I really enjoy listening to your podcast and I like the advice you give on your website.
Over the last few years, I’ve reconnected with an old friend from university. We’ll have known each other for a decade this September. When I first met him and got to know him, I had very strong feelings for him but they went unrequited, so I got over it (eventually) and we became quite good friends.
When he moved to the same city as me three years ago, we started to reconnect. We stayed as friends and we’ve become closer than ever. We find each other physically attractive and can be very honest and open with each other about our feelings and relationships (even our sex lives).
Ever since the lockdown started, we’ve been leaning on each other for emotional support a lot more and we’ve even agreed to be each other’s back up spouses to appease the more “traditional” [read homophobic] members of our respective families as we’re both bisexual.
He has a boyfriend that he loves very much, but I think my old feelings for him are coming back with a vengeance. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been in lockdown for three and a half months alone or if it’s because I haven’t been in a relationship since my last one ended about 4 years ago. All I know is that my attraction to him seems to be getting more intense.
Should I tell him how I feel or just stay silent? I care for him very much and don’t want to do anything to implode his current relationship. I’d hate to be the cause of anything bad happening in his life.
Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
So Much To Say
I get this question fairly frequently, SMTS, in a number of variations. Sometimes it’s a person with a crush on a co-worker. Sometimes it’s about a classmate, an ex, or — in a number of cases — about various celebrities, YouTube personalities and Twitch streamers. Almost every time, the person writing in doesn’t have a romantic or sexual relationship with the other person. Either they’ve had an attraction to them from afar (or, at least, the relationship is strictly customer/service-industry worker) or they have a platonic friendship that thus far hasn’t had any hint of potential romance.
And when I get these questions, one of the first questions I ask in return is “so… what are you hoping to get out of telling them?”
That’s an important question to ask yourself, SMTS, because the answer to that question is why “Should I tell them how I feel” is haunting you. The odds are good that you’re harboring the fantasy that your crush is holding similar feelings for you and that, if you say something, then they’ll be willing to admit they return your feelings. Now that it’s all out in the open, well hey, now you can start dating and walk off into the sunset together.
Except it very rarely works that way. Most of the time when I field this question, it’s pretty clear that these feelings are fairly one-sided. And often, when people really drill down into both their relationship with the person and what they’re hoping to get out of telling them, is that they know that the other person isn’t interested. Perversely enough that awareness is the reason why they feel so strongly about saying something; it’s their Hail Mary pass, their last ditch attempt at forcing things to happen. There’s that fantasy that ok maybe they don’t know that they actually have feelings for you but by hearing you say it, they’ll reconsider. Or maybe that the power, depth and intensity of those feelings will convince them to give you a chance because…
… well to be perfectly honest, I’ve never actually understood that one. The logic of it — “you have to give me a chance because I feel so strongly for you” — is kind of disturbing if you get right down to it, but we see it played as romantic in songs, movies and pop-culture. I mean, shit, one of the most “romantic” movies of its time involves a character who threatens to commit suicide unless a woman agrees to go out on a date with him. But hey, it’s ok because they were fated to be together and honestly he looks like Ryan Gosling so let’s forgive how incredibly horrific and manipulative this shit is.
Sorry, kind of went off on a rant there.
In your case, SMTS, it’s pretty clear that you’ve been holding onