How can I not mess this up?
March 3, 2014 5:17 AM   Subscribe

How do you have a platonic relationship with someone who has expressed non-platonic interest in you? Is this possible?

I have a long history of platonic friendships ending up not very platonic at all. My personal life is currently in a shambles due to this very thing (the last time I had feelings for a “platonic” friend I told him in an attempt to “clear the air” and see previous questions as to how that turned out).

Currently at work there is a man who I get on with really well, but there’s never been any hint to me that it was anything other than a connection based on our work and a similar outlook on life. We’ve never really talked about anything personal and have never been alone together. I had emailed him once or twice about a work-related thing but there were no flirty overtones or anything. I like him a lot and look forward to talking to him and was glad we had met, but hadn’t thought of him ”like that”.

Then on Friday we had a work night out and it ended up just the two of us. He knew that I was separated and was asking me about things, and I told him everything (he’s very easy to talk to and also I had had a few drinks) and then I asked him about his own situation. He said ‘never mind, you already have two men in your life, you don’t need another one.” I was a bit shocked, and thought he was maybe joking so I didn’t really respond, and then he said “I think it’s better if we just stay colleagues, but I think we were always going to have this conversation.” I took that to mean he had maybe thought we had both felt something. Then he said some very complimentary things, and said he hoped I’d be happy because [nice things]. I didn’t really know what to say as it genuinely took me by surprise. We continued chatting and then we left separately. I text him the next day just to say I hoped he got home ok, and that I hoped we’d be ok because I wanted to keep him as platonic friend. He replied, “Please don’t worry, I know a thing or two about Plato, and we’ll be fine. Good luck with everything and see you next week.”

Now I’m a bit worried about how to be around him. I know he has been single for a long time and from things he has said in the office I know he isn't a player type, and isn't interested in people very often and I don't want him to feel bad in any way. I’m not sure what it is that I do that this happens but I swear I wasn’t giving out any signals. He’s a nice and very intelligent man and I don’t think he’ll be off with me – I hope – but I’m nervous about seeing him this week (we only work together once a week). Previous to this I had been thinking about asking him for a coffee sometime, but now it feels like I can’t because it would look like I was leading him on. I don’t know whether to never speak of it again, to make a light hearted joke about it, to be more cool with him or what. I’m afraid that he’ll be embarrassed and the balance of power will have shifted or something. I just don’t want any awkwardness and I think he would be a good friend to have as well as a good professional contact (we share an outlook on our work that not everyone in our field does and it’s rare to find it).

So I want to know how best to proceed so I don’t create some other mess. Have you been in the same position and how did you glide past this to remaining friends with no hard feelings? Or is it impossible? And if you were him, if you have been in his position, how would you want me to be from now on? I realise I’m maybe worrying about nothing, but given how much I’ve messed this sort of thing up before I would like some advice because clearly I’m not capable of managing it myself. Thanks.
posted by outoftime to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You were reasonable. He was reasonable. Don't predict his response to you not being available, and don't predict his conclusion that you were leading him. It sounds like he is comfortable going back to a friendship without pursuing a relationship, and since you like him as a friend, treat him as a friend, and move on with your friendship.

You should be proud of yourself for being clear!
posted by miss tea at 5:22 AM on March 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

I don't know if he was heading YOU off at the pass, or what, but the material thing is, you're not interested in having a romantic relationsihp with this guy. So don't.

Stop mind-fucking every little thing in your life. Take it at face value, this guy doesn't want a relationship with you. Full stop.

So perhaps you scale back for a couple of weeks, you don't go to lunch, you don't have drinks after work. Just be too busy.

You'll stop feeling weird around him and he'll let you know if he wants to resume your platonic friendship.

Be clear in your intentions, don't be wishy-washy in your signals. What other people think and feel is not your responsibility. You can only control yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:27 AM on March 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

It's not your job to manage his feelings. It really, really isn't. Carry on exactly as you were before.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:42 AM on March 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

If I were him I'd want you to just drop the subject so I could live it down and we could go back to being friends. Unless he brings it up I think you should just forget about it. No, I wouldn't invite him out to coffee or anywhere else. I think the more you do to try to fix this situation the worse it will get.
posted by sam_harms at 5:51 AM on March 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

You can mess this not up by taking "Please don’t worry, I know a thing or two about Plato, and we’ll be fine. Good luck with everything and see you next week" absolutely at face value, and thanking your lucky stars you have a co-worker who understands how badly pursuing sex with co-workers usually ends up for all concerned.

I’m not sure what it is that I do that this happens but I swear I wasn’t giving out any signals.

Not intentionally, I'm sure. Might want to work on your shields a little.

how did you glide past this to remaining friends with no hard feelings? Or is it impossible?

Perfectly possible. Most of what it takes is just reminding yourself that the best thing to do when people tell you things about themselves is usually: believe them. After all, they have the domain expertise.

How would you want me to be from now on?

