I think I'm too close to my friend. How do I back off without creating a bunch of dramaz?
July 14, 2012 7:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I handle an opposite-sex friendship that feels like it is shading into an emotional affair? No contact? Clear communication about boundaries? Something else?

I'm a married woman with a good, solid marriage. Several months ago, I met and made friends with a married man through a graduate program I'm in. We have a lot of interests in common, similar sense of humor - basically we just get along really well. I only see him a couple of times a year, but we're in pretty close contact through gtalk and email (most days of the week). I think there's mutual physical attraction, but it has been completely unspoken. Lately the friendship has ramped up in emotional intimacy (talking about hopes, fears, core beliefs, personal challenges, etc.). It is validating to be able to share with someone and get support and thoughtful responses.

The problem is that I have a crush/limerence feelings about this person. FWIW, I tend to get crushes on a fairly regular basis, and I just ride them out and keep them to myself. Typically the object of the crush does something annoying or I get to know them better and realize they are just a person and it dissolves. But this crush coupled with the increased emotional intimacy is starting to feel like a real problem. I have gotten no sense from him that he feels the way things are unfolding could be a problem. The friend seems to be in a happy and satisfying marriage (has never complained about the wife, says nice things about her and their relationship), and has never said or done anything that indicates romantic or sexual interest in me.

My husband has been uncomfortable with this friendship from early on. He feels that the friend pays too much attention to me on social media and is in too much contact with me. The friend is highly active on facebook, but does seem to single me out for interaction. My husband's take is that it is a generally acknowledged "man rule" that you don't pursue a close friendship with a married woman. You can interact with her in the context of your connection (work, school, club, etc.) or as a pair of couples, but that pursing a one-on-one friendship outside of that is suspect.

I have talked with my husband about this a little bit, but have not been completely candid about how I am feeling or what is going on. I don't have many friends, and I am somewhat lonely and longing for more friends in my life. I think this is contributing to my feelings for this one friend. My husband is supportive of me doing things that will widen my social circle (I'm thinking meetup groups or clubs focused on my interests).

In the past week, my friend volunteered to join me in an activity we have in common. I feel like it is a continuing escalation of this friendship that I am not sure is such a good idea anyway.

So I do feel like the friendship needs to be dialed back a bit, but I'm not sure what the right way to do this is. Just cutting off contact feels sort of harsh and melodramatic. If he had ever expressed romantic or sexual interested in me, I think that would be clearly appropriate, but that's not the case here. Because we're in this graduate program together, I'll see him several more times in course of the next year. I don't want to do anything that creates lots of drama or obvious tension between us.

I sometimes have trouble setting good boundaries for myself, but I need to do that here in a mature and sensible way. I'd like to talk to him and say that I think our relationship may be getting too intimate in a way that is not good for our marriages and therefore I'm going to take some steps back. Is that crazy? Is there another way to approach this that I'm just not seeing?

Throwaway email: justfriendsormore@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know. It seems like having a state-of-the-friendship talk where you confess your emotional attachment and attraction seems . . . dangerous. It seems like you could be setting yourself up for a lot of drama, and I really doubt that saying your "relationship may be getting too intimate in a way that is not good for our marriages" is going to actually have the impact of dialing the emotions or the sexual attraction down.

I think the smart thing to do would just be to get really, really busy. Scale back the frequency of response online, concentrate on building other friendships (the meet-up idea is a good one) and working on your relationship with your husband. You don't need to cut him out of your life completely, but you need to focus on expanding your social network and support system.

FWIW, I don't agree with the letter of what your husband is saying, but I think he's right in spirit that this friendship is inappropriate. I could easily see it heading into the territory of adultery and, if you don't want that to happen, you need to work on reducing your reliance on this guy for emotional support.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:35 AM on July 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

I mean, this depends on your knowledge of yourself and your marriage, but I'd probably try to convert this to something more healthy and platonic. If he's such a good guy, he and your husbnd would probably get along - and his wife is probably great. Invite your husband along to the shared activity, and then propose a double date! Maybe you can make them into real friends of both you and your husband.

