bank.

You don’t know when it will happen, but sometimes you get surprised, and you get a donation. Well, asymmetric relationships are something similar. The expectation of reciprocity is what hurts. Take that away and it stops hurting so much.

What do you get in exchange? You get to work on love and compassion.

Sometimes you receive 10%, other times you receive 30%. Sometimes the other person asks for 100% of you. What to do? Well, I’m starting to believe this is a fantastic exercise on compassion. What do you get in exchange? You get to work on love and compassion.

Helping others makes us happy. Having an asymmetric relationship does helps build on that compassionated heart. Give without expecting nothing in return.

I would just comment on a few twists, though. Relationships can become a zero-sum game. In those cases, you receive -10% and the other person takes 110% of you. Try to avoid those. The reason might not be what you expect, though.

Sometimes, being selfish is a virtue.

Before helping anyone, you need to help yourself. We can’t go on giving forever. Sometimes, being selfish is a virtue. You need to protect yourself before giving again. So always check you’re in a place where you can provide for others. If you aren’t whole, if you aren’t in a happy place, you will just go deeper into your suffering.

We all need harmonious relationships. Look for those first and foremost. Once you have those, move on and sustain asymmetric relationships. They will be different and will help you in various ways. Just remember, expect nothing, just enjoy.

Even getting a 1% of someone incredible is more than 0%.



Alex Barrera

Chief Editor at The Aleph Report (@thealeph_report), CEO at, Cofounder & associated editor @tech_eu, former editor @KernelMag.