Healthily approaching close friendships with a bit of attraction in them
May 6, 2016 4:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm a guy and have this lovely female friend of mine who I get along with fantastically. The two of us have a supportive, companionable friendship, and are seeing each other frequently; we're both really enjoying the dynamic we've been having. For special snowflake reasons, though, it's better that I don't endeavor towards dating her for the meanwhile. Please give me your perspective: help me to manage my expectations to better maintain this friendship.

Snowflake: She's recently (a month ago) come out of a nine-month relationship she's been in and is excited and looking to really enjoy her independence in ways that allow her to do all the things single people do. I really do support this. Having been out of relationships for long enough that I had a chance to grow 'into my own' myself, I can see really positive benefits for her in being able to do exactly this. However, ack, I... can also sense myself getting attracted to her, and maybe a little attached, but as you would tend to do with somebody who you're often out and about with (?) - I'd like to do better.

I don't especially want to, say, take a break from her and our friendship, because it's been nothing but positive connection and healthy appreciation so far. I'm ultimately coming to the conclusion that I maybe just need to mentally approach our friendship outside of concepts like 'having a crush' and 'limerence' and 'dating,' and maybe scale it back as it comes. We're pretty intuitive on understanding where the other is, and I have some reasons that suggest that I think she likes me about as well as I do her. But I know that I'd enjoy continuing the dynamic of where we're at, instead, and would love not getting stuck in middling anxieties about our friendship. Sometimes you can't control your thoughts, but I'd like to actively try to minimize their effect.

Could you give me: some prompts for soul searching? tips for emotionally detaching a little? your personal experiences in this matter (with stories both good and bad)? how to approach this in the smartest, kindest, healthiest, best-guy-friend-who-might-also-kind-of-like-you-and-that's-okay! kind of way?
posted by a good beginning to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What's more important, the friendship or a possible relationship? Because you know that friendship will be there. If you try to date and it doesn't work out, are you ok with losing what you currently have?

Tip: find a hobby and spend less time together.
posted by lunastellasol at 5:00 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

You have to make a decision to be her friend only and close the door on a future relationship, if what you want is to be friends. Don't fake-friend her for a year and blindside her when you think she's "ready" or get mad when she gets a boyfriend. Make a choice. Close the door.

And then tell her.

Say, "Just FYI because it can be really tough when single orientation-compatible guys and girls are friends, I'm not being your friend in the 'waiting in the wings/ambush' sense, and I don't wanna fake-date, so let's shake on this not ever going anywhere else. Lines of communication 100% open, amirite?"

Guys who wait around for their "turn" are bad and should feel bad. Don't do it. That's not friendship (nor will it be love later when you decide it's that instead). Maybe you're not doing that, but it kind of sounds like you're doing that. Make a choice.

If you were planning on doing the other thing, then tell her that. Honesty is how you keep this from going off the rails. It's what grownups do. She'll let you know whether she's okay with that.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:04 PM on May 6, 2016 [25 favorites]

I think this depends why you want to keep this platonic.

If you genuinely really want her to have the space to be single for awhile: Respect that! Hang out in a no strings attached kind of way, with other people where possible, and not in an intense kind of manner. I've definitely had friendships where this was the case (or it was a bad idea for us to get together for other reasons of propriety, fairness to the other person, etc), and yeah we just sort of cooled our jets and everything was great. By "cooled our jets" I don't so much mean took a break from the friendship but just didn't hang out one on one a whole lot, no outings that felt datelike, etc.

If you are trying to strategically position yourself not to be a "rebound": I don't think this is something you have any control over. You can go for something non-platonic, or not. You could try the "cool your jets" approach I mentioned above, but that also might mean you never get to date her. So you really have to be OK with that. There's no magic recipe for getting exactly the kind of relationship you want with someone. Alternately you could throw caution to the wind, go for the romantic thing, and see what happens. "Rebounds" are kind of a sitcom trope in my experience and not really a hard and fast real life thing.

If you actually do want to date her, but she does not want to date you: Yeah, you're going to have to take a break from this friendship. Sorry. This also includes if you want to date her and she is dating someone else.