If that sounds...dangerous, you are right: pull back. But you don't have to tell him about it. Just stop emailing so much, and stop gchatting. Control yourself. When you feel the urge to tell him something (something cute and funny, or something intimate and serious)...tell your husband instead.
posted by amaire at 7:36 AM on July 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

On preview, "dangerous" is clearly the gut response for more than one of us.
posted by amaire at 7:37 AM on July 14, 2012

It is validating to be able to share with someone and get support and thoughtful responses.

Is this not a part of your relationship with your husband? If not then address that, but if so then nourish that.

My husband has been uncomfortable with this friendship from early on. He feels that the friend pays too much attention to me on social media and is in too much contact with me.

He is right. Even if the friend is not doing anything "wrong," your husband knows you and the friend is paying too much attention to you for your husband's comfort. Do you respect that? I mean, if you can't set boundaries for yourself, try looking at it as setting boundaries on behalf of your husband and your marriage.

I don't have many friends, and I am somewhat lonely and longing for more friends in my life.

Find more activities to get involved in without the friend and start doing them and meeting people and connecting with people through them. Decline friend's invitations by saying "sorry I'm doing X with other friends, maybe husband and I can get together with you and wife another time though!"

Because we're in this graduate program together, I'll see him several more times in course of the next year.

Other people are in the graduate program as well. Start talking to him in terms of the group as a whole, and outside of the graduate program talk to him in terms of him and his wife and you and your husband. Don't be on facebook as much, and be invisible when you're checking it. Just don't be available, it happens all the time with people's lives. No drama necessary.

Throwaway email: justfriendsormore@gmail.com

Why is that even in your head?
posted by headnsouth at 7:53 AM on July 14, 2012 [18 favorites]

I'd like to talk to him and say that I think our relationship may be getting too intimate in a way that is not good for our marriages and therefore I'm going to take some steps back.

No, this a reason for you or him to talk about the relationship, which doesn't sound like a good idea.

Just get busy and stop don't go anywhere along with him. Bring your husband or a friend or several friends or suggest he bring his wife. By clear about that like so:
"The Impressionist exhibit on Saturday? Sure, we'd love to, (husband's name) and I have have been talking about that art period for the past few days, sounds good to see some examples up close. Bring your wife, we'll double date, maybe lunch at (restaurant name) afterwards?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:04 AM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm a married woman who has lots of very close friends who are men. My partner has never made an issue of this and has never really said he's uncomfortable with this, but I also spend a lot of time making sure that these friendships don't infringe on my relationship with my partner.

So the question is what do you really want? I think headnsouth makes a really good point about this. I also think the rest of the advice above is good. It sounds like the friendship is getting a little too intense and you both could use some cooling off, but having it be explicit seems like it would just make the problem worse. So do a slow fade. Get busy.

You say part of the problem is that you don't have many friends? If you're trying to get friends to meet up with regularly, do that and stop spinning your wheels with this guy. That can help you pull back from social media stuff, too. I also had this problem sort of for a while - I was in grad school and got sucked into basically only socializing online. It was easy to do but now it's hard for me to get back out into the world. I lost meatspace social skills.

I'm not sure about going on the double-date with your friend and his wife. Would your husband be OK with it? Would it be awkward?
posted by kendrak at 8:07 AM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you need to step back. How long have you been with your husband? Are you ready to throw all that time, energy and love away? I mean, really think about it. Confessing your attraction to your buddy either to him or your husband may put into place a chain of events that has consequences you may not like. Nobody is obligated to trust and forgive you.

1. Invite your husband along to some of these shared activities. Have a BBQ for your grad student buddies and invite all the spouses/families. Quit hoarding your intimate time with your friend and bring it out into the light of day.

2. Decide that this guy is just your friend. Quit fantasizing. You're a grown-up, you know how to do this.

3. Next time he invites you to something, reflexively say, "Oh, I can't that night -- date night with my husband!" Then go make a date night with your husband.

