How do I keep a friendship meaningful when it clearly requires me to distance myself emotionally?
April 12, 2012 4:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm seriously stuck about my feelings for my best friend. How do I distance myself emotionally when the feelings of attachment are so intense that I can no longer concentrate enough on myself?

First some details: I'm a guy and so is my best friend and I know he's straight. We are both grad students at a university and know each other through a former classmate of mine whom we both share as a friend.

My feelings for him are quite intense. Though we share friends that are part of a group that has recently become increasingly closely, with me being a foreigner he especially has tried hard to include me in social activities I wouldn't have otherwise felt comfortable to attend were it not for him. In fact, I feel a sense of ease whenever he's in the same room that I don't feel with other people. Our shared daily lunch routine are often the highlight of my day at a university setting for which I don't feel completely at home with.

This past year has been particularly hard for me to concentrate on my thesis. I think my obsessive behavior in thinking about him prevents me from functioning normally (i.e. constant thoughts of his whereabouts, sometimes feeling melancholic when he's away for a week or more, etc). On top of that he's had a half year of ups and downs that I've been privy to because he trusts me enough to share.

Recently I was invited by him to visit his family home for the holidays which before going I felt a bit ambivalent about because I already wanted to start distancing myself a bit emotionally. But, I ended up accepting his invite, and a series of events has made my task of distancing myself more complicated:

-I grew more emotionally attached to him after learning more about him through his other family members to whom I got along with so easily and felt at home with. He told me how much of an impression I made on them.

-But of greater impact was that his girlfriend broke up with him when I was visiting him and his family and I was his only friend there for him during the last days and the moment in which their long (5 years+) relationship unravelled. The situation is still a gaping wound for him because there is no real closure for him yet. I feel even more obligated to be there if he needs me in these tough times ahead.

That is the role I need to play as a dutiful friend, to be around if he needs company and support. But my question is, what if those feelings on my part have certainly advanced beyond the point of friend and I feel the need to distance myself because they are of a limerant nature (but how in light of current events)? (when) Do I talk to him? He doesn't know that I harbor these feelings, but I do believe he knows I care deeply about him and sometimes stumble or bend over backwards to hide this fact somehow.

I'm not thinking straight and have been losing a lot of sleep over this and would appreciate any detailed ways of help. Telling my friend in his current predicament seems of particular bad timing and selfish. I don't know anyone else I could talk to in person about my current predicament. Thank you for reading.

A previous thread I found relevant and gave me the idea of putting some time and distance between us:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever I have obsessive thoughts about something or someone, I find it helps to look to the root cause. What is it about this person or situation that is holding my attention? Is there something that I am trying to learn from this? What need is this filling?

If I were to guess at what is going on with you, I would say that you are homesick for family and this man is your replacement family for now. There is nothing wrong with that. Perhaps, if you were able to come to terms with your reasons for thinking about him so much, you wouldn't have to think about him so much.
posted by myselfasme at 5:10 AM on April 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Separating yourself from your friend right now, in the midst of his break-up, is a bit brutal. I don't see what your option is though. For you to get over him you MUST GET DISTANCE. Your last question about him was from 2009 for God's sake. It is three years later and you're still hung up on him. You are doing yourself such a massive disservice, burning YEARS on a person who will never love you back the way you want. He is straight, and you aren't going to be able change that by being awesome or by wishing really really hard. By investing SO MUCH time and emotion in an unavailable person you are essentially wasting years of your life where you could be with someone who loves you back.

As myselfasme suggested, you would be well served working on figuring out why you have attached to someone who is never going to reciprocate. I'm guessing it is because he is "safe". Because he won't ever be able to love you back romantically he can't ever really hurt you by rejecting you, and it keeps you from actually dating and risking rejection. Maybe I'm off base, I don't know. Just a guess. Talking to a councellor/therapist may help you get clarity on this.

There are always going to be reasons why you can't right. "He needs me" may be true, but I doubt it. I'm sure he has other friends and family that can give him support. Convincing yourself that you are his one and only support right now is also a classic excuse/rationalization.

