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How to set platonic boundaries in a male/female friendship
February 4, 2014 5:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm female and I've developed a close friendship with a guy over the past six months. As often happens, there is attraction beyond just a friendship. However, special snowflake circumstances dictate that we need to stay platonic--perhaps not forever, but certainly for now. I need help in setting boundaries.

My guy friend (let's call him Steve) and I are involved in a small community endeavor which meets four times a week with several other people. Some of those folks are regulars and others just show up occasionally. We're trying to build toward something meaningful in our community, and these meetings and the friendships I've developed have come to mean a lot to me. Aside from the small group activities, Steve and I hang out together one-on-one a lot and things feel very couple-like to me when we do. We go grocery shopping, cook meals together, and watch movies (often romantic ones).

Eight months ago, I left a mentally and emotionally abusive man. (I've asked some past questions about recovery that will illuminate my progress if necessary).

Steve and I recently discussed what our friendship means to us. We both value it a lot. However, in addition, I have developed romantic feelings for him and was starting to feel more ready for dating and hoping something would develop in the future (like a few months from now, very slowly, because I am still recovering). Steve sensed this and brought it up in conversation, and told me he wanted to set boundaries so nothing happens before it should. He knows about what happened in my last relationship and that I'm not ready for one now, and he doesn't want to make any assumptions about what may or may not happen in the future.

He wants to spend the same amount of time together but make sure we don't touch or sit as close and he wants to make sure we focus on the friendship. I can do this, however I am not sure if we should even be spending any time alone regardless of how close we are sitting. I will miss doing that, but it feels couple-like to me and has caused my feelings to race ahead of reality, and I don't have a crystal ball about the future, so I don't want to assume it's inevitable that Steve and I will eventually get together. How can we set healthy boundaries and still maintain the comfortable closeness of a friendship without expectations?
posted by Rainflower to Human Relations (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
To answer the question you didn't ask: it is not inevitable, and I think Steve is, as we say here on AskMe, "just not that into you".

To answer the question you did ask: Less alone time is a good idea. Fewer things like grocery shopping. And time to let your feelings dissipate.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:47 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


Can you recruit other volunteers to be present at the things you would normally do with Steve? You don't have to explain that they are acting as a chaperone, just "We need an extra hand with thing." Better yet, ask Steve to handle the Monday groceries with volunteer X, and you'll handle the Friday groceries with volunteer Y. (Just an example: split up the work so that you are both still involved in the work but not spending time together).

In addition to protecting yourself, this could be a way to engage other volunteers to a greater degree, and encourage them to invest more deeply in the project.
posted by bunderful at 6:03 AM on February 4


Don't go shopping, cook meals or watch movies together. Those are "couple" activities.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 6:09 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


My advice:

Shopping together - no. But in a group? Sure!
Movies together alone - no. But in a group? Sure!
Cooking meals to eat together alone - no. But in a group? Sure!

The point at which you and Steve can be comfortable knowing the other person is dating someone else (or doing those coupl-y things alone with someone else) is the point that you know you've got boundaries properly calibrated.
posted by modernnomad at 6:09 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Dating after abuse is incredibly hard. Having relationships of any kind is hard. Friendships are hard too.

I suggest that you stop spending one-on-one time with Steve, too - especially the cooking dinner, grocery shopping kind of time.

Something to think about: boundaries imply that there is something to be bound or held back. That is, a boundary is set when one person wants something different than the other person. Who in this scenario wants something different?

I sort of think Steve is trying to really kindly and gently tell you that he is not interested. Setting boundaries is not something you do to slow down a process necessarily - it's something you do to put a stop to something.

I suggest that you pull back from Steve and start spending time alone or with friends that are not Steve. I'm sorry. It's hard. I've lost a lot of friends to abuse, including people I met after I left, just because that is how it is.