I get the sense that maybe your home life feels a little stale. Totally understandable -- you are in a long term relationship and by necessity are throwing yourself into school which has it's own schedule and social groups. But, I also get the sense that you're not ready to throw your husband to the curb over this guy. So, don't. Real friends make allowances for significant others. Turn this guy into a real friend and do that.

Do not discuss your relationship with your husband with your friend. And do not discuss his relationship with his wife. You're a grownup who can steer a conversation delicately, right? I believe you can.

Not long ago, I went to grad school and it's a totally different social scene and pretty heady after you've been away from school for awhile. But friends you make there can be friends for life -- treasure that! And, just really look at your future and picture your husband in it -- unless there's something here you're not sharing, I think you see a future with your husband. Don't throw it away for a crush happening in the rarefied air of University.
posted by amanda at 8:08 AM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Please don't have a big conversation with this guy. That conversation could elicit out a response from him that pulls you further into this drama. You two could end up in an affair or convinced that you are in love but are tragically not able to be together. Either would be horrible. Or maybe he doesn't feel the way that you do and then it is just horribly uncomfortable. One important boundary for you to set for yourself is not to have intimate conversations with this man.

I suggest that you start treating this guy more like a friendly colleague. Don't respond to as many messages, keep conversations less personal and more focused on your graduate program, and move towards hanging out with him in group situations with other graduate students. If he asks you what is going on, just tell him you've been busy with school, your new clubs and activities (keep it vague so he can't try to joing them), etc. Meanwhile, focus on your relationship with your husband and finding other, less dangerous friends.
posted by Area Man at 8:11 AM on July 14, 2012

I don't much care about "man rules," because that tends to involve concepts entirely too much like property rights, and I don't inherently think close friendships that married people have with other people the same gender as their spouses are automatically suspect. (I always wonder whether this would mean that in a same-sex relationship, you would only be allowed opposite-sex close friends. I mean, if we're assuming that being of the right gender to desire sex with each other means you can't just be friends.)

I do, however, think three things are important.

1. Your husband is focusing on the FRIEND paying too much attention to YOU. If you are responding, then your husband needs to realize that his beef is with the amount of attention YOU are paying to the FRIEND. I realize this is scarier than just announcing that some dude you don't know is violating the Bro Code, but this is his real issue.

2. You are not being honest with your husband, by your own admission. This, this, THIS, this is the difference between Okay and Not Okay. If you are concealing anything about the relationship from your spouse, including how close it is and how you feel about it, then the relationship is intruding on your marriage, BOOM DIGGETY THAT IS THE END.

3. You have romantic feelings toward the friend that are intrusive. I think it's very common, as you say, to go through crushy periods with all sorts of people, and for that to pass, even within friendships. But as long as the crush persists and the emotional closeness exists ... well, you know how they talk about a "fire triangle," where in order to start, a fire requires oxygen, fuel, and heat? You now have emotional closeness and romantic interest on your side, and if you were to add romantic interest on his side, you have a big old Recipe For An Affair. You have two sides of the Affair Triangle already; you bring it up, and you risk the third. (This doesn't mean an affair is inevitable, but it means DANGER DANGER.)

Pull back. Do not have a summit meeting about it. If he asks why you're pulling back, you can say, "I'm awfully busy; I feel like I haven't been spending as much time with my husband as I probably should be." Which is probably true. Don't cut him off 100 percent, because that's going to motivate him to pursue you and it's also kind of a rotten thing to do to a friend who also hasn't done anything wrong. Just pull back. E-mail now and then but no IM, things like that.

You're not doing anything wrong. You probably are getting things from this friendship that you don't get from your marriage, and that, in and of itself, is not wrong. No person can be all things to you; you will probably always have friends and family you turn to for things you don't get from your husband.

But do not pursue deep emotional closeness with someone you have romantic feelings for and expect it not to be problematic in your marriage.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 8:15 AM on July 14, 2012 [29 favorites]

I'd like to talk to him and say that I think our relationship may be getting too intimate in a way that is not good for our marriages

As others have said, do not do this. There is nothing to be gained by making your feelings a point of focus.

