Dear Doc NerdLove,
Discovered your column and YouTube channel a couple weeks back and decided to write to you for advice about a pretty hairy situation I’ve found myself in.
Some background, I’m a single man in his late thirties who has been living in Louisiana for most of his life. Due a childhood where I suffered abuse at the hands of a stepparent, I have found it difficult to socialize, have difficulty talking about my emotions and have suffered from severe mental problems. Needless to say, my attempts at any form of romantic relationship have ranged from “went nowhere” to “complete disaster” and I’ve generally not sought anything of the kind for a number of years. Further compounding things is that I live in a very economically run down part of the state and therefore have difficulty finding steady work, am frequently broke and need to rely on my family for financial assistance. I have suffered frequently from depressive episodes and suicidal thoughts as a result of this. Things got particularly bad for me in 2015. Lack of response on job inquiries for several months, growing alienation from my conservative family, and just feeling lonely and like I had no future, that sort of thing. I was suffering panic attacks, losing sleep and was emotionally and physically exhausted. I felt like I couldn’t hold out much longer.
Then some woman-hating asshole shot up a movie theater in Lafayette and that’s where a friend of mine comes in. Let’s call her H. I had met her years before through a forum dedicated to B-movies and weird cinema. I found her to be an incredibly kind, funny and intelligent person and was delighted that she had similar interests to mine. Though it was a while before the two of us met off-line, we became fairly good friends through social media and chatting and now get together face-to-face whenever we can. A few years back, things had gotten to a point where I wanted to see if H was interested in being more than friends but a bad experience with admitting romantic interest to a friend in the past left me hesitant to do anything. When it came to light that H had hooked up with another member of our circle of friends — let’s call him D — I figured “Oh well, shit out of luck again” and I thought that was the end of that. We were still good friends, after all.
Fast forward to 2015, H was going through a bad time as well. Her father, who she was very close to, passed away, leaving her an emotional wreck. She was depressed all the time, her relationship with D was becoming strained, and felt as though everything was falling apart for her. Well, when she heard that there was a mass shooting in my neck of the woods and she couldn’t reach me all day (I was at my sister’s, babysitting my niece, and phone reception and internet service there was spotty) she began to worry that something had happened to me. When I finally got online that night, I found a message from her that read: “I really need to know that you’re okay.”
Getting that message shook me up. Here I was, thinking myself to be a burden on everyone and thinking maybe it would be for the best if I was just…gone…and here’s this person who lives halfway across the country, going through all that she was going through, worrying about me. It was a reminder that somebody gave a shit if I died and suddenly I found that I couldn’t go through with committing suicide. Those thoughts didn’t just magically go away, mind, but when they came, all I could think about was H, all the things she was dealing with and this little voice would tell me, “you do this and it will kill her.”
In the months that followed, as H and I did whatever we could to support each and help one another through what we were going through, I realized I was very much in love with her. And realizing this left me a little scared because you see, H and D moved in together back around 2010, have stayed together since, and despite some problems, anybody can see that the two of them are still very much in love with each other. Now, I’m not as close to D as I am H, but he’s been good to me for as long as I’ve known him and he recognizes that mine and H friendship is important to her. I really like the guy.
And so, I have never told H how she stopped me from killing myself, beyond some vague statements about “helping me through a rough patch.” I worried that if I told her about it, it would lead to her finding out about how I feel about her and I just did not want to dump that sort of drama on the two of them. (I figure if H finds out, D going to find out.) I didn’t want her to feel “girlfriend zoned,” y’know? I thought that if I kept quiet that maybe these feelings for her would just die down and fade away with time, and for brief moment it looked like they did, during a period where financial problems kept me from traveling for a while. Then I had finally gotten to where I could afford going to meet up with everybody at a B-movie film festival earlier this year and there she was. After being around her, seeing how happy she was to see me again and the great time we had, those feelings didn’t so much as come creeping back as they kicked down my front door and mugged me. I’ve been miserable ever since I got back from this trip.