Hugs to you. Congrats on leaving your abuser. I'm proud of you.
posted by sockermom at 6:31 AM on February 4 [6 favorites]


Steve sensed this and brought it up in conversation, and told me he wanted to set boundaries so nothing happens before it should. He knows about what happened in my last relationship and that I'm not ready for one now, and he doesn't want to make any assumptions about what may or may not happen in the future.

He wants to spend the same amount of time together but make sure we don't touch or sit as close and he wants to make sure we focus on the friendship.


I have to say that I disagree with the 'he's just not that into you' advice being proffered above. Referring back to the question, it strikes me that Steve is actually being very mindful about the OP's circumstances and history, and really is just trying to do the right thing in relation to their friendship/potential possible relationship. For me there's nothing in the question that suggests that he's not into the possibility of things eventually/potentially evolving in that direction.

In any case, the OP isn't asking if we think Steve's into her or not - this is her question:

How can we set healthy boundaries and still maintain the comfortable closeness of a friendship without expectations?

In relation to this question, I have to say that I very much agree with BabeTheBlueOX and modernnomad - the simplest way to keep those boundaries healthy would be just not to do those activities on your own with Steve - that way you get to keep developing your friendship with him, without it feeling all couplesome and potentially awkward.
posted by Chairboy at 6:47 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


He's telling you he's very much ready now to date you by establishing those boundaries. They're pretty draconian, but I figure they're the equivalent of throwing water on someone to snap them out of falling for you.

The truth is that you can't keep doing the same things you have been doing because they're what got you both here...which is deep mutual infatuation. So trust your instincts and cut out the friend dates. If he's worth dating, he will understand (and I suspect he will). Tell him where you're coming from.

Good luck!
posted by inturnaround at 7:45 AM on February 4


This might clarify things a bit. He told me he thinks I'm attractive and that physical contact could lead to something more and he is tempted. He is also a very committed Christian and strict about chastity prior to marriage (and so am I). I asked him how serious he was about "maybe in the future" and he said he was quite sincere about it and thinks we're highly compatible and would have told me if he didn't think so. He also said that if I did start dating someone else, it would be awkward for him (but he wants my highest good so would not stop me). He also said there is no one else he's interested in at this time.
posted by Rainflower at 8:12 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I asked him how serious he was about "maybe in the future" and he said he was quite sincere about it and thinks we're highly compatible and would have told me if he didn't think so.

Red flag.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:22 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I think you need to spend less time together alone, that's really the bottom line. You can't have it both ways, and your behavior prior to the conversation is what I would 100% qualify as what I call Pretend Not-Dating. It's too intimate, and you can't make it not intimate just by declaring it so.

Stop dating, and essentially avoid being alone in private. Do all the shopping you want together, stop having dinner and a movie unless those things are in public. If you want to have a long talk, go on a long hike or meet in a park.

"Maybe in the future" means no. Don't spend your life on his "maybe" hook because, honestly, if you really want to be with someone you don't maybe want to be with them some day in the future if the whim hits. The heart wants etc.

Start dating other people, go live your life, do not let this guy prey on your time and control you like this. This isn't how a good friend who has your best interests at heart acts. You're getting played.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:23 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


All of what he said is still perfectly compatible with him not wanting to commit to you. He basically said, you're a fairly decent-looking girl who hangs around me a lot and I'm a hetero dude, if physical stuff happened I would get a boner. Also I just happen not to have a girlfriend right now so you're the default female in my life.

That's not really a compliment. When I was really young and dumb I would have thought it was, but I eventually realized boners are really, really cheap. "Breathing not-hideous female in my space" is about the bar he's setting for you here.

Also that "wants your highest good" stuff is crap. If he was in love with you he'd be pretty confident that he was your highest good, or close to it.
posted by quincunx at 8:35 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


I completely disagree with the answers saying he is playing you. If you're both committed Christians then the idea of setting boundaries so that physical intimacy doesn't race ahead of emotional intimacy makes perfect sense. That's a thing in Christian circles -- whether or not other people on the green thinks it makes sense, it sounds like that is where you are both coming from which is what matters.