If you are mostly just afraid of rejection: Do, or do not, man. I suppose it's noble to resign yourself to never being with someone, but you can't really turn your feelings off. You're probably going to need to take a break from the friendship unless you are an absolute master of the "cool your jets" approach. You can't really assume that if you back off, she'll pursue, and you'll get the relationship you want without putting your own feelings on the line. And if you are low-grade expecting that but she never delivers, be careful that this doesn't lead to eventual bitterness. (Another good reason to take a break if this is the case.)

For what it's worth, my fiance and I were friends who noticed a definite spark when we first met, but who couldn't date for specific reasons. We went the "cool your jets" route until sometime last year, when the reasons we couldn't date were no longer in effect. Then we developed a really intense friendship. Then he asked me out, I said yes, and now we're engaged. So this can definitely work. And super well! You just have to actually be honest with yourself about what the acceptable outcomes are. I'm pretty sure that when we were in the back-burner phase of our friendship, we were both absolutely OK with not ever dating. Neither of us really foresaw what would happen. I think this is a better approach than trying to engineer something into existence by following a some kind of "friendship into dating" recipe.
posted by Sara C. at 5:13 PM on May 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

I don't especially want to, say, take a break from her and our friendship, because...

An imp in my brain said "Don't cut things off completely, but dial it back some percentage and let her chase you if she wants your company, your friendship, or a chance to take things to another level.

My imp may be an evil imp, or a good one, or an imp of chaos that throws the dice. I'm just not sure.

The classic but sad thing that seems likely to happen (no matter what you do) is that she enjoys some free time, looks around, then starts to date someone new on the scene. This is heartbreaking for you, but pretty much par for the course. If she has a sexual interest in you, I don't think she would be keeping it completely hidden from you. OK, unless she was really trying to behave until the prior relationship broke up, but that seems like a stretch. I don't mean to be a complete bummer -- I am wrong a lot. But sometimes our really close male friends feel like brothers to us, which kind of kills the pants feels.
posted by puddledork at 5:47 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

"best-guy-friend-who-might-also-kind-of-like-you-and-that's-okay! "

Having once been the woman on the other side of this, it's kind of uncomfortable to have the slow, dawning realization that a great friendship with a guy that you thought was totally platonic actually has some undertones of something else. Whether that's "okay" for her or not is going to largely depend on whether she's mutually interested.

You seem like a really thoughtful guy, and it's nice to try to give her space after a break up, but honestly a 9 month relationship isn't really that long and doesn't necessitate being treated with kid gloves. I think you have two options here:
1. Forget you were ever attracted, and never expect anything romantic to develop. Ever.
2. Ask her on a date.

The sort of slow-simmering thing that you're looking to do is attractive because it maintains the status quo and it is very low stakes for you, but I don't think it's the most mature way to deal with your feelings.
posted by loquacious crouton at 6:14 PM on May 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

You say you don't want to date her for the meanwhile and that you are getting attracted and attached. In other words, once she gets over her ex and after she's had her fun being single, you DO want to date her.

Man, just lay it on the line. Don't pretend to be her friend while you wait in the wings. Let her know that you understand she needs space for now but when she's ready for a relationship, you'd like to ask her out. At least she will know where she stands with you. It won't ruin the friendship because if it was only based on you hanging around waiting for her to be available, it wasn't a true friendship anyway.

And if you read all this and I've got it completely wrong and you don't feel this way at all and can't ever see you two together, you have nothing to worry about anyway. You're just friends. I don think that's the case though...
posted by Jubey at 6:25 PM on May 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

Date other people! If you're focusing your romantic attentions elsewhere, you can still keep hanging out with her but won't find yourself crushing on her so hard.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:34 PM on May 6, 2016 [12 favorites]

You know the old saying about how marriage ruins a beautiful relationship?

Well, a relationship can ruin a beautiful friendship.

I'm a two-time veteran.
posted by jgirl at 6:57 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I (a dude who dates women) have recently dealt with a relationship that has some of this flavor. I was (am?) recently out of a relationship and hanging again with a woman who I thought would be only a friend, but for whom I started feeling rumblings of more. For various reasons I didn't want to act on these feelings, unless maybe it was unambiguous what I was feeling? Just out of a relationship, too, I didn't fully trust what I was feeling.