Well, over the past couple of months, I’ve come around to the idea that telling H may be the only way to get over her. It took a ton of effort to come to this but I’ve attempted to write to her, explaining everything. (Figured she deserves something more personal than an e-mail but I’m worried I might lose my nerve if I tried face-to-face or over the phone.) Unfortunately, attempts to write this have felt like open heart surgery being performed without anesthetic. I’m scared of how my friendship with H and D will change once they find out, I’m scared of how this may affect our group of mutual friends, and I’ll admit, I’m terrified of how much letting go of her is going to hurt. So it seems that every time I make some progress on this, just when I think that I trust the two of them enough to believe they will be understanding and sympathetic, the doubts come roaring in. They tell me what an awful idea this is, how I shouldn’t be putting H and D in this position, that they’ll resent me for doing so, you’re going to make a fool of yourself etc., etc. Several times I’ve come close to taking everything I’ve written, tearing it up and keeping my damn mouth shut.
I’ve sought advice from friends outside of our mutuals and its ranged from saying that I should just tell her how grateful I am she helped me in the past but that telling her I’m in love with her would just cause things to go south to a friend who had been in a similar situation telling me that I should tell them everything for the sake of my mental and emotional well-being. I guessed that maybe I need some help on how to go through with this one more time before I finally finish it and that’s where you come in, as I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get it from a professional and impartial outsider. So here’s my question, Doc: am I doing the right thing by telling her and if so, how would you advise I go about doing so and maybe some idea on how to deal with any possible fallout from this, good or bad?
Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t
The question of “do I tell my crush about how I feel” comes up a lot around here. I’m not surprised; it’s a popular topic and one that captures the imagination easily. It’s hard to think of any TV show, series of novels or comics involving relationships that doesn’t have someone agonizing over whether to tell somebody else how they feel. It’s prime fodder for romcom drama and we all love to think that confession is good for the soul.
But here’s what I ask everyone who asks me if they should confess their feelings: what, exactly, do you expect the object of your affections to do with this knowledge?
See, that’s the part people have almost never thought through with any seriousness. Folks tend to focus on the act of confessing – should they, shouldn’t they? – and not so much on the response and the aftermath. If they have thought about what they want out of this, then it’s usually for the person they’re in love with or crushing on to be so moved by their confession that they reveal their own feelings in return. I mean, that’s the romcom formula, isn’t it?
And if you’re on a CW show… well, maybe that’ll work for you. But in reality, it rarely works like that. As appealing as it is to think that the depth and breadth of our feeling is enough to win somebody over, falling in love isn’t a reciprocal action. We don’t love folks just because they love us SO VERY HARD.
(And to be honest, if we do, then that’s rarely a healthy relationship.)
So I’m asking you: what exactly do you expect H to do with the knowledge that you’re in love with her?
Think about that for a moment while I go a little deeper into this.
Most of the time I tell folks that they shouldn’t “confess” their feelings and sit back; they should be proactive and ask for what they actually want – usually a date. The “I like you” tends to go along with the date. And even if it’s someone trying to leave The Friend Zone, I tend to tell them to come at this from a point of action: “I’m interested in trying to be more than friends and would like to take you on an actual date and see how things go,” rather than just “I have feelings for you.”
(Standard disclaimer: there is no Friend Zone, there are just people who don’t want to date or sleep with you.)
But that’s not what you’re asking. Here, you’re trying to unburden yourself. And to be honest, your case isn’t that unique. I’ve heard from lots of folks who think that confessing their love for somebody will be the first step towards getting over them. And frankly? I have no damn idea why they think that. This isn’t like doing the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, where the first is to admit your powerless over booze. Confessing your feelings for somebody doesn’t make those feelings disappear. All that’s likely to disappear is the tension, that feeling of having to hold things in and the effort of keeping certain words from escaping the barrier of your teeth. And in fairness, letting go of that tension can feel great, like a knot that suddenly releases.
But it isn’t going to make your feelings go away.