Get off of gchat and facebook for a week or so to give yourself some perspective. Don't romanticize your feelings -- make a point of telling yourself that they are inappropriate and unwanted. Resolve to back off from this guy for a while, and then find something else to think about.
posted by daisystomper at 8:16 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, just suddenly being too busy to talk is the way to go. Be invisible on gchat for a while. The core principle to apply here is that you should act in a way that protects your relationship with your husband, not in a way that protects the feelings of your friend. When these things don't come into conflict you can feel free to do both and everybody wins. But when they do you can't worry about what's fair to this third party. Your marriage should come first.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:30 AM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are you sure you're not just excited about making a new, close friend? Maybe that's the "limerence" feeling? I feel that way when I am starting to make any new friend. Maybe you have a crush on him also, but you are being very honest with yourself and as your experience has shown, your crush phase will likely dissipate. Keep your head together and continue to be honest with yourself. Don't deny yourself a valuable friendship based on some idea that it is somehow cheating to make a friend who you also think is handsome.
posted by Katine at 8:31 AM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Emotional affair", how undefinable, and how difficult to falsify.

Here's this: you're tempted, and your husband smells a rat.

Set your IMs to Busy more often, gradually respond less, if you want to socialise do it in couples though I don't recommend socialising at all.
posted by tel3path at 8:32 AM on July 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I guess my concern in all of this is that your husband is not in the loop. I get crushes all.the.time. and I almost always discuss them with my husband. He gets them, too, albeit less frequently than I seem to, and he talks about it with me. If it matters, we are monogamous. I'm not sure how other marriages handle this sort of thing, but confessing attraction to another person doesn't seem like a huge deal to me- I mean, we are married, not dead.

In my experience, the middle school sort of intensity that makes a crush a crush is diminished by just talking about it, out loud, and not cloaking it in secrecy.

If it were me, I wouldn't have the Big Conversation with your friend, I'd have it with your husband. And if you think your husband would have a big freak out over you discussing your thoughts and feelings with him... perhaps your marriage isn't as good and solid as you think it is? If you really can't discuss it with your husband, to me, that's a bad sign, and while I still wouldn't have the Big Conversation with your friend, I might consider seeing a therapist -even just a few times- to try to sort things out.
posted by Athene at 8:34 AM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I call this sort of constant connecting emotional infidelity, which many folks justifhy so long as there is as yet no sexual infidelity involved.
posted by Postroad at 8:41 AM on July 14, 2012

I agree that sharing your feelings with himis counterproductive, especially since you're not sure you can trust yourself. In fact, underneath that gesture you'd probably be unconsciously fishing for a response from him about his feelings, groping for validation of your own.

That's not what you want.

If you have to say anything, you can say that the intensity and visibility of his friendly pursuit is eliciting comment from other people and might make trouble in your marriage if he doesn't tone it down a bit.

I don't necessarily agree with the "man rule" thing, but it's naive of this fellow to pursue you this way, even as a friend, and not think of how it might look to others.
posted by hermitosis at 8:55 AM on July 14, 2012

So the Big Conversation about how "We mustn't see so much of each other, it's not fair to our spouses" is actually more likely to be part of the having-an-affair process than the not-having-an-affair process.

The most reliable not-having-an-affair process involves cordial disengagement.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:00 AM on July 14, 2012 [20 favorites]

Also, though I think your husband is full of shit about "man rules" I do think it works best in most situations for inter-couple friendships to happen in the context of the two couples socializing. My friend C. and I like to go to movies where things blow up, which his wife and my husband both hate, and sometimes we do that together, but more often my husband and I get together with him and his wife.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:03 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Start talking up the husband a lot. Its a subtle reminder that need not be pressed too far.

If the husband does complain again, empathize and say--I understand and I've actually been cutting down the interactions.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:18 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, ask husband to join mutual interest club.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:18 AM on July 14, 2012

My husband has been uncomfortable with this friendship from early on. He feels that the friend pays too much attention to me on social media and is in too much contact with me. The friend is highly active on facebook, but does seem to single me out for interaction. My husband's take is that it is a generally acknowledged "man rule" that you don't pursue a close friendship with a married woman. You can interact with her in the context of your connection (work, school, club, etc.) or as a pair of couples, but that pursing a one-on-one friendship outside of that is suspect.

