The starting off point for my thoughts is the commonly held belief that Buffy shamelessly neglected Riley in Season 5 and that this is something to be held against her. To me, while it is an example of how Buffy is flawed, I see it as evidence of how she's human and can't be expected to get everything right, not evidence that she's an awful, selfish or deserving of blame.
Yes, Buffy did fail to notice and attend to Riley falling apart in mid-Season 5, but she was paying attention to him early on, until her own world started falling apart (and she did devote herself to Riley to the exclusion of her friends and family in Season 4; maybe that's why he feels she's coming up short in Season 5, because she's reprioritized her friends and family and it's no longer just him). She had to protect Dawn and her mother started becoming seriously ill. There's truth to the fact that she didn't pay a lot of attention to Riley's problems, but Riley meanwhile was busy actively hiding them from her (which made it harder for her to be there for him--was she supposed to play detective instead of sleep?). Buffy ended up focusing all her energies on slaying, her sister, and her incredibly ill mother. She ended up devoting herself to the people who were actively seeking help from her, whose lives were obviously in danger, and who were asking for help in a way she could actually help them (taking her mom to the hospital, protecting Dawn from a hellgod).
She wasn't the best person to help Riley. For a psych student, he played up the cliche of being completely blind to his own issues. He was caught in an identity crisis (lost his friends, his job, his purpose in life) and he started demanding that the only thing left in his life, Buffy, be the ultimate source for his self-esteem and feelings of self-worth (he continued to cling to the hankerchief when all else was teared away). Because he was at a loss, he tried to turn their relationship into a codependent mess like what Buffy had with Angel. Like that was somehow desirable. And I don't blame Riley for his issues (he can't be expected to deal perfectly with a life crisis of this magnitude), I rather feel sympathy when I realize how lost he is (and I'll point out it's possible he was also experiencing drug withdrawals too--he's an addict forced to go cold turkey and his psychological issues skyrocket), but I do hold him accountable for how his issues manifest into selfish, reckless behavior and I also hold him accountable for never actually acknowledging his issues, but instead blaming them on Buffy. (In fact, Riley in Season 5 has much in common with Buffy in Season 6--a lost opportunity for "As You Were" to draw a meaningful parallel; instead, Riley gets to be act like he's still perfect and he doesn't acknowledge his shortcomings in their relationship while Buffy does. Blerg. Petrie is my least favorite writer, I think for "As You Were" and "Living Doll"--too much victim blaming of the women when it comes to failed relationships.)
Buffy didn't notice a lot of Riley's issues because she had too much on her plate and because Riley was busy hiding them (she's not a trained psychologist, she's super distracted, and Riley is putting up a good front of acting 'normal' which is how Buffy sees him--her idea of him gets in the way of seeing his pain here--she probably wants to believe he's okay, that he'll bounce back and be Riley, because she can't take him falling apart too, one crisis too many). She wasn't the perfect girlfriend who helped heal and rehabilitate the guy. But then all her time, energy and emotional strength was being swallowed up in life-and-death priorities for other people. That's part of why Riley wasn't a good match for her. He wasn't suited to be dating the Slayer, a person who's life-and-death priorities mean that you have to have your own head on straight. Buffy's the one who needs serious unconditional emotional support (one reason Season 7 Spike or Season 7/8 Xander is good for her) because of her role in life as the Slayer, one girl in all the world (she has to give so much of herself to her mission and to saving others, that she's running on empty when it comes to her personal life, but she still tries at least).
And Buffy was paying attention to him when he was in life-and-death danger, then she got distracted by life-and-death stuff (Buffy puts out fires, she saves lives by putting out the fires), and by that point Riley was actively hiding his issues. And really, what was she supposed to do? The guy needed a therapist, a life coach, a job, and a mission in life. Buffy couldn't provide those things for him. Yes, she could've been more emotionally there for him. But he didn't want that. He wanted her to make him feel needed, he didn't want her being strong for him. And I have to wonder if he wouldn't have rejected her emotional support because it exacerbated his self-esteem issues. Not only would she have been physically stronger and a person with purpose in life, she would've been emotionally stronger too. There's a reason Riley wanted her to lean on him. He wanted to be the emotionally strong one. Buffy being there for him... I think even if she had been, it still wouldn't have worked out. That's how psychologically messed up Riley was. I think he would've begun to further resent her for being emotionally strong and supportive--seriously, how much worse would he have been if Buffy were actually perfect both physically, socially, emotionally? If she were this superwoman who was the perfect Slayer, the perfect sister, the perfect daughter, the perfect friend and the perfect girlfriend, I think Riley would've been eaten up with shame and self-disgust and resented her for helping him (that's the ugliness of low self-esteem).
