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This week: Everyone’s heard the “let’s just be friends” speech from someone they’ve been attracted to. But how do you make a friendship work with someone you’re attracted to? How do you keep sex from getting in the way of your friendship?
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Hey everyone, Harris O’Malley from doctornerdlove.com and this is Ask Dr. NerdLove, made possible by my generous patrons at patreon.com/DrNerdLove, and I am here today to answer YOUR questions about love, sex, dating and self-improvement. If you’ve got a short dating advice question you’d like to have answered, send it to me at email@example.com or share it in the comments and maybe you’ll have YOUR question featured on here.
This week’s question comes from black dog on YouTube, who asks “Can you create a video on how to handle being just friends (especially after you’ve been rejected)?”
I picked this one because it’s a really interesting question, and one that’s a little more complicated than it seems on the surface. There’re actually a lot of factors that go into how to handle getting the “Let’s Just Be Friends” speech beyond a simple “here’s how you make it work”
What, me complicate a simple question? Surely you jest, sir…
Well, no. No I don’t.
And don’t call me Shirley.
So here’s the first thing that affects how to be just friends: how long were you together in the first place. This is important, because there’s a significant difference between a relationship ending, especially a long-term one, and trying to pivot to just being friends, and getting the Let’s Just Be Friends speech in response to asking someone out for a date or for a relationship.
If it’s in the context of a long-term relationship… well, honestly, you’re going to need time. Except in incredibly rare circumstances, people don’t really make the dismount from “lovers” to friends immediately. There has to be a transitionary period where you recover from the breakup, get back into the swing of being single again and — importantly — heal from the pain of a relationship ending. Trying to make a friendship work immediately after a break-up is a recipe for misery, if only because you STILL have all of those relationship reflexes and behaviors in your muscle memory… and those don’t apply any more. So now whenever you respond without thinking in the ways that used to be part of your relationship, all you’re doing is reopening a barely healed wound.
So if you two’ve been together for a while, you’re going to need time and space and a period of no contact so that you can recover and start seeing them as someone OTHER than your partner.
And incidentally, if you’re interested in talking about how to deal with break-ups, how to recover from them QUICKLY and be able to move on… well, hit up the comments with your questions and we’ll see what we can do.
Now, in the context of having just asked someone out or trying to START a relationship… well, that’s different. Not less complicated… but different.
The first, and possibly most important question that needs answering is: do they actually want to be friends? This one’s important because, there are times when “Let’s just be friends” is what’s known as a “soft no”. Even in this day and age, even in American culture, which a lot of other countries see as almost absurdly blunt and direct, it can feel cruel or rude to just tell somebody “I’m not interested,” so people will give a “soft” no as a way of letting someone down in a less harsh and more indirect way.
Women are especially more likely to do this for a couple of reasons.
First, women are taught that being direct and straightforward, especially to men, is rude. Even in the year of our lord 2020, women are socialized to feel that prioritizing their boundaries or interests over those of others, especially men, is the height of impoliteness, and so they need to couch their refusal in the softest, most indirect terms possible.
Second: women use a soft no because they have a not unreasonable fear of getting the shit beat out of them if they don’t. Almost every woman out there has either had a dude freak out at her for turning them down, or knows someone who has. “Let’s just be friends” is a way of turning someone down with less risk of that person blowing up at her messily and all over the place.
But let’s work from the assumption that no, she legitimately DOES want to be friends. She values you as a person, enjoys your company and likes spending time with you. She just doesn’t have pants-feels for you.
So, pop quiz, hot shot? What do you do?
The reason why a lot of folks have issues with this — not getting told that she just wants to be friends, but having issues with BEING just friends — is because a lot of folks treat friendship as the consolation prize for romance. They see friendship as what you get when you’re not “good” enough for romantic or sexual attraction. Small wonder that guys treat “let’s just be friends” as either the kiss of death OR the starting place for trying to upgrade to fucking over the long-term.
That’s part of why we get the whole bullshit meme that sexual attraction and friendship can’t co-exist. After all, how can you want to be friends with someone when you’re wanting to kick it up to the next level?
Why yes, I DO hate that scene from When Harry Met Sally, why do you ask?
In reality, friendship and attraction are two different things that run parallel to each other, not perpendicular. You can be friends with someone AND be attracted to them and the two never end up in conflict… just like you can be attracted to people who you can’t STAND.
Now, if you have a hard time keeping things platonic… you’re not alone. In fact, there was a study published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that suggested that while women have a relatively easy time keeping a platonic relationship with men, men have a much harder time with it.
I’ve linked to it — and my thoughts on the matter — in the show notes, if you want to check it out
Contrary to popular belief — and the guys yelling about it in the comments — this isn’t because biology is destiny or because sex always gets in the way or because women are the “choosers” or some other horseshit.
It’s because a lot of guys believe the worst about themselves and about men in general. One of the toxic tropes about masculinity is that men are inherently horny beasts and we’re helpless before the power of boners. And since our desire to get laid is SO all-encompassing, we’re supposed to be incapable of ignoring it and thus we can’t be friends with someone we might conceivably want to fuck.
(And you may note that this is a strictly hetero issue because honestly, if that were the case, gay and bi men wouldn’t have any friends at all…)
And honestly, believing in this — or even just ‘hurr hurr’ acting like you believe it — is tacitly acknowledging that you have less self-control than a dog or a cat. My cat may want a piece of my sandwich, but he also knows not to try to take it, unless I actually give it to him.