Platonic. Clearly in charge of your own life and your own feelings and clearly not trying to manage mine. Because that game has no winners, not two, and is just flat out exhausting besides.

You might be in with a chance for something more, if that's what you want, after one of you moves to another job.
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 AM on March 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Have you been in the same position and how did you glide past this to remaining friends with no hard feelings?

Don't. Go find your friends outside of work. Focus on remaining professional colleagues and cultivate that relationship instead. Only see him in the office. Don't have friendly side chats about your dogs/kids/personal lives. Just stay completely OFF the slippery slope.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:53 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is it not super obvious to everyone else that this guy is trying to play you? He wasn't being the "responsible, mature" one by not getting involved with a coworker... he's being the scheming one by playing hard to get to try to get you interested in him! Here's a guy who you never thought about romantically before, and now he's found a way to worm his way into your head so you're thinking about your relationship with him and his feelings... a lot.

If he really wanted to keep things platonic and professional he never would have "let slip" that he might have feelings.

I personally find this disrespectful and it would turn me off to even maintaining a friendship. It's up to you. But don't let this guy trick you into wasting more mental energy on him.
posted by telegraph at 6:55 AM on March 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

My first thought was that he was playing you, like telegraph said. Going forward I would say polite but not overly friendly hellos, as if he were a co-worker you would never date. Keep it professional. Do this indefinitely, and observe what happens. You will learn a lot about him in this manner. Then, when you change jobs, if you still want to pursue it, then go for it!
posted by icanbreathe at 7:09 AM on March 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

"He said ‘never mind, you already have two men in your life, you don’t need another one.” I was a bit shocked, and thought he was maybe joking so I didn’t really respond, and then he said “I think it’s better if we just stay colleagues, but I think we were always going to have this conversation.”"

Seriously? This is not only presumptuous, but it's rude. Do you want to be friends with someone who tells you how you feel and puts you in an awkward position over it? Keep it professional only from now on I'd advise.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 7:54 AM on March 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Unless I am missing something or you left something out, it's not clear that he has expressed interest in dating you. So, until he brings that up directly, there's nothing to "handle", in my opinion. Life is easier if you don't make things needlessly complicated.
posted by bearette at 8:03 AM on March 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the answers so far. Just wanted to clarify that I don't think he was "heading me off" as I hadn't expressed anything of that nature to him. The only bit I left out was that when I said I asked him about his situation what I actually said was "Are you interested in anyone now?" because he had been telling me about a long-term relationship that had ended a while ago and that he hadn't really had anything serious since. (I didn't think that was leading as I had no thought that he was interested in me at all.) After he said the "we should just stay colleagues" bit I asked "Do you mean you 'like me' like me?" and he said yes. I think I left that out because it's so mortifying - what am I, 12? - but I wanted to make totally sure that I wasn't misinterpreting what he was saying. I was hoping it was clear he was saying he was interested without me having to include it, sorry.
posted by outoftime at 8:19 AM on March 3, 2014

Well, that doesn't change my answer. Admitting he is attracted to you after you asking him is not the same as him expressing interest in dating you. I still think it's not necessary to "do" anything unless this becomes an issue. I just don't see how it is a big problem at this point,an believe me, as a person with a tendency to over-think and imagine, things are a lot simpler sometimes when you take things at face value.
posted by bearette at 8:25 AM on March 3, 2014

I told him everything (he’s very easy to talk to and also I had had a few drinks)

if you were him, if you have been in his position, how would you want me to be from now on?

If I were him, I would want you to respect professional boundaries in the office, and during after-hours gatherings, and not get likkered up and spill overly-personal info to me. Just because I'm a good listener doesn't mean I want to be put in the role of listening to deeply personal info. I would hope that from now on, you would absolutely let it drop, and not feel the need to impose on me by elaborating on your story in the future. I'm your co-worker, not your therapist.
posted by nacho fries at 10:00 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

What do you WANT to do about this? As of right now I'd still consider remaining platonic friends with this guy if that's what you want, but be aware that that's going to depend on how he handles himself moving forward. Personally I would be completely willing to chalk his comments up to a momentary lapse in judgment so long as he moves forward and doesn't mention it again, but he wouldn't get any more free passes to make passive comments reminding you of his interest. I wouldn't invite him out for coffee just now, but otherwise - if you can - I'd at least try letting the incident slide with no further comment. If he can continue to act like a friend and not a person just waiting for you to become interested in him, then great! Work friends are one of the things that make work worthwhile, so if you can both keep it platonic, I don't see why you shouldn't.

If he does let other comments about the two of you "slip," though, you've gotta cut that shit out right away. Here's hoping it doesn't come to that.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:08 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Uh, he rejected you. Not the other way around. He expressed no interest in you; he misunderstood and thought you were flirting with him. Now that you have said you are platonic friends, there should be no problem. Don't change anything. The same friendly signals from a single girl with guy problems vs a single girl who has already stated she just wants to be friends can be interpreted totally differently.

