Heya Doc. This letter was spurred by your recent column about letting folks down gently. My question is related but separate: how do I keep a relationship platonic when the romantic interest is mutual?
For some context: I’ve recently met this lovely person with whom I have a great deal in common, including stated romantic interest. However, for reasons unrelated, I (though poly) am not open for new relationships at this point, and falling in love would cause serious harm to both myself, this new friendship, and to my already established relationships.
We’ve spoken about this explicitly and seem to have a good understanding of each other’s positions, but I want to make sure my actions match my words here. It’s a precarious situation.
So. How do I maintain a platonic relationship with my new friend, while minimising the risk of catching feelings? Emotional intimacy is a major aspect of all my relationships, and I want that to be true for this new friendship as well, to the extent that I can manage it.
What advice do you have for navigating these deep waters? What are your do’s and don’t’s for not falling in love?
This is one of those times where I feel like an oracle in Greek myth, except my answer would probably be “You realize that by asking this question, you’ve more or less ensured the fate you’re trying to avoid is going to happen, right?”
The sad thing is that I’m only partially joking.
I’m, gonna level with you, LF; you can’t really force yourself to feel or not feel something, and trying to do so usually makes things worse. It’s rather like folks in monogamous relationships who get bothered by the fact that they’ve developed a crush on someone. The more that people try to force their feelings away, the stronger and more intense those feelings tend to become. Trying to bottle up your emotions or force them away is more akin to a pressurized gas in a fragile container; you may have it contained for now, but the odds are good that things are gonna blow up and make it everybody’s problem.
So, under normal circumstances, I would say you don’t need to worry that feelings are inevitable. After all, people are complex creatures, capable of multitudes; just because someone is friends with a person they’d be into doesn’t mean that sex or romance is automatically going to get in the way. Folks are quite capable of being happily platonic, no matter what When Harry Met Sally says.
The problem is that you and your bud already are attracted to each other. You both know it. You both are trying to avoid it… but you both know it’s there.
That can be an issue if the two of you aren’t very good at compartmentalizing. There’s only so much “oh but if things were different” you can do before you start thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if you indulged this a little. Especially when you, LF, already prioritize emotional intimacy in your relationships. While I’m very firmly of the position that emotionally intelligent folks can tell the difference between emotional intimacy and romantic attraction… the two tend to go together like nitro and glycerin when both parties are already into each other.
Does that mean that this friendship is doomed to fall under the weight of your mutual attraction? Not necessarily. A lot is going to depend on how disciplined you can be and how much you’re willing to sacrifice some of the emotional intimacy that is so important to you and your friendships.
A big part of how you can try to decrease the odds of falling in love is to try to try to avoid subjecting yourself to unnecessary temptation. I realize sounds like a sex-negative religious group telling men to block women with bikini pics on Instagram, but stick with me for a second. Human willpower is, in a way, a limited resource. Think of it like a muscle; you have a fairly finite amount of energy, and the harder that muscle has to work, the faster you burn through that energy supply. The less it has to work, the more energy you have overall. With willpower, the less you have to utilize it, the less likely you are to run into a scenario where you no longer have the willpower to resist a particular temptation. If, for example, you’re trying to cut sodas out of your diet, not having any in the house means that you don’t have to expend willpower to choose water instead of Dr. Pepper. Otherwise you end up in a situation where you’ve expended your willpower on other things — maybe you had an awful day at work — and you know you’ve got an ice-cold can of God’s own nectar in the fridge that would taste like pure happiness.
The same general principle applies to dealing with relationships. One of the things I suggest to folks who want a casual, no-strings relationship with a sex partner but want to avoid things getting more emotionally entangled is to avoid the trappings of romance. Get-togethers that feel particularly date-y — things like quiet, intimate restaurants, long walks on the beach watching the sunset, and so on — carry connotations and emotional associations that yell “WE ARE WORKING TOWARDS ROMANCE”. Similarly, getting deeply emotionally intimate in conversation, talking about future plans together…. the sorts of talks that people who are moving towards romance do also carries that connotation of love and emotional entanglements. Avoiding the sorts of behaviors that carry those connotations and implications helps keep the likelihood of developing feelings to a manageable level.
