Dear Family Whisperer:
I'm a single mom of a teenager. A guy friend, who tends to be totally focused on his stuff when we chat, recently completely dropped the ball on a major loss that I experienced. By that, I mean he knew I was going to lose a family member within hours -- but didn't reach out in the days and weeks that followed. (And he attempted to cover up when I mentioned it.) In general, this guy will ask questions about my life and then always respond to my answers with a totally flat, "aha" or "right," no matter how short or long my response. His reaction has been that way for eight+ years. He is a likable guy and fun to do stuff with, but I find this mono-focus to be tiring. So... Do I call him out on it and try to improve the friendship? Do I recognize that a I cannot teach a cat to bark, but continue the friendship knowing what I am dealing with? Or, do I ask myself why I continue to pursue such a lop-sided friendship?
-- Confused Friend
Yes, yes, and yes! If this is a relationship you value, you should try to get what you need from it. At the same time, eight years into a friendship, you already have information at your fingertips, which bring us to your last question: What's in it for you? Here are a few additional questions that might help you find out before you "call him out."
What does he want from the relationship him? Male/female friendships are tricky. As Harry famously told Sally, it's hard to relate without "the sex part getting in the way." Research suggest that while men and women both value companionship and good conversation almost equally, men are more likely (22% vs. 11%) to also want sex. In your eyes (I assume), this is a friendship. Are you certain he wants nothing more?
The solution: If you don't know the answer, ask him to be honest. Also search your own heart. If you're sure that you just want friendship, make it clear to him that romance is off the table.
Are you talking for him? In every relationship, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, one party is always more open and expressive than the other. Men are socialized to play it close to the vest, but personality is the bigger factor. Outgoing people tend to initiate, control, even monopolize, conversation. It also depends on whom you're with. Even if you're The Talker in this relationship (which I suspect you are), with a female friend or a different guy, you seem quiet by comparison.
The solution: Pay attention to how much you talk. It's okay to ask him questions or to explicitly ask advice, but wait for the answers. Get comfortable in his silences, rather than rushing in.
What's familiar about this scenario? In dramas with others, do you often play the role of Pursuer or Rescuer. Does it make you feel smart, generous, indispensible -- all of the above? Does this relationship feel familiar? As a child, did one or both parents lean on you? Were you a big sister? With friends, are you usually the one who does favors?
The solution: Know where your behavior comes from and understand your "default" patterns. It's admirable to be a kind person who listens to friends' problems. Unless it hurts you.
What's are you giving and getting? Every connection, from the casual to the most intimate, involves an exchange -- of ideas, information and/or emotion. You give what you're capable of giving, and so does he. You don't give the same things, because you're two different people. But the value should be comparable.
The solution: Tell yourself the truth. He's "fun." He pays attention. He asks questions; he seems to find you interesting. You're obviously getting something from him. But it's also clear that he consistently avoids deeper intimacy, which feels to you like a lack of support. As the old saying goes, "You don't buy oranges in the hardware store." It might be time to accept what's this guy is selling -- or start shopping elsewhere.