Best case scenario: He always wanted to be friends, now he will be comfortable and relaxed being friends.

Worst case scenario: He actually wanted to get in your pants, changed his mind, and never actually wanted to be friends with you. Now he will fade out.

Shrug, move on, know that some guys in either friend OR boyfriend capacity don't really wanna be there for you and hear your troubles. It sucks but it's not your fault. Good luck.

Re: update. Never mind. Just be cool, and don't lead him on. It'll work itself out.
posted by quincunx at 10:43 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm going to lay out some hard truth here.

You don't seem like the "platonic friends" type. Some people just get this and it's their default way of dealing with people of the opposite sex. Other people really don't have a lot of those types of friendships, and that's OK.

I think that when colleagues are involved, it's best to keep things extremely professional. I have lots of platonic male friends at work. We never talk about personal life relationship dating type stuff. Ever. We talk about shared interests. If we don't have shared interests outside of work, we don't tend to become friends.

Frankly, even with male friends I don't work with, it is rare that we talk about relationships and feelings and drama and that sort of thing. I don't want to generalize that men never want to talk about that stuff, but usually girltalk sorts of subjects aren't first on the agenda. And when you become friends with a man and "who are you dating/how's that going" does come up right away, that's a signal that the man in question doesn't see your relationship as a platonic friends kind of thing.

I also don't tend to "have coffee dates" with men who are platonic friends, especially if that status is in question at all.

I think you should probably operate on the assumption that you're not going to establish a lot of strong platonic relationships with men, going forward. Because it sounds like you don't have a great understanding of what that would look like.

In terms of how to deal with this particular situation, your best bet is to just back off. Stop hanging out away from the office. Stop talking about your personal life with him. Relate to him like you would relate to any coworker.
posted by Sara C. at 11:28 AM on March 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

He's into you so he's reading you as being into him, which is a common thing guys do. But he thinks you're drama and wants to avoid.

Be friendly, but no more alone time. You really need to get your marriage and affair partner dealt with before wading into this.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:36 AM on March 3, 2014

Also, please please don't talk about your love life with work people. It is a bad idea on a million levels. I sympathize because I don't have a filter either, but you really need to be quiet here. The reputation of someone who cheats at work is not what you want. Coffee dates with this guy would just fuel speculation. Steer very clear.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:40 AM on March 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

To answer your question directly, it's possible to be purely platonic after such a situation. I was once in your colleague's position. But it requires the following:

1) That neither of you ever mention the conversation you had, or the whole infatuation thing ever again. You pretend like you never had the conversation, while remembering that your relationship is purely platonic and will never change. I know the future is uncertain but if you want to be platonic, you need to act like you will forever be platonic. Just be normal and friendly, no need to be cool or make jokes to lighten the atmosphere. Just basically ignore the entire issue, do nothing about it.

2) Maintaining strict boundaries. No more one-on-one time, avoid non-work conversations (especially relationship problems, family problems, deep subjects) because this is very likely to lead him on, and no touching. When he encroaches boundaries, you need to show him a visible negative reaction to demonstrate that your position is not going to change ever. For instance, if he starts talking about deep subjects, you can say you'd prefer not to talk about these. Or if he encroaches into your personal space, step back or flinch. I know, this approach may sound juvenile or even a little bit immature, but you only need to do such things for a week or two at most, if he even encroaches your boundaries in the first place. It sounds like he understands the need to be professional. And at other times remain friendly.

I'm afraid this is a little harsh but I have to say this: you need to put this issue out of your mind because the more you focus on it, the more you may start to like and subconsciously encourage his admiration of you, and the past may repeat itself. This is basically a non-issue for both of you, he's a grown man and he can definitely handle his feelings and crushes and he needs no help from you.
posted by rozaine at 12:06 PM on March 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's a bit of snarkiness in some of the answers you got, so try to take them with a grain of salt. It's not at all clear that the guy rejected you or thought you were coming on to him, since he clearly admitted he like-liked you. Also, we don't know you IRL, so I wouldn't feel comfortable agreeing that you're not the "platonic friends type," whatever that may mean. It seems to me that he was being a bit flirty with you, but I wouldn't take it too seriously like you're going to break his heart or anything. I do agree that putting it out of your mind is for the best. No need to overthink it. Attraction happens and is pretty common and sometimes it gets brought up. It's really not that big of a deal in the long run.
posted by xenophile at 7:06 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

After your update, I don't think this is really in your control. For sure, don't bring this up again. Don't take the initiative to plan date-like activities, like one-on-one dinners or happy hours. But other than that, you rejected him, so it is up to him whether he wants a professional relationship with you or a real friendship with you(since you want the friendship). All you can do is wait and see, and not pressure him if he needs time or space.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:20 AM on March 4, 2014

I reread my answer. In case of confusion I meant the flinching and all need only be carried out for a week or so, but the boundaries need to be maintained from now on.
posted by rozaine at 10:08 PM on March 4, 2014

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