A relationship with a friend has spiraled out of control. I have to bring it to an end, and I'm not sure how to go about it. I need advice. Details inside.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (46 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am a woman engaged to a man, R. Recently, I spent more than a month away from home and I got to know another man, E, who is also in a committed relationship. E and I are both writers. We read each other's work and bonded hard over that. He also had my back during a fairly difficult time, for which I was (and continue to be) grateful. For 99% of the time we spent together, my feelings towards E were entirely platonic. During the last few days, though, I started to feel the tenor of our relationship change, and then, on the very last night before we both went home, we got very sentimental (as well as drunk) and ended up sitting very closely side-by-side, holding hands. I knew at this point that E wanted to kiss me, and in retrospect I can see signs that he may have been romantically interested in me earlier than I realized. I also felt drawn to him emotionally, but the physical attraction wasn't that strong. I felt that since I was able to resist kissing him under the influence of both sentimentality and alcohol, and we lived on opposite coasts, we'd danced up to a line without crossing it. I interpreted our relationship at that point as friendship layered over with a slight mutual crush that we both recognized we would not pursue.
After we parted, E sent me a couple of text messages telling me he missed me. I said I missed him, too, and he sent me a few more talking about how hard it was to pretend he was happy he was home when he missed me so much. I tried to deflect these somewhat, purposely not picking up on his more romantic hints and telling him that even though I missed him, I was glad to be home with R (which I was) and that I was sure he'd settle in soon.
For the most part, he took his cue from me, and we entered into a very intense but ostensibly platonic, correspondence, primarily about writing. We exchanged 5-10 text messages a day and wrote each other long emails about everything under the sun. Since I want to be as honest as I can about where I stand with this, I will say that I found this aspect of our relationship almost dizzyingly pleasurable, much more intoxicating than the time we spent in person. I've never had anyone I could talk to about books & writing with like this before; I love R, and we work together as a couple in a way that E and I never would, but writing simply isn't something we share. At the same time, I didn't really have any doubt that E was head-over-heels for me, and so part of the cheap rush was fueled by both flirtation and flattery; it feels great (and is hugely motivating) to have someone who wants to read everything you write, and will exchange pages-long emails with you about your work and ideas, and who is, at the same time, telling you endlessly that you are a genius and everything about you is amazing. I'm susceptible to this, as much as I wish I weren't; after a week or so of this, I definitely had a crush on him, which I enjoyed. In order to preserve it for myself, I kept telling myself that we were on the same page - enjoying the flirtation, but ultimately committed to our separate relationships - for much longer than was actually sustainable.
Now, though, I've (finally) come to the unavoidable conclusion that this is dangerous and unworkable. E keeps dropping hints that his relationship is on the rocks. He sent me a very thinly veiled story about a married man who is in love with another woman that basically sent me into panic mode and prompted this question. I pretended I didn't see the connection, tore the story apart, and then apologized, saying that it had given me "complicated feelings." He said he had "complicated feelings" about the subject too, and then we let the matter drop, but...yikes. He keeps making coded statements that could, in theory, be about our friendship but imply more ("I'm saving this movie for us to watch together," etc.) He's also made plans to come to my city twice in the next month, for writing events. I have played into this, sometimes actively (I've told him I miss him, that I can't wait to see him, etc.) but more often passively, by not mentioning R as much as I should, by listening when he talks about his relationship issues, and mostly by continuing to exchange this a huge volume of words with him.
Initially, I thought I would resolve this by having a face-to-face conversation with him when he came to my city. I had the whole conversation mapped out - I'd tell him how much I enjoyed our correspondence, and that to a certain extent, I felt what he was feeling, but that I was committed to my relationship and we had to bring our conversations back solidly into the realm of friendship if we wanted this to work. I had confidence in my ability to hold the line, in part because physical attraction has only ever been a small part of this for me (although it has, admittedly, mounted.) Now, though, I'm scared to let it get that far. I am afraid that E is going to arrive here under the expectation that we are going to leave our SO's to be together, and that is unequivocally not what I want. (Though maybe that's not really what he wants, either and I'm reading too much into a flirtation. It's really hard to know). The worst-case scenario for me is that we hang out, get drunk, and end up hooking up, and then everything explodes in my face. I truly do wish that we could continue a slightly-more-turned-down version of this friendship, but I'm coming to accept that this may not be possible. So what do I do?
Here are the possibilities I've come up with, along with the complications/questions I have about them:
1. Deal with this directly, by writing him an email and then cutting off contact.
This seems like the advice I'd give if I were answering this question. Here is what scares me. Technically, except for the hand-holding, it's hard to articulate exactly what line we've crossed. There's been a lot of hinting (and that story he wrote) but he's never told me outright he has feelings for me. I'm afraid that, if I don't word it exactly right, he'll deny what's happened ("Of course we're just friends! I'm so sorry I gave you the wrong impression!") and, at the same time, I worry that bringing this out in the open will make it that much more "real," especially if I have to lead by telling him I have feelings for him, which I'm very reluctant to do. The truth is, I'm not 100% sure I trust him to respond honestly, or to stick to any boundaries we try to set, since I think it'd be worth it to him to stay "friends" regardless of how he actually feels. So how do I phrase it? I really, really need advice on this part.
And, if I do this, what should the no-contact rules be? Do we never talk or write to each other again? We are in a long-distance writing group that I really don't want to leave; we have lots of mutual friends, there are all these events coming up where I would probably see him. Going cold turkey - especially without his cooperation, which would mean I was the one who would have to miss all the events, etc. - would be a pretty significant blow, career-wise, for me. I could do it, I guess - and I would have to do it if we ever did end up crossing an unequivocal line, which is a huge motivation for me not to do so - but I would like to avoid it if at all possible. Maybe we could agree not to see each other in person? And talk only to exchange writing? Or is that too much of a hedge?
2. The slow fade
God, I am so tempted to do this. Writing back to only half his texts, instead of all of them; mentioning R more; drawing a bright line for myself with the flirtation, refusing to pick up on any more hints. Going to the event (and maybe bringing R) but avoiding meeting him one-on-one. Making sure we're never drunk together. Bullying myself into holding the line by imagining all the horrible consequences if something did happen. The appeal for me is that I wouldn't have to lose out on any of the friends, or the writing group, or the events and that maybe someday in the future we could be friends again. The downside is, what if I'm fooling myself about my inability to hold the line? If I don't have the willpower, this will only make everything worse. I feel like I'm anticipating a lot of AskMe answers shouting DON'T DO THIS, which is maybe what I need. What if I told R? Would that help? Again, I'm not sure how to phrase that conversation (and we don't usually tell each other about our crushes, even though we've both had them in the past) but I'd do it if everyone thinks it's a good idea.
3. Some other alternative...
Call E on the phone? Postpone doing anything until we meet in person, when a lack of physical attraction might solve this whole problem for me? Wait and just have that conversation I initially planned out? Email him but suggest we stay in touch as long as we both agree not to cross the line again?
Writing this out has made it clear that I'm pretty confused about how much of this is my problem (I have an inappropriate crush on a friend) vs. his problem (I'm afraid my friend is in love with me). The truth is that I feel like I can handle my feelings; his are the ones that really freak me out. But maybe this is the bullshit at the heart of the issue. If so, how do I sort through it? Do I treat this as entirely my problem, ("I have a crush on you, and so I need to stop talking to you?") and do my best to ignore the fact that he may also have much more intense feelings for me? I feel bad for him, and for his girlfriend, and for R, and I feel like I've done a lot of stupid, selfish things to get us into this position, and I really, really want to get us out.
Thanks for all your help (and sorry for the length.)