You need to be tougher on yourself to be kinder to yourself, if you know what I mean. You need to make the painful choice to take some HUGE steps away from this guy and give yourself a LOT of physical and emotional space. It'll be hard. You're basically addicted to this guy, so it is going to be legitimately hard for you quit him cold turkey. But if you are ever going to move your life forward, you need to do it. You have already burned over three years on a person who will has not and will not have romantic feelings for you. Isn't that enough? Isn't it time to give yourself a chance to be loved back? Isn't it time to allow someone to feel what you feel for him about YOU?

Everyone deserves reciprocal love, but as long as you keep obsessing over this guy you are not going to find it for yourself.
posted by gwenlister at 6:03 AM on April 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh wait, that wasn't YOUR earlier post. My bad. So it hasn't been three years. I apologize.

Regardless, it has been a year, which I still feel is too long to spend pinning for someone who will never reciprocate.
posted by gwenlister at 6:05 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

myselfasme has the same answer that popped into my head immediately. I also think it would be helpful for you to broaden your social circle, find some other situations where you feel comfortable. Yes, that is very hard and I'm not suggesting go find a new best friend but I think that the broader your circle of friends and activities the better it will be for you.

I think it's very possible to keep a meaningful friendship with him, but I think that to do so you will need to add some more things to your life to take your focus off of him. And I would refocus on that thesis - the more time you spend on this and the more you worry about it, the less you spend on the thesis. Is that telling you anything?
posted by mrs. taters at 6:12 AM on April 12, 2012

I think not just distance, but trying to find other people to date would help in this situation. Go out, meet new people, go to online dating sites, whatever works best, you need to find a way to divert some of your energy and interest away from your friend.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:21 AM on April 12, 2012

Usually we obsess when there is something we are trying to avoid thinking about. Figure out what that might be. I'd look at school first from experience.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:53 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went through the same thing in grad school with a woman. I was only avoiding dealing with the thesis. Take a marker and put a small red dot each morning on your wrist. When you think about him look at your wrist and use that as a cue to ask yourself about your feelings regarding your thesis. This is fundamentally about you avoiding thoughts about your thesis.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:57 AM on April 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

From the OP:
"thanks for the responses thus far, I find them helpful; I have been diverting thoughts and energy away from academic life because I sometimes find the task insurmountable---so this is a spot on observation.

I find it difficult to expand to other fronts socially because it's so comfortable hanging out with the circle of friends I already have...but that might be wherein the problem lies. I can no longer incorporate others into my interactions because I've placed way too many emotional eggs into one friend, and the surrounding basket.

Finally, if possible, I'd like some suggestions about distancing in my particular situation: "cold turkey" seems mutually brutal in the short run especially after recent events, but perhaps it's for the better. Do I just disappear off the grid without explanation; stop returning calls and texts? It's not a huge town, or the university--i've randomly bumped into him from time to time. For instance, there's a group gathering we've been looking fwd to for at least a month coming up tomorrow that I've already agreed to beforehand---so is there no better time than now to begin fading? This really sucks, but I sincerely appreciate the input thus far."
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:39 AM on April 12, 2012

feelings of attachment are so intense that I can no longer concentrate enough on myself?

This past year has been particularly hard for me to concentrate on my thesis.

I think this is the root of it. You know you have serious adult work to do on your personal life and your professional life, and you are loathe to do it. As genuine as your feelings may be, are you sure this is not all part of some epic distraction you're perpetuating? What are you avoiding? Why are you so afraid of taking yourself and your needs and your future seriously?
posted by hermitosis at 8:16 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Usually, obsessive thoughts about ______ have little to do with _______ and a lot to do with something else that you are trying not to think about. It's basically a transfer or projection of some emotion from one thing to another. No matter what you do to fix the situation with your friend (by all means, sounds toxic, go fix), the real source of the anxiety/emotion/etc will still be there unless you address it.

I can no longer incorporate others into my interactions because I've placed way too many emotional eggs into one friend, and the surrounding basket.