It sounds like you both are interested in emotional intimacy developing and because of your history he wants you to set the pace, which sounds reasonable to me. What do YOU want? If your ideal is that something more romantic develops in the next several months then tell him that.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:43 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


I'd just like to second Lyn Never:
Start dating other people, go live your life, do not let this guy prey on your time and control you like this. This isn't how a good friend who has your best interests at heart acts.
He (and you) has moved several paces ahead of friend.

and quincunx:
Also that "wants your highest good" stuff is crap. If he was in love with you he'd be pretty confident that he was your highest good, or close to it.
And call BS on the "a thing in Christian circles" comment. From one who would know. (Sample size one, caveat after caveat.)

Trust people's actions. It's easy to want something different and then to try to bend reality to arc toward that desired outcome. But truly: trust someone's actions.

The best way to stay platonic is to spend time in groups, and not engage in dyadic activities not what you'd self-admittedly call "couple-y". It got a little complicated, sounds like.
posted by simulacra at 8:58 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I agree that you should stop spending so much time alone together. All those activities you described -- cooking together, watching romantic movies together, and things like that-- when there is mutual "like" but little or no physical contact is basically dating - chastely. Calling it "friendship" is misleading, at least in my mind, but it could just be semantics or something.

However, it concerns me that his boundaries are about his physical attraction to you, but your boundaries have to be about your emotional attachment to him. It sounds, well, unrealistic that you can keep hanging out in these "date-ish" ways and nothing is going to happen or change just because you aren't touching.

So yeah, I think your instinct is correct that you should stop hanging out solo.
posted by sm1tten at 9:00 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I'm also a sample size of one, but yes, setting boundaries to avoid physical intimacy IS A THING in Christian circles. I also, as a very young man (who happened to be a Christian) fouled up on a relationship by pushing the romance with a young woman who was getting over a trauma (in her case, something different, which was a death in the family, but still, a trauma).

So where this leaves us is - it's too early to tell. Setting boundaries is a good idea. Doing things in groups is a good idea, for multiple reasons. Best case scenario - you respect each other and something blooms; worst case - you turn out to be wrong for each other somehow. Either way, you're limiting the commitment while you're figuring this out. It sounds kind of old world to some, but that's what courtship *is.*

Usually a title on AskMe with the words "platonic male/female" in it involves scenarios where one half of the act has commitments that make a romantic relationship morally wrong. My advice in those cases still applies - there are platonic male/female relationships, but if you're talking about it like it's a thing, then that's not what you are involved in. Part of being honest with yourself (and him) is that you acknowledge there's an attraction. Sounds like you've both done that. Whatever you are, you're not just friends. Probably best to call him simply "a friend" for public consumption, but keep being honest with each other that there's an attraction. May sound counter-intuitive to some, but there is such a thing as a relationship, with mutual attraction, where both parties are disciplined enough to go slow, both emotionally and physically. Sounds like that's what you have. Good luck and God bless.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:19 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


I think you should stop doing the "coupley" stuff like grocery shopping together, if only because it does imply an intimacy that isn't really real, and that's kind of a lame way to get intimacy. If he wants to do that stuff with you, then he can be in a couple with you.
posted by Miko at 9:35 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I dated a couple of Christian men who believed in chastity. They had rules and limits, but zero trouble pursuing my heathen self for romance as they defined it.

I suspect that he is, in fact, not into you. However, even if he is attracted to you in that way, he has plainly stated that he does not want to date. That's what you are working with. Back off. Stop the couple activities. See him in group settings.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:45 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Seeing someone 4 times a week PLUS hanging out doing coupley things on top of that is too much. Start getting busy, pick up some other hobbies that won't involve him, and only see him for the community activity. Hanging out with someone alone that frequently can't be healthy, if both of you don't have the same intentions for your relationship.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 10:21 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


This isn't really possible.

When you are just platonic friends with someone, it's because you are NOT attracted to each other.