I realize that talking about framing and connotations sounds weird, but humans are bad at lying to ourselves and understanding why we feel the way we do. Our brains don’t rule our emotions; more often than not, our brains take their cues from what our bodies are doing and assign a reason for it that lines up with what it’s experiencing. When we do things that we associate with a particular behavior or emotion, our brains assume that we’re feeling that emotion. It’s part of why actors who play couples or whose characters fall in love will often end up dating; they’ve been imitating being in love and their brains said “oh, must be real, then.”
This sort of “brain follows the body” result is hard enough to shake. But there’s also the fact that you and your friend are already into each other; having those intimate moments together — especially alone, with physical intimacy or in a romantic atmosphere — makes it harder to say “we probably shouldn’t do this.” I mean, falling in love feels amazing; that new relationship energy makes our brains kick out the jams and dump dopamine and oxytocin into our systems. That increases the likelihood of hitting a point where you and your new friend aren’t going to be as able to pull things back a little.
And of course, it’s made that much harder when you’re constantly thinking “ok, can’t let this go too far, can’t fall in love, can’t let myself get too into this.” Much like trying to not picture a purple elephant — or, say, Bea Arthur wearing a strategically ripped Deadpool costume — the effort of not doing so just ensures that it will be on the top of mind. So it becomes this little reminder of how you feel that gets harder and harder to ignore, like a metaphorical rock in your shoe.
So as unpalatable as it may be for your usual relationships, having to keep this one a little at arm’s length until things have time to fade may be the key to not catching feels.
Now with all that being said… the problem isn’t falling for your friend, it’s what pursuing a romantic relationship with them would do. After all, catching feelings for somebody doesn’t mean that you have to do anything with them. You can realize you’re in love with somebody and not act on it. Emotions are just that — feelings; they’re not commands or obligations. You can be in love without doing anything about it. As I’ve said before: crushes, even romantic and sexual attraction are like a fire. As long as you don’t add more fuel, they burn out and fade on their own over time.
Rather than dwelling on it or pining away, you can note those feelings, name them, and just let them be. Rather than damming them up or taking them as a call to action, you can just let them flow through you. When you become aware of it, you say “ah, yes, that’s my affection for %FRIEND” and allow it to just be there while you do other things.
Of course, it helps if those other things aren’t, y’know, deep and meaningful conversations over a candlelit dinner or something.
Does this mean you can’t pursue a friendship with them? No, of course not. It can certainly work; it just means that the two of you will have to be mindful and willing to not act on this attraction. If you can manage that — or if you can keep this relationship at a bit more of a remove than you might prefer — then you can have a great and meaningful relationship. If you can’t… well, then you have to ask yourself whether this relationship would be worth the effect it would have on the other aspects of your life.
Just be aware that aspects of this friendship will be more difficult than they would be otherwise. Go into this understanding that and you have a better chance of things staying to a level you would prefer.
Hi Doc! This might seem like a weird question, but it is something i’ve been thinking about. I apologize if my phrasing is awkward, English isn’t my first language.
I consider myself a feminist and I am sympathetic to the situation that men put girls in. You often talk about how women feel the need to give a “soft” no, or not to reject at all, but to give a false hope since they might be afraid of the consequences if the reject too harshly. Everything from name-calling to physical abuse and such.
Consent and eagerness to go on a date is important to me. If they’re not stoked on going on a date, I don’t want to go on that date. However, when asking girls out I sometime get the “How nice! However I can’t that day since I am doing XYZ”.
Even though this is a rejection the fact that she said that it was nice/used another positive adjective, I feel like she didn’t reject cause she necessarily didn’t want to, she just couldn’t that particular day.
However, if a girl were to reject a guy as softly as possible, she would probably frame it as not being able to, rather that not wanting to. So how do I distinguish between those scenarios? I would hate to be a pushy guy, who doesn’t take no for an answer.