Try. These aren't the only 'emotional eggs' you've got, there is no set amount that can run out.

This may be way off, but make sure you're getting enough magnesium. Lack of magnesium can cause cyclical thinking like that. 12 mins in a hot bathtub with 2-3 cups of epson salt before bed.
posted by Neekee at 8:25 AM on April 12, 2012

dude, don't cut your friend off cold turkey with no explanation. that IS brutal. if you don't want to come clean about your feelings, i understand. but maybe tell the guy you're dealing with some stuff and need some time to yourself?
posted by chyeahokay at 8:39 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

This sock puppet is responding to this because I was in a similar situation before and I see commonalities between your question and where I was at that time.

I know many people are assuming that this is displacement from your worries about school onto now, but I'm going to throw out another possibility: Perhaps it gives you intimacy and the things that you seek from a relationship, but this is safe. You fill up your world with this person and therefore, there is no need to seek out a relationship with an SO.This may not apply to you, OP, but it was the trap that I fell into.

... I'd like some suggestions about distancing in my particular situation: "cold turkey" seems mutually brutal in the short run especially after recent events, but perhaps it's for the better. Do I just disappear off the grid without explanation; stop returning calls and texts?

Because I've been in the same place as you, I'm answering from that perspective as to what worked for me.

First, you don't have to completely cut the other person off (and I needed to read 10000 related ask me questions to realize this....). There can be an intermediate thing (Lunch once a week? The group social activities?). Just dial it back - way back.

Also, what has worked for me is to then spend time expanding my social group. Do you have any hobbies? Anything that you want to learn? Okay then, sign up for a few weekly activities that do hobby X (meetup is easy if you live in the US). Anyway, find a group free of university students and start to either enjoy the activity/meet new people/whatever. If you live in a large enough city, there may be gay cycling clubs, gay book clubs, or something that matches whatever hobby it is that you have with lots of available, single men.

If people ask where you are/why you don't spend as much time with them, well, you want to do hobby X, or open and say that you are looking to meet men to date.

At least for me, I had to fill up the time meeting other people because...the other person offers an intimacy that can take up my whole world. So you do new things/meet new people/fill it up with other stuff.

I also have a different view now that I'm past the similar situation that I was in. In an odd way, it was a gift. You know that you are alive and you feel those emotions. You also know that you can care for someone- now you just need to find someone who can reciprocate those feelings.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 9:03 AM on April 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think you need to make yourself artifically busy for a month. Tell him that you've set some pretty hardcore academic goals for the next month or so and that you'll be incommunicado. Use this time to do a bunch of productive stuff: set reachable and un-scary milestones that will move you towards productive work; go to applicable guest lectures; start a discussion group on your research interest; etc.

One of my dear friends has a sage saying: nothing helps you get over the last like the next. DATE. Meet up for coffee, be upfront that you're on the rebound (because emotionally, you are), and just try to enjoy meeting new people. You might not meet a Mr. Right, but it will be a distraction that helps remind you to consider other guys.

Finally, try ye olde rubber band around the wrist and snap it each time you think of your friend. Don't castigate yourself, just redirect your thoughts to the task at hand. It *will* get easier, but it will be hard and will take a while.
posted by smirkette at 9:05 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do I just disappear off the grid without explanation; stop returning calls and texts?

No, that would be rude. Distancing yourself from him doesn't have to be done in a rude, hurtful way. I think chyeahokay is on the right track. Just explain to him that he is going to be seeing a lot less of you for the next while, that you're going to basically go radio silent, and that you have some things in your life that you really need to deal with and to deal with them you need time alone. If he's the close friend you feel him to be then he'll likely ask whats wrong and/or ask if you need someone to talk to (ie. him). Just say that the things going on are very personal and you aren't ready to talk about them (he doesn't need to know you may never tell him).