That doesn't mean that Buffy was perfectly justified in not seeing what he was going through. But it's understandable why she was distracted, and it's understandable that if she even had an inkling, she was so overwhelmed by Riley's Identity-Life Crisis that she probably was just hoping for the best because there was nothing she could do.
The thing with Riley is actually another example of holding Buffy to impossible standards. So not only must she save the world, protect her sister, be a loving and attentive daughter, a student, and a friend, but she must also be a perfect girlfriend-therapist-life-coach who somehow manages to help Riley without letting their relationship devolve into codependency?
Um. No. That's not a reasonable expectation of her character. And it's another example of demanding Buffy be perfect. She wasn't perfect with Riley. But then, why would anyone expect her to be? Holding it against Buffy for not being able to save her boyfriend from his identity crisis is a step too far.
It's interesting. This discussion is putting into perspective all the recent conversation I've been having in numerous places about Buffy's character. It's obviously not that I see Buffy as perfect, but rather I think that I don't hold her shortcomings against her because to do so would be to hold her to impossible standards and expectations. Considering the circumstances, I think it's understandable how Buffy acted. I don't think it makes her particularly selfish or mean-spiritied (qualities I would hold against someone), but rather it makes her human. She only has so much time and energy and emotional werewithal in her to give to others, and she ended up giving it to the people who were in life-and-death danger and crying for her help. (And let's not forget that Buffy is also in emotional crisis at the same time, but instead she focuses on helping others in need even as her own identity is slowly and surely be chipped away. By the end of the season, when she's at the end of her identity crisis and there's nothing left to give, her final act is to save her sister, the world, and also kill herself. She gives and gives until there's nothing left. And yet, we expect more of her? Jesus, impossible expectations.)
The judgment of Buffy failing Riley, and holding it against her, is based upon the expectation that she be saint and savior to everyone in need around her. And look at what this expectation does to her by the end of the season. She's suicidal because she's got nothing left to give, because it's all been torn away.
So I'm not receptive to criticism of Buffy when it comes to failing Riley because I think it holds her to an impossible standard. I don't expect Buffy to be a superwoman who's able to miraculously save everyone, be attentive to everyone, be perfect in all that she does (and I see this as an unfortunate gender expectation, that not only must Buffy be the stereotypical male hero who kills the monsters and saves the day, but she must also be the emotionally supportive perfect heroine who rescues the broken hero consumed by his man!pain--heroines must emotionally support and be the sound bedrock for a man to lean on, even going so far as to deducing the man needs help when he's determined to hide it from her). Instead, I see how much time and effort she devotes to others compared to what she does for herself.
In Season 5, the pressure and expectations are deliberately overwhelming and impossible. In fact, this is a pattern that continues notably in Season 7 and in Season 8 (where as in Season 6, normal pressures are writ large and extreme because she's too emotionally and psychologically off-balance to deal with everyday life). Buffy struggles to manage under the mounting pressures until they become so overwhelming that she capitulates. Eventually, she loses hold of sound judgment through extreme disconnection and stress, and gives into despair and reckless behavior (Season 7 and 8). (And hand to God, I hope someone doesn't criticize this as repetitive because hello, this is why she's a realistic character.)
One of the reasons I find Buffy to be such an exceptional person isn't that she's the Slayer, but rather that she continues to give as much of herself as she can (to the detriment of her well-being). She's the sort of person you need to forcibly demand put the airmask on first before she automatically moves to help others first. This doesn't mean she doesn't end up neglecting people, though. Her strength in her devotion to the mission sometimes goes too far--she becomes overfixated in saving people's lives and she's not always able to provide emotional and social support when she's focused on saving the world. That's what makes her so interesting. Because one of her chief priorities in life is to help others, but she's not perfect and her mission to help others wears on her. And yet, even though she's fully aware that her destiny is to die for others, to never get to live her own life fully, that she must constantly sacrifice herself bit by bit until she eventually dies (and even then that's not the end of her duty to serve), even though she's fully aware, she still gives herself. And yes, sometimes she resents it because she's not a saint. And I'm thankful for that because it makes her realistic and relatable. She's not a person to hold up on a pedestal, she's a person to admire for falling down again and again, and continuing to stand back up and fight.
She's not perfect but she keeps on trying and that's what makes her exceptional. She's "just a girl" and she's extraordinary.