Before we get into this, NS, I just want to make a slight correction for clarity’s: women aren’t giving “false hope” when they use a soft “no”. A soft no is more about providing a plausible reason why that person (guys and non-binary folks will use soft no’s too) can’t do the thing. This way, it’s easier to believe that they aren’t saying “no” out of disinterest but because circumstances outside of everyone’s control won’t allow it. This means that the person doing the refusing doesn’t feel rude for saying no (or doesn’t feel at risk by doing so) and the person being refused can save face and not take it as a rejection of them, personally.
As a general rule, people generally recognize a soft no when they hear one. Most of the time, when we question whether that was a soft no or a genuine impediment, it’s because we don’t want to take it as a no, and so we latch onto the conditional. However, there are times when it may be hard to tell.
How can you tell the difference? Well, a good rule of thumb is that someone who is into you will make an effort to see you. If someone would like to go on a date with you and has a conflict of some sort — they’ve got an appointment that day, for example — they will usually make a point of suggesting an alternate day or time. If you ask someone on a date and they say “I can’t that day because XYZ, but I’m available next week…” then that’s not a soft no, just a scheduling conflict. If all they give is a reason why they can’t, then it’s almost certainly a “no, thank you”.
Now the way that you can be someone that women feel comfortable refusing or turning down is to take rejection with good grace. The more you can take a “thank you, but I’m not interested” like a gentleman and not get upset or change how you behave, the more comfortable people will be. And there are ways that you can signal in advance that it’s ok to say no. While I’m not a fan of pre-rejecting yourself, you can always invite the no; “Hey, it’s totally cool if not but would you like to…”
Of course, if I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan of this approach for most things as it tends to come across more as “It’s ok if you don’t want to go out with me, I wouldn’t want to go out with me either.” However, if it’s a large ask — finding out if a platonic friend is open to going on a date, for example — then inviting the no is telling them in advance that you’re going to be cool if they turn you down, which can help diffuse potential awkwardness.
But let’s say you’re in a position where you get “I can’t, I’m doing XYZ that day” and they don’t propose an alternate day… but you’re genuinely unsure whether that’s a no or not? Leave the ball in their court. Tell them “Hey, no problem. Let me know if you change your mind,” and then just move the conversation on to something else. If you do this, it’s important to not keep circling back to ask “Well, how about now?” You’ve made your interest known; if she decides she would like to go on a date with you, she presumably knows where and how to find you.
And here’s the thing: being able to take “no” in stride means you’re more likely to hear “yes”. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to turn that person around and get a date, but it does mean that you’re the kind of person people feel comfortable with. And that, in turn, means that those people will be more likely to want to pursue something with you. Attraction can’t exist without comfort and safety, after all.
I found your site a few months ago, and have really found your advice and commentaries to both helpful and enjoyable. I saw your request for relationship wins, so here’s the story of my wife and I.
We’re in our mid-late 40s. Neither of us really had much to write home about in regards to relationships and dating, and both had the lack of confidence that comes with having a minimal amount of experience, especially at our age. I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel, but decided to give it one last try, so I signed up for online dating, and that’s how we met. It took about a month for our schedules to line up for our first date, but, by the third date, we both realized, “Yeah, that’s the one.” Now, six very happy years later, we’re married, have a great home and life, and couldn’t be happier. To us, the best part is that the feelings are mutual: we love each other, are in love with each other, and neither of us can imagine even wanting to be with someone else.
I’m also hoping this can be an inspiration for some of your older readers who, like us, may not be the most worldly when it comes to relationships, because we’re living proof that you don’t have to be young (and a seasoned relationship veteran) to find happiness and the perfect soulmate!
Thanks for writing in and sharing your story, HC! Congratulations to you and your wife!
How about you, readers? Do you have a relationship success story to share? Send your relationship win to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Relationship Wins” in the subject header and you may see YOUR story in a future column!