You can't really meet someone, feel the chemistry, decide you don't want a relationship right now and keep things in a holding pattern indefinitely.

You have a few different choices, here.

If the deal is that Steve is not into you, on the one hand, that makes things easier (you can just not date and that's OK), but on the other hand, it sounds like he's leading you on by pretending to be trying to respect your boundaries around abuse rather than just not wanting to date you at all.

With your recent past, I would just totally steer clear. I have negotiated unrequited romantic feelings into a platonic friendship in the past, and it has (sort of) worked, but in those situations I was starting from a baseline of being comfortable with myself and healthy enough to evaluate whether what was happening was appropriate. (And even then I look cringe at some of my behavior.)

On the other hand, if Steve is into you, you guys have to decide if you're going to date now or not. I've been through an abusive relationship and I know what a mindfuck it is. My attempts at dating and sex in the year or so after getting out were, well, bizarre, to say the least. But if you know yourself well enough to know not to go there, then you have to make the responsible choice and not go there. In which case, see above about what if Steve is not into you.

TL;DR: the only way I would continue hanging out one-on-one with Steve is if you know for sure that your feelings are mutual and that you want to start dating now. Otherwise, just get out!
posted by Sara C. at 10:22 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]


I once had a friend who, after several YEARS, revealed that he wasn't sure if he was in a relationship with me or not because he knew I was Christian and Christians do it differently.

WHAT

1. I HAD EXPLICITLY TURNED HIM DOWN

2. I HAD NEVER EVEN KISSED HIM

...and so on, and so on, and many other points.

My point being, there is literally no limit to the amount of wishful thinking and distortion that some people will engage in if they want to keep on carrying a torch. What did he think, that we reproduce by sending out runners like strawberries? I really would encourage you not to think of your relationship this way, no matter how many people tell you it's normal - including your crush.

However, your crush seems to be actively encouraging you to become his torch-carrier into the indefinite future. This really boggles my mind.

I cannot make head or tail of your account of the things he's said to you. The best I can extract from it is that he is not dating you now but would be theoretically unopposed to the idea of marrying you at some unspecified time in the future. Just thinking about this is almost literally making me want to jump out of my skin. I could just about unzip my epidermis at the spine in the sheer frustration of making sense of this. I don't know what the hell his intentions are, but I would find your situation emotionally tortuous to be in and I would want to throttle the guy for being so vague and inert.

But forget about him. Let's focus on you for now. Are YOU happy with this? Would YOU be happy to be in this exact same situation, with no changes in the nature of your relationship nor your friend's description of its prospects, in one year's time? Will you be content to be like this in February 2015? How about February 2016? How about 2020?

There is only one reasonable way you can move this relationship forward. My biggest suggestion would be to really pull back. Only see him a couple of times a week at most. Don't do domestic things with him, only do recreational things with him. If he for example calls to say "let's go grocery shopping tomorrow" say "no thanks, but I'd really like to catch this exhibition at the modern art museum." Don't initiate these hangouts yourself. Don't contact him first, only ever return his contacts, and don't send two messages in a row if he fails to reply to anything - he assuredly knows where you are. Be more breezy and high-level in what you tell him about your life, don't go into tons of confidey detail any more, just try to be mysterious. Don't be visible online all the time. And most importantly START GOING ON DATES WITH OTHER PEOPLE.

If he questions any of it, say you're getting that sprig of zest back and it's time to expand your horizons, fill your life with excitement, have loads of experiences etc.

If you do this, there are several things that can happen. The best-case scenario, the one you want, is that he wakes up and starts pursuing you romantically. And he better do it PROPERLY. If he asks you out on a datelike activity (sock washing *does not count*) but doesn't call it a date, ask him flirtatiously "are you asking me out on a date, tee hee?" There are only two acceptable answers to that: Yes or No.

If Yes, you are In There. Problem solved.