Anyhow my advice is: mindfulness, and don't shy away from topics. Mindfulness gave me the ability to be with her and feel the complicating feelings but take actions that were directed by my friendly self (not my AM I ACTUALLY IN LOVE WITH U?? self). And with that, be sure you're not avoiding topics that might complicate your feelings: talk freely about your feelings for other people and her experiences dating again. It can be hard because that attracted self is still in there, but you get to have a full relationship with her as a friend.

In my case I am so glad I did this. The feelings passed. I see clearly now how we would not be a good match. We are friends.

I think in your case the approach might tell you one way or another how you feel more clearly. If the attraction feels overwhelming. If you have a desire to kiss her and it doesn't go away. If you can't muster romantic feelings for others because she occupies your thoughts. Then yes as others say, tell her, give it a shot.

But you might find instead that the feelings are fleeting, or more properly platonic.
posted by wemayfreeze at 7:07 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

There is a lot of grey area between "we are friends" and "we are in an exclusive relationship". How you navigate those areas is up to the two of you, and how maturely and openly you can handle communication and emotions within that space.

There is nothing wrong with discussing the possibility of a friends-with-benefits situation. Whether that works or not depends entirely on the two of you: how you maintain healthy boundaries, and how you plan to get other needs met elsewhere. Don't act like you're dating if you're not. Don't enter into this if you really want to date her exclusively and hope that she decides that too at some point. Don't pretend to be just a friend if you actually want something more.

Could you screw it all up and lose her as a friend? Yes. She could screw it up too. Or it could work for a while, and then you might both decide you work better just as friends. Or she might meet someone and start dating them and you might see a lot less of her. Or you might. Fear of screwing things up is not a great reason to maintain a status quo that isn't serving both of your needs.

Why don't you ask her what she would be open to if there were no expectations of dating or exclusivity?
posted by ananci at 7:23 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Having once been the woman on the other side of this, it's kind of uncomfortable to have the slow, dawning realization that a great friendship with a guy that you thought was totally platonic actually has some undertones of something else. Whether that's "okay" for her or not is going to largely depend on whether she's mutually interested.

Yes! This was my MO for a while, both as the woman and as the person interested in the person who might eventually be interested.

My best advice is basically use that simmering whateveritis as a stoked furnace to ... go do something else with that energy. That is, depending on your level of self-control, basically say to yourself "Nothing will happen with this person unless they tell me it's going to happen" and use the buzzy limerence (as all the kids say) to write some poetry or get a new haircut or go out and improve yourself in a general way because having a crush is fun.

However, that is assuming that you really do have some pretty good self-control and you're not going to show up all moony-eyed with this woman at some later date and let it all hang out and tell her you've had a crush on her for six months all the while she thought she was building a solid friendship with you. Or becoming a weird mopey mess for no obvious reason when she starts seriously dating someone. Because THAT guy sucks, don't be that guy.

But there's nothing wrong with playing wait-and-see so long as you are honest with her and with yourself (i.e. if she has some sort of "ok out with it" talk with you, you are honest about how you feel"). However the very important part of that is if at some point she tells you very clearly "We are just friends and I don't see that changing" (or some version) you take her at her word and re-assess the situation and what you want to do with it in light of that information.
posted by jessamyn at 7:37 PM on May 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thank you all. Your thoughts so far have been a very helpful dose of reality about how I should be conducting myself, and I'm planning on taking each of them into deep consideration, so please feel free to keep them coming. I appreciate each and every one. I won't threadsit, but here's a few answers to questions that have been intimated in your responses.

You know, I realize this: I tend to do the unhealthy thing where I almost crave the state of limerence as an alternative to fully-consummate environments, and it's something that I continue to have a need to address. (I've been meaning to see a counselor for a little while, and *that's* particularly one of the things I want to deal with personally.) I mean, one of my most profound and beautiful relationships in the past was never actually a full-on committed relationship to begin with... because it was an everything-but-the-actual-titles scenario. Yeah... I don't wish to do that with this girl. It's not fair to the other person. Or to me.

I think Jubey's got me right on target. Despite my wheelings and dealings within myself right now, I do of course think I have an actual desire to date her. I mean, she's great. If conditions were perfect? Sure, I'm really all for that. I might end up telling her almost exactly as you suggested in your second paragraph. Thank you for that; that's actually really an excellent way to frame it. (And I do think we could sustain that. She and I are both available to that sort of talk. I'll see about it - it depends. Hmm.)

