What to do When Friends Become 'Needy'

How to navigate needy friendships.

How to navigate needy friendships
By SHARE

If you've ever felt the tug of a needy friendship, you may have found yourself stewing as you endured her umpteenth lament over the one who got away, becoming "crazy busy" every time she asks you to dinner and increasingly relegating her ring to voice mail.

You only have so much to give and so long to listen, you tell your spouse, mom and anyone else who'll give you a turn to talk – at least you divvy up the venting, you tell yourself, so you don't pay the pain forward.

What's wrong with giving? Nothing. It's humanity at its best. And the act alone makes us feel fantastic. Ever heard of the "giver's high?"

[Read: Be Nice! Good Deeds Are Good For You, Too.]

But even the most selfless among us can't give forever with nothing in return. Well, OK, maybe "The Giving Tree." But that's fiction and, anyway, look how she ended up? As a stump. A happy stump, but still – a stump.

"All relationships need to be reciprocal to work, whether it's a marriage or a friendship," says Irene S. Levine, a professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center and creator of TheFriendshipBlog.com. "One person can't always be on the giving side and the other person always on the taking side."

But self-centeredness, to the extent it can be measured, may be on the rise. In a world in which people are plugged in to social media, an unprecedented degree of attention is paid to public image. "When Facebook didn't exist, you weren't worried on a random Tuesday how you were going to tell hundreds of people what was going on with you," says Andrea Bonior, an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University and author of "The Friendship Fix."

Meanwhile, expectations of friendship have changed, says sociologist Jan Yager, author of "When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon or Wound You." "Sharing on the Internet makes it easier for many to 'emote,' since it seems like it's anonymous," she writes in an email. At the same time, media depictions of friendship, like the ones in "Sex and the City," have portrayed a "somewhat exaggerated notion of the friend who is there for you, all the time and for everything." Add to the mix increasing isolation due to time spent online and a growing population of singles, who tend to look to their friends for support, especially those without a romantic partner, she explains.

[Read: The Do's and Don'ts of Friendship.]

No relationship is perfect, of course, and the balance of who needs what changes with life, Levine says. But if it's the same drama, different day? If your friend is always turning to you for money or a favor? That's a pain – literally.

If you don't realize the emotional toll it's taking, your feelings might show up physically, as a stomachache or headache, Levine says. So, for your sake – and theirs – address the problem. "You're not doing them any favors if you let that go on," Bonior says.

Here's a quick reality check for you: "Are you helping the person sort of get on the path toward change, or are you just beating your head against a brick wall because they're not doing anything about it?" Bonior asks. If it's the latter, then your friend needs more help than you can provide, she says, and it's best to make that clear. "You can say, 'I'm not doing the best thing for you because you need something more than I can offer.' And at that point, it's just a matter of being honest and setting boundaries."

That may mean telling an incessant texter to avoid texting during working hours or circumscribing outings to a coffee or movie date, Levine says. But if the neediness warrants a serious conversation, do it in person, when you both are relaxed, so the message is more likely to be heard, she advises. Sending the message by email "kind of feels like a kiss-off," and indicates "you're probably doing it in anger or haste," she says. "It's not easy being told you're needy or you're draining someone," Levine says. "If you care about the friendship, you want to do it in a way that's kind."