If No, you may choose to say "that's too bad," and go with him, but you must firmly and forever decide, in your own mind, that this means you are friends and only friends, and you always will be, no ands ifs or buts.

If he gives anything other than a Yes/No answer, kick him in the balls. He has to be either dating you or not and he is not allowed to mess you around like this.

Now, he might be sincere and messing you around could be the furthest thing from his mind, but that doesn't matter. You want to be dating him, you are not dating him. If he's as ambiguous as you say, then he's just leaving you hanging. If you've misheard or misinterpreted him (not in any way saying you have! just saying it's theoretically possible), then you're stuck on wishful thinking and need to put your attention elsewhere.
posted by tel3path at 10:40 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


ARE you ready to start dating? If so, ask him on a date, or tell him you're ready. If not, I think you need to tell him this isn't going to happen for now, and severely dial down the contact to only org-related activities.

But if you are ready, it's nice of him to watch out for you, but not his responsibility to decide how you feel. If you feel he's being evasive for selfish reasons (e.g., thinks you're attractive but doesn't want to DATE date you, is trying to start something physical you'll both regret, whatever), end things anyway.

The best I can extract from it is that he is not dating you now but would be theoretically unopposed to the idea of marrying you at some unspecified time in the future.

This is not that weird in Christian circles, in a certain sense. I am kind of boggled by the culture shock in this post! He might just be very confused about what to do with the knowledge that you are recently out of an abusive relationship.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:04 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


There is only one reasonable way you can move this relationship forward. My biggest suggestion would be to really pull back. Only see him a couple of times a week at most. Don't do domestic things with him, only do recreational things with him. If he for example calls to say "let's go grocery shopping tomorrow" say "no thanks, but I'd really like to catch this exhibition at the modern art museum." Don't initiate these hangouts yourself. Don't contact him first, only ever return his contacts, and don't send two messages in a row if he fails to reply to anything - he assuredly knows where you are. Be more breezy and high-level in what you tell him about your life, don't go into tons of confidey detail any more, just try to be mysterious. Don't be visible online all the time. And most importantly START GOING ON DATES WITH OTHER PEOPLE.

I just thought someone had to re-iterate tel3path's quote in full, because this is great advice. It will be very, very good for you not to prioritize this guy, and sometimes we have to fake it before we make it a bit (I had to pull wayyyy back from my boyfriend and I did most of this stuff and continue to do it and it's been amazing). Acting mysterious now will set a different tone for your relationship and soon you won't be acting - you'll just be doing your own thing, without involving him.

I think after a bit of this pulling away, you'll be able to better assess the situation.
posted by sockermom at 1:08 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


The best I can extract from it is that he is not dating you now but would be theoretically unopposed to the idea of marrying you at some unspecified time in the future.

This is not that weird in Christian circles, in a certain sense. I am kind of boggled by the culture shock in this post! He might just be very confused about what to do with the knowledge that you are recently out of an abusive relationship.


Yes, things are quite different in our circle. That seems like what he was getting at. I think the advice to stop the date-like activities is valid. I will also scale back my involvement in the group activities. But I won't start seeking a relationship with anyone else until I've recovered a bit more from the abuse, maybe a few months from now. Thanks for all the input
posted by Rainflower at 3:22 PM on February 4


It's brush-off. It's gentle, and a little selfish, but it's a brush-off.

He picked up that you were inclining away from the platonic and into the romantic. He's not romantically into you, no matter what he says about finding you attractive, down the road, blah blah blah. If he were into you romantically, you wouldn't be asking us this question. Those things are the gentle part of the brush-off.

The selfish part of the brush-off is that he wants to keep the level of time and attention you invest in him without giving you the same amount back, now or ever. Yes, he is giving you his time and attention but it's not fair that he's benefiting from it while you're actually investing it for a romantic pay back at some unspecified time in the future.

He is warming you up to the possibility that he's going to be dating someone else in the very, very near future.