What it will do is put the responsibility for managing your feels on H. Because this isn’t something that you can do in a vacuum. You may be releasing that tension in you, but you’re dropping your feels at her feet like a cat bringing a bird to its owner and expecting her to pick it up. But while a bird can be scooped up and tossed in the trash, the knowledge of how you feel – and the meaning of those feelings – can’t be as easily discarded and forgotten about. She’s now going to have to figure out what to do with this knowledge. Does she try to pretend like you didn’t say anything and just laugh it off? Does she try to talk you down from how you feel? Does she have to reconsider her relationship with you, for fear that she’s leading you on or giving you false hope? Does she tell D about this, or does she keep it from him in order to not stress him out, or avoid getting him involved? Will his knowing of how you feel affect how comfortable he is with H spending time with you? Will he feel like he needs to say something now?
And this is all in addition to your fundamentally asking H to reconsider everything about your relationship together. While you didn’t enter into this friendship in hopes of eventually transitioning it into a romantic relationship, dropping this knowledge on her is going to make her reconsider everything. It’s almost impossible for it not to. And that’s going to stress her out too.
So once again: what do you expect H to do with this knowledge, if you confess? What do you hope will happen? And, if you’re perfectly honest with yourself: do you think that your unburdening yourself like this is worth the potential fallout?
Now I will freely admit that I’m stomping all over your dreams, DIDDID and I’m sorry. I don’t do this because I want to revel in your misery but because I’m trying to spare you from an even bigger hurt in the future. While I can’t say that this would damage or end your friendship with H, it will change it. It can’t not change things. And I suspect that those changes will hurt you far more. Even if it doesn’t “ruin” things – for suitably personal values of “ruin” – I think that all that you’ll be doing is trading one source of stress for another. Now instead of carrying this secret around, you’ll be left with the fear that you’ve ruined things, whether you have or not. You’ll read volumes into every hesitation, every delay in returning your texts and DMs and every time you don’t see her online. You’ll be reading the tea leaves, looking for evidence that you’ve detonated this bomb and now everything is falling down around you. And even if it’s not there, even if this is just a blip in the friendship and things eventually return to your usual status-quo, you’ll be waiting for that shoe to drop.
I don’t think you should confess how you feel… and honestly, I don’t think you need to. I think what you need to do is recontextualize how you feel. You’re seeing your love for her as a call to action, something that you need to do something about. You love her therefore you must act… somehow. What I suggest you do is simply take it as a state of being, rather than a command. Consider gratitude. Being grateful for something isn’t necessarily a feeling that you need to act on; it’s just a feeling that you have, a state of being. So it can be with love. Love doesn’t mandate action; it can just be something that you feel. And why wouldn’t you feel love and affection for someone who’s been such a positive influence on your life? But the fact that you feel love – not that you are in love but that you feel love – for her doesn’t mean that you need to do something about it. You just feel it. You can enjoy that feeling, you can be grateful for that feeling – just as you’re grateful to her for helping you through this patch of your life. You can let that feeling motivate you to be a good and supportive friend to H and D, and to be the same pillar of support that she has been to you. But you don’t need to be in love with her.
As woo woo as it may sound, that slight change of perspective, that substituting one word for another, can make all the difference. You’re not defining yourself by a command, you’re simply feeling a feeling. And in changing how you look at this, I think you’ll find that life will become much easier. You won’t feel like you have to tell her or that this is the only way to get over her. Instead, you’ll find that your feelings will change on their own. You won’t be as scared of losing her or worried you will have to give things up because that’s not what you’re looking for. She’s important to you, she meaningful and she’s done a lot for you. She is a good, dear friend and you love her. But you won’t be in love and tormented with that limerence. You’ll just feel love. And in feeling love… you’ll finally find peace, too.
And one more thing. I know a lot of folks are going to suggest that you tell her how grateful you are but leave out the L-word parts. And under other circumstances, I’d say that’s a great idea. But in the mindset you’re in right now? I don’t think you’re going to be in a position where you can tell her how grateful you are without accidentally confessing in the process. You won’t intend to, but the emotions of the moment are going to be pretty damn intense and, well… tongues slip, shit happens and suddenly you realize you’ve said things that you didn’t mean to say.
I think it is good to tell her how grateful you are and what she’s done for you. But I think it should wait until you’re less tormented and less consumed by the idea that you’re in love.