But like I’m often saying: if you haven’t been arrested because you were unable to stop yourself from dry humping the hot woman you saw at the movie theater, then it’s pretty safe to say that you CAN control it.
You may be attracted to someone, but attraction to that person isn’t a magic spell; having a boner isn’t a compulsion. The fact that you’re attracted to someone doesn’t mean that you need to ACT on that attraction. That attraction is only going to get in the way IF you make your friendship all about trying to get into her pants… which means it’s not really friendship in the first place.
You CAN be friends with someone you’re attracted to; you’re just making the decision to NOT do anything about that attraction.
Now I know a lot of you are already saying “Look, I can’t stop thinking about her, I dream about dating her, it hurts me to think about her with other people, how does that NOT get in the way of things?”
Well part of the problem that you’re having is that, if you’re actually TRYING to be friends, then the odds are that you’re handling those emotions the wrong way. You’re trying to squash them down or ignore them or otherwise NOT think about them, which is a mistake; trying to NOT think about something is how you pretty much guarantee you won’t think of anything BUT.
Don’t believe me? Here’s an experiment: try to NOT think about Betty White with bunny ears, wearing Widowmaker’s catsuit.
Have fun with that one, boys.
If you’re trying to be friends with someone and those feelings are getting in the way, then the way you handle them is to change your relationship with those feelings. The way that you’re treating them now is definitional: I AM attracted to her, I AM desperate to have her, etc.
By changing how you describe those feelings, you change your relationship to them. You FEEL attracted to her rather than you ARE attracted to her. You FEEL desperate, rather than you ARE desperate. You FEEL desire for her, not that you NEED her.
Notice the difference in the way those emotions are framed. When you say you need someone or you’re obsessed with her, or that you’re lost without her, you’re making those emotions part of the definition of who you are. It’s like saying I’ve got red hair and tattoos; it’s part of who I am. When you change that description to “I FEEL”, rather than “I AM” then you’re changing it from something that defines you to something that you DO. It’s not permanent, it’s not unchanging and it’s not something that’s out of your control.
Once you start changing your relationship to those feelings, you change how you experience them — and thus change how your feelings affect your friendship with her — by observing them, noting them and naming them.
Oh hey, that’s my crush on whatshername. OK, cool, so back to this other, more important thing…
Doing this not only takes away the immediacy of those feelings, but it also reminds you that feelings are just that: feelings. They’re not overwhelming commands that take control of you against your will.
The other benefit of this approach, is that it helps get you to a place where that crush or attraction will fade over time. This is something I tell people in relationships who develop crushes on someone besides their partner: feel it, enjoy it and just let it pass, because IT WILL go away. Attraction is like fire; take away the fuel or the oxygen — in this case, obsessing about it, fantasizing about it, making everything in your life about it — and it will fade on it’s own. Usually without your noticing. You’ll just realize how long it’s been since you were really hung up on ol’ whatsername.
The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes being friends with someone you’re attracted to requires setting some self-boundaries. That means that unless you’re really good at compartmentalizing — and if you’re asking me about this, you’re probably not, you shouldn’t try to have a flirty style of friendship that you might have with other folks. You want to avoid denigrating the people she’s dating simply because they’re not YOU and try to focus on being happy that SHE’S happy. And you don’t want to be making those joking-but-not-really comments about “wow, we’d be a scorching hot couple in other circumstances.”
By taking it upon yourself to avoid boundary-blurring behaviors that you wouldn’t do with people you’re NOT attracted to, you help keep that friendship strictly platonic, rather than edging into Nice Guy territory
And while it may be a little self-serving, it can help to recognize that having her as a friend has its benefits… even those benefits won’t be the benefits you’re hoping for. Having platonic friendships with women, even women you’re attracted to, helps you build your emotional intelligence, it helps you improve your social calibration AND helps you get comfortable with interacting with attractive women in general. Plus, like I said before: having attractive women for friends makes it easier for you to meet OTHER attractive women who ARE interested in being more than just friends.
But there’s one more thing to consider: do you actually WANT to be friends with her? I know a lot of folks on Tumblr and other places yell about guys not wanting to be friends after getting turned down but honestly: just as she’s not obligated to date you just because you want it, you’re not obligated to be friends with someone just because that’s what THEY’RE offering.
If it would be too painful or too awkward for you or that’s simply not the relationship you would want to have with them, that’s legit. It’s perfectly fine for you to graciously turn them down.
Emphasis on graciously. If they’re doing you the courtesy of trying to turn you down gently, then YOU have an obligation to return the favor.
Though, honestly: in my experience, it’s a bad idea to try to date people you couldn’t or WOULDN’T be friends.
In the end though: just because someone doesn’t care for you the way that you would prefer doesn’t mean that you can’t have a relationship with them. Many times that friendship will last longer and be more rewarding than if you would have had if you two had dated.
It’s like a wise man once said: you can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
Oh and one more thing: I’m getting ready to start up a special program for folks who want to take their dating life to the next level, and members of the NerdLove Academy Facebook group get the first opportunity to sign up. There’re only a few spots remaining, so if you’re ready to build the love life you’ve always wanted, head over to facebook.com/groups/DrNerdLove to learn more.