On the other hand, this is still super early-on in development. Gosh, I just tend to think a lot; I do. I think I'll plan to get back into yoga more frequently to get a little more 'bodied' and somatic, again... I recognize it helps me so much. wemayfreeze's thoughts on mindfulness were great, and are exactly part of what I'm already striving to do. I've been seeking out a freeing, nonjudgmental state of awareness, especially recently, and it helps out a lot in not going down the rabbit hole with her / our relationship. I really am not in all-too-deep with her, so this is probably just about right for my current state of affairs, honestly.

Aside that all, I identified most with Sara C's first bolded entry, because I truly do want to see her blossom more and to continue to find her own place and rhythm of life, and she's making all the right motions to do exactly that. Definitely didn't have emotional or personal space to do that in her last relationship, so - I do want that for her, in whatever way that that happens.

And, indeed, finally: I think my resolved plan is that I need to think on it hard, soon, put myself through the works, focus on myself, and decide about it. I think I also will plan to continue to date other people - and I will return to a little more closely to mirroring the energy she gives to me. That worked well when I was doing it a little while ago, as it gave both me and her proper context to where we were both at. It also gave me plenty of space to be emotionally available, yet mature with her, and to continue to share deep contexts without ever going overboard, both of which I really do appreciate the thought of continuing.

I know there's a fair few overlaps in plans, here, but I think things will continue to become clear. Perhaps it's timely to point out I appreciate profoundly the calls to be decisive in one direction or another; I hear you. Your reflections help me very much.
posted by a good beginning at 7:53 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can tell you from the other side of this, that it really hurts to think someone is a close friend, only to discover that they have been secretly counting on you dating them "as, soon as the time is right." In my experience they are always bitter and treat you like shit once they finally figure it out that, no, you're really not interested in them romantically. In addition to losing a good friend, you wind up feeling like you should have known somehow, and now you're the asshole cause you led them on. It's total shit.

Be honest, be upfront about your feelings, don't fuck around.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:10 PM on May 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

Just want to observe that she might find she can "blossom more and continue to find her own place and rhythm of life" with you, in friendship or a romantic relationship. I'd encourage you to be open to her processing and discovery of what it means for her to thrive. It may differ from what you needed.

I am a woman who is a little twitchy with guy/girl friendships when I think the guy may like me. I think if I could have an ideal approach from a guy who liked me, it would involve my certainty that his wellbeing and happiness didn't rely on what I think of him. He would tell me, "Man, I really like you / like spending time with you, and I'd love to try going out on a date with you. I respect you may not be in the same place; I thought it was important to let you know. If you'd be up for that, I'll let you let me know. No matter what, I value our friendship and affirm your capacity to decide." Then he'd back it up with his actions. I would like this script because it clearly delineates a line between dating/hypothetical and not dating/status quo. For your friend, you could add recognition of where she is and how your own experience leads you to want to respect her possible need for time and space (but with no expectation that she'll then turn to you for a date when she is "ready"). You are not relying on this, but would, from your own fullness and sense of self, be delighted if the opportunity came along.
posted by ramenopres at 9:21 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Be a man, take a punt, be honest. You're really just time shifting the best and the worst that could happen. It will be scary, but it's the good kind of scary.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:48 PM on May 6, 2016

Ok, as someone mentioned upthread, make a decision. Decide now if you want to potentially risk the friendship or gain a great relationship. Decide and stick by it.

Option A: You tell her, but you back off. You cannot be a friend and a romantic interest at the same time. I feel that is akin to emotional blackmail. Because someone who is friends gets to be the shoulder to cry on and you can be completely honest and open with them. If you were a romantic interest, she may feel taken advantage of that you were secretly pining after her with possible ulterior motives in gaining emotional intimacy when she just wanted to have a friend she can rely on.

Option B: You don't tell her, and be there as a friend. Close the door for a relationship and actually be a friend. It's difficult to find a true blue friend that will be there through thick and thin and understand you. Friendships are rare, relationships can be had with any one of the 7+ billion people on this planet.