Yikes... If you value your marriage at all, please cut it off immediately. No slow fade, no candid chat with the friend about your feelings. I'm talking cold turkey style. As in Yesterday.
posted by Kevtaro at 9:41 AM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Why not introduce your husband? If the two guys get along and it develops into a "two couples hanging out" situation, you send a message to your crush-friend that you are interested in keeping the friendship with him as just that (in case he has considered "more"). It also helps to make your husband see why this friendship is important to you and the situation feels less like a borderline-affair because the one on one aspect is gone. If it feels less like an affair, it gets easier for you to view it as "not-an-affair".
posted by MinusCelsius at 9:42 AM on July 14, 2012

Dial back, and don't talk to him about your 'special feelings.' That just provokes more drama by bringing in all that regret and whatif and lovely sense of virtue vs forbidden fruit. It's just part of the emotional affair game people play prior to the physical affair. You need to quit hanging out with him, even with your spouses around, until the limerence subsides and you can see straight. You're on a bad track here. Please find a friend elsewhere.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:55 AM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is something called "work marriage" where you find a pseudo-spouse at your place of employment. They basically act as your partner while at work. They listen, sympathesize, strategize, run interference and otherwise help as needed. It is perfectly normal.

Maybe he is your graduate school husband?
posted by 99percentfake at 10:11 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would probably just tell him that I am feeling disconnected from my family, and I need to focus on them for a while. When you do see him, invite the husband. If he happens to run into you at a social event, explain that the husband couldn't make it. But, I'm a big big liar.
posted by starbaby at 11:14 AM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't tell him that the friendship is becoming a source of gossip and making your husband suspicious and you're shutting it down in order to avoid that. That puts the blame on him as if he's doing something wrong by being friends with you. As far as you know, you are the one who has a problem here and it's unfairly hurtful to make him out to be the cause of it when you can't know for sure that he has any idea of any of this.

I like the excuse that you're feeling disconnected from your family and want to spend more time with them. That says the same thing, but takes ownership of the problem onto yourself.
posted by tel3path at 12:31 PM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

- I would mention that social media is taking up too much of my time and "I'm going on vacation from the computer/Facebook/gchat," or whatever.

- Then I would back the hell away from the Internet, and spend time reconnecting with myself, AND with my husband.

- "Oops! Can't do X activity next week as planned - something came up. Maybe another time!" Of course, some other time never materializes.

- This guy sounds like he's playing irresponsibly with your marriage and his own. Stop viewing him as attractive!!! That behavior is not not not attractive. It is sneaky, and maybe a little creepy.

- Never again allow any friend more intimacy with you than you actively share with your spouse.

That is all. Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 3:51 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just want to nth anyone who said worrying about this guy's feelings or what he rthinks is not your job, not as important as your marriage.

Nthing anyone who pointed out that trying to get the spouses into the friendship mix is too much much forced effort/weird. Plus, your husband isn't EVER going to warm up to this guy because his suspicions about him are correct. Your husband can't "unknow" what his gut has been telling him.

Nthing that having "that talk" will lead to towards an affair, not away from it. Don't have "that talk."
posted by jbenben at 3:59 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a friend like this back in grad school. Tomorrow he and his gf are coming to town, and staying with me and my husband for two days. So excited!!

In my case, I totally had a crush on him, and ended up telling him so. I was also honest with my guy the entire time, so I know my honey had my back! Likewise I had his back... so while I told my friend I was attracted to him, I absolutely did not pursue anything further. I made the decision to put my marriage first. Additionally, I must respect my friend's gf - he loves her and that's great, so I'm not about to go mess with that! We did end up getting a sort of "cooling off" period (a school vacation), but ultimately our friendship stayed the same.

Things that helped me
* A great husband, and staying honest with him through it all
* A great friend, and a friendship where we want to see each other happy ;)
* Having other good friends in school
* Grad school keeping me busy busy busy with work
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 4:27 PM on July 14, 2012

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