You DO have the option of telling him about your feelings, but that isn't a must-do if you don't want to. However, telling him could be beneficial to you in a couple of ways:
1. you no longer have those constant feelings of "Oh, why can't he see how I love him so!", which are terribly frustrating. (I've been there, I know.)
2. you no longer have the Big Secret of your sexuality/feelings for him, which can help pull the stopper on the fantasty and extra excitment that comes from it being secret.
3. he'll know the truth.
4. he'd probably be more understanding of your need for time alone and would probably respect that request more fully.
posted by gwenlister at 9:09 AM on April 12, 2012

Tricks that I've used to expand out of a constrictive passion:
- Every time when you catch yourself fantasizing about him or a future with him or a date with him, think about a celebrity crush instead
- When you feel like you want to call him or talk to him or have something to share with him, think of someone else you could call or talk with and then call that OTHER person and build that relationship with them.
- Sign up for online dating and require yourself to meet at least one person per week.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:43 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

For the record, if you want to be a little honest AND back off a bit, I would tell him about your feelings. I would write him something like this:

"I cherish our friendship, but there are few men in my life I've ever grown this close to, and as a consequence I've developed some feelings for you that I'm sure you're unable to reciprocate. I think I'd better take a little time to focus on my thesis and build up some of my other relationships so that I don't wind up putting any sort of strain on our bond. Even if I'm not as available for a while as I typically have been, I promise I'm still here for you no matter what. We can talk about this sometime later on if you like, but it's really mainly up to me to make some important changes in my life -- our friendship will be better off in the long run."

And really, just leave it at that. No over-explaining, no petty silences, just state your intent and then follow through. Perfectly respectable, and as graceful as possible.
posted by hermitosis at 11:04 AM on April 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

There are a whole lot of attractive people in the world, yeah? While I'm sure this fellow is good-looking, I assume he's not, say, eight times more good-looking than the second-hottest person you've ever seen, right? Therefore, is is extremely likely that you will be attracted to someone equally or more attractive who is actually available. So, this particular guy is sexually unavailable but platonically available. There is a great term for someone who we like a whole lot but do not plan to have sex with-- a good friend! I guess what I'm saying is, if you disentangle your sexual attraction from your platonic attraction, you might be able to realize that he can fulfill some of the things you yearn for, just not as a sexual/romantic partner.

YMMV; personally, I feel that good romantic partnership is simply a sum of friendship (aka "love" in its advanced stage) + sex. I don't think that having an incredible friendship has to be that different from having a non-monogamous partner who you don't have sex with.
posted by threeants at 4:14 PM on April 12, 2012

So despite that it is about people who are or have been in mutual romantic relationships, and despite that it presumes that those romantic relationships are between people of opposite genders, I still think Howard Halpern's How To Break Your Addiction to a Person would be a useful read for you.

Unrequited love is a waste of time and love. You deserve better. You deserve to love someone who will love you back. Start dating men who are interested in loving and having sex with men. Maybe eventually you and this guy can have a friendship, but it isn't going to be until your romantic obsession with him has run its course.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:25 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can 'love' him, be emotionally close to him, as long as it doesn't interfere with romantic relationships (either his or yours). Have a realistic outlook, but don't strangle your emotions more than you have to.

1. Break down the obsession and figure out a way to make peace with your attraction to him. What characteristics does he have that you want for yourself? How can you build them in yourself? Know what you like about him and find ways to get those things from other sources.

2. Tell him a bit about the attachment. "I've become irrationally devoted to you. I'm taking steps to deal with it. I hope neither of those things will upset our friendship. ." I've had to have this conversation. It's good to have a full measure of resignation, a full acknowledgement of reality, before you go into it. Give him information, not power.

3. Find small, difficult, enjoyable things to do instead of thinking about him. Feeling obsessive? Learn three words of Spanish. Or do one small task for your thesis that will take a short bit of concentration. Having good answers for #1 will help you go willingly into this "replacement therapy", so you know, on a deep level, why you're doing it.

4. Relax. :) Live your life, don't beat yourself up for being attracted to him, or make things harder on yourself when you need a friend.
posted by itesser at 1:38 PM on April 13, 2012

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