Redirect all your efforts into taking care of yourself and healing. You are so, so vulnerable after an abusive relationship and it's instinctual to reach out and clutch to whatever support is closest. I'm not saying that Steve is a piranha or that he's taking advantage of you, but it's only up to you to guard your heart. Yes, scale everything back, keep in touch with him, but also find friends who there will never be any need for a conversation about boundaries. Best of luck.
posted by mibo at 3:31 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I also come from a Christian background and it sounds to me like he is being good and gentle with you. From what you've written, it sounds like he would *love* to date you, but knows you aren't in the best frame of mind currently. He wants to be your friend until you are ready for more.

I'm surprised so many other mefites think he isn't in to you.
posted by tacodave at 3:59 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]


I notice the OP cherry picking the responses she wants to hear; those that align with her desires. You should listen to the naysayers, it will boost your awareness. It will also make you wiser.
posted by squirbel at 6:21 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


There is always a possibility that, despite being a very devout Christian man and not a liar in other respects, that he's lying to me (and I don't think "lying" is too strong of a word to use if indeed he's giving me the brush-off while insisting he's not--a lie is a lie, after all and Christians can lie too). Leading someone on is considered pretty reprehensible in my community, though. In every situation I've seen him in he has deliberated over doing the right thing and has been truthful with people. Of course it is possible that this is an exception. I have only known him for six months.

I have marked some answers that have addressed the boundary issue without being explicitly Christian, because they answered the actual question, but I feel that our faith had to be taken into account in the answers and I should have put that in the original question. I can't separate the man and his viewpoint on relationships from his viewpoint on Christian marriage, accountability, chastity, etc. I know that some of you will not know what I mean by those things and some will. But I do appreciate all the different points of view and it gives me a lot to think about and I do agree that I should be cautious, not just with him but in general, when it comes to trusting anyone.
posted by Rainflower at 8:44 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I am not sure anyone thinks he is lying to you so much as saying things - such as being able to imagine possibly seeing you together at some random time in the unforeseeable future - that have a 1 in a million chance of ever happening in order to spare your feelings and because he feels put on the spot.

His viewpoint on Christian marriage does not see to be relevant. Either he would like to bring a more romantic, not platonic element to your relationship or he would not like to open that door. He has told you, specifically, that he does not want to do that. Listen to him.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:59 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


You can say "no, it's cultural, and I know this culture better than you guys," but it doesn't change the fact that you're not dating him now and cannot count on your chances of doing so in the future.

I would also point out that you seem to want to be dating him now. He thinks you are not ready. He's entitled to his opinion on whether a potential partner is a good choice at any given time, and he is absolutely right to exercise judgement and not just rugby-tackle you because you're hot.

However, you also think you are not ready to be dating him right now. You are also entitled to your opinion as to whether you should be dating *someone* right now, or in the future, even though you don't get to insist that that someone be him. It could be a mistake, but it's 100% your mistake to make.

What you can't do is look into the future and know whether you and he will ever be ready to date (each other/someone) at the same time. You can't bookmark someone for dating in the future. If you are not dating now, you are not dating and that is really all you can count on.

I do in fact understand Christian viewpoints on marriage, accountability, chastity, etc., and it doesn't change my answer, which is that you're either dating somebody or you're not. There's no in between. Whenever I've gotten really badly hurt, it's usually because I've tried to deny this distinction.

However, I also know that when I'm really crushing hard on somebody I can't just say "nope" and flip a switch on it, and suggesting I should do so comes across as incredibly cruel, like demanding I stop eating or breathing and implying that I'm contemptible if I can't do this.

And yet at the same time, I still have the opinion that it wil do you no good whatsoever to live in hope of dating this guy. Not that your hope is irrational, only that it isn't good for you.

What I think you should do is give yourself a deadline. If you aren't dating by the time six months are up, that's maybe when you should decide to rule him out and put your attention elsewhere. And if you are dating him by then, you're laughing. Meanwhile, you have time to prove us pessimistic lot wrong.
posted by tel3path at 11:56 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


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