Another ambiguous friendship problem, involving 2 shy snowflakes
July 15, 2012 5:30 AM   Subscribe

Two shy snowflakes romance question. Need ideas for pushing the boundaries of our ambiguous friendship.

I have a close opposite-sex friendship which might have romantic overtones but am not sure how to proceed. We're both shy and quirky (in a 'broader autistic phenotype' way). There is a large age gap, with me much older than he is. We are both extremely self conscious and reserved, though not socially isolated nor having particular problems functioning in everyday life.

I am extremely experienced in previous romantic relationships, whereas he doesn't have any experience at all. He is young, in his twenties. I worry that these disparities mean a romantic relationship between us could cause worry and scandal amongst our shared friends, and understandably, his family, with whom I am also close.

Because I am older and more experienced, I feel very constrained to behave towards him in a proper way. I think he also feels extremely constrained. We are a very unlikely couple on the surface of it. If you imagined courtship at Victorian style and pace, only much slower, that would give a good picture of our dynamic. Many of our meetings occur under the benign scrutiny of his family, although we also do things alone.

He lives in another town, but we see each other whenever he visits, and keep in touch in the usual ways during the week. I'm not sure why I think there are romantic overtones, because neither of us would dream of being flirtatious. It's possible he might simply be an attentive friend. It's really nothing more than the feeling I get from our interactions.

Because of our reserved personalities and the large difference in age and experience, I don't think "just kiss him" advice is appropriate here. I'm also reluctant to say anything directly without objective evidence of his romantic interest. I know everyone risks loss of pride and damage to the friendship, but because of the possible scandal that could attend a declaration of my part, I have more to lose, especially the regard and support of our shared friends and family, who are increasingly interwoven.

Does anyone have experience with this kind of dynamic, and suggestions about how to push the boundaries very, very gently to see what happens? I am capable of being direct and forward eventually, but in this case need good evidence to justify the substantial risks.

We are both Christians and abstemious, so using alcohol, beyond a glass or two, isn't an option, and nor is explicitly sexual behaviour or strategies. Our current living arrangements do not provide sufficient privacy to make the couch-and-movie snuggling option likely, and if we did have the privacy, we'd both be too proper to take advantage and meet alone on a couch at night anyway.
posted by JeanDupont to Human Relations (7 answers total)
I am 27 years younger than my SO. He is 4 mos. older than my father, 3 years older than my mother, and 8 years older than my stepfather who is effectively my father. People said we were together for x, y, and z wrong reason. Eventually (8 years in November) they seem to be moving on to something else. Though we did not have shared friends, we live in an extremely conservative religious community, think Mennonites but Jewish. So this preamble gives me some authority to say: leave age-related scandal out of it. Unless you want age-related scandal to stop you from being happy. Do you? OK. Didn't think so.

If it were me, I would write a polite and short letter, more like a note. Let me emphasize short.

Dear X,

Your friendship is very important to me. I want us to continue being friends for many years. With that said, because I have grown very fond of you, I would not say no if you wanted something more than friendship. Consider the idea. If you are not interested "that way," we can forget about this note and never mention it. But if you are interested, or may be, then you know where to find me. But for me the most important thing is to preserve our friendship.

Jean Dupont

If it sounds a little square, well, that may be what's called for in this case. Good luck! A true friendship is very resilient. Don't I know it.

Re: shame, what's the worst-case scenario? He's not a monster. At worst he will discuss it with one mutual friend/relative who will not think less of you and not tell it around. He isn't a monster, his family aren't monsters--this just isn't the kind of letter you scan and publish on a blog.

The longer you make the letter, the harder it will be to say, or project, "oh! it was just an idea," if he's not interested.

Another important angle I've had to consider many times: other people may embarrass you, they may indeed judge you, but in the end, the vast majority just do not care about your private affairs. Gossip is just not that important to most people, however juicy it may be. There are exceptions. But in the main, they don't care as much as one thinks they do.
posted by skbw at 6:05 AM on July 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

P.S.: If your religious community is very conservative indeed, and if you have long-term intentions, you could ask a trusted (male) 3rd party, not family, to put it to him.

Other commenters, don't laugh. That's not middle school: that's conservative religious subcultures.
posted by skbw at 6:09 AM on July 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

You seem like a back-in-the-day type. So do it the back-in-the-day way via a handwritten letter. You can really focus on what you say and get your feelings in this situation exactly right.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:56 AM on July 15, 2012

I like the letter idea, but suggest even taking the snail mail route slow. Send him a letter, see if he writes back and after an exchange or two, be more overt about deepening your friendship.

Also, maybe hand the letter(s) to him in person so you both know he has it, to set a precedent for guaranteed delivery, and it reduces some of the "did it make it" anxiety/uncertainty.

Another idea, find a "just the two of us" project to collaborate on. Maybe it's creative, maybe it's organizing some small event, or something different that relates to mutual interests. Having a shared goal will help you bond and form a new level of partnership.
posted by itesser at 11:19 AM on July 15, 2012

If you imagined courtship at Victorian style and pace, only much slower, that would give a good picture of our dynamic.

I imagine that two possibly-soon-to-be-courting Victorians could have conversations about love and/or marriage in a somewhat abstract fashion, as a way of gauging each others opinions on the matter. You could mention friends of yours who got together, and how happy you are for them because they seem like a good match, and does he agree? Or how you think the ideal partner or relationship involves a, b, and c, and what does he think? I'm not sure if you've already had conversations like this and are looking to move forward from there (if so I like all the answers above) but if you haven't even talked about this stuff yet, it could be a natural and very safe way in.

Oh, and what about recommending to him and then discussing a romantic poem, book, or movie - maybe something that is sort of similar to your situation, even.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:03 PM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are wonderful ideas! We're not part of a very conservative Christian community but just conservatively-behaved by choice and/or nature. I will try some, or, in the medium term, all, of these ideas and remember to post back about it. Of course, since things are moving at such a slow pace, it might take a while. Thank you so much.
posted by JeanDupont at 10:49 PM on July 15, 2012

I keep thinking about this question, JeanDupont, most likely because I have been there many times. Slow is all right if you can protect yourself and not get overly invested meanwhile. But--even though you already know this--if he's in his 20s and normal enough to hold a job, he is almost certainly normal enough to know whether or not he's interested, no matter how little romantic experience he has. Already. While the slow approach is going on. As I am writing this, he could probably just email you a yes-or-no answer. So only go slow, my suggestion is, if you are SURE you can do it without being devastated if the answer, in 8 months' time or more, is no.

I don't say it to be harsh! Only because I've been there. You both are lucky to have each other as a friend.
posted by skbw at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2012

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