What means more to you? Your happiness or hers? You can date anyone else. Are your feelings that strong that you enjoy her as a person so much that you are willing to risk a great friendship for something more that may possibly end?

Anecdote: I had a great friend of mine, my friendship was very dear to me. We were friends since I was a teenager and then drifted apart after he graduated college and distanced when his dad died. We ended up reconnecting recently and he told me he had feelings for me. I was upset because I confided in him and felt vulnerable that he was "waiting in line" so to speak for a chance to have a relationship with me. I thought I care about him, so let's see if there is any attraction on my end and if I wanted more. Well we didn't end up dating, but he got increasingly flirtatious. Eventually, I felt awkward and like our friendship was diminished somehow. He had promised that our friendship was most important, yet when I told him that I could only see him as a friend he told me that I was using him.

We haven't spoken since. Not saying this will happen to you, but let me tell you. He was so sure that it wouldn't affect our friendship and it did. And I miss that the most. Not the other side of him that was revealed as if I owed it to him to be romantically interested in him because of the time he had invested in our friendship. Whether that is the case or not, I don't know because he didn't ever explain himself. He just stopped talking to me. This is how it may be perceived. Good luck OP.
posted by lunastellasol at 9:49 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a gay woman with a good, straight male friend who has crushed on me for ages. He knows clearly that that door is never open; I know clearly that his feels will ebb and flow for pretty much forever.

The trick is that both own where we are. We're honest about separating feelings from actions and intentions; we don't make each other responsible for occasional pangs of discomfort. I could use the power disparity of his desire to my advantage by asking for favors or emotional labor — I don't. He could be jealous, awkwardly flirtatious, overly invested or try to persuade me against my orientation — he doesn't. We respect our baselines. We also speak freely about our romantic and sexual pursuits with others.

Once we lived together in a large group house. It had been a rough couple months for each of us, and we shared a rare drunken night out, talking intimately over gin and tonics at the corner dive bar. As we stumbled home he asked me very politely, "Fritillary? Could we kiss?"

I was shocked! We had been friends for years at this point. But I sensed his moment of weakness was simply alcoholic impairment, not ill intent or unrequited love. I said lightly, "Naw, you know that's not for me," and we went our separate ways to bed. He never spoke of it again nor asked me twice. It took a month or two for my trust to return — we had a long history, so I gave him a second chance — but with a new friend I would distance myself and reconsider our relationship immediately.

My boundaries are clear, make yours the same.
posted by fritillary at 1:36 AM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Perhaps I'm missing something, but don't you think is has occurred to her that the two of you could date? That when she said she was looking forward to the chance to being single she actually meant that?

I say this as someone who was in a similar situation, ignored my friend/crush's not so subtle desire to be single, and lost a good friend when we both needed one. Years later I still feel bad about ignoring her when she told me what she wanted out of her life at that point. She iced me out and I think I deserved it because I wasn't being a good friend to her.

In short, let the idea of dating her go, if she wanted to date you she could pursue that. Then decide if you can be a good friend to her. Even if in a few months she is in a serious committed relationship with somebody else.
posted by rip at 4:46 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you really just want to be friends, try to hang out in group situations, not one-on-one.

And do your best to avoid:

A) Framing things you say in a manner that is intended to show her what a great catch you are and how perfect you are for her.

B) Interpreting everything that comes out of her mouth through the lens of whether that is Yay or Nay wrt you two being an item.

That second one is something I notice a lot and it really makes me crazy when men do that. I say "My ex husband is blond" and blond guys who are crushing on me go "Oh, I am blond! I am Her Type! Yay!" And brunettes that are crushing on me start acting like a kicked puppy, like I have just announced "I would not sleep with you if you were the last man on earth!"

Um, no. My ex being blond is a factually correct detail about my life that I am incapable of changing. It is not a coded message about who in the room is fuckable or not fuckable in my eyes. Men who do that to me get blacklisted as shallow assholes who think of women as nothing but a piece of ass and are incapable of seeing women as human beings.

So put a sticky note on your mirror: the things she says and the details of her life are not all some plot point in a romantic comedy where you are the star. Most of them have nothing whatsoever to do with you.

If you can remember that, you might be able to be friends or otherwise have some kind of relationship. If you cannot, this is likely to go bad places.
posted by Michele in California at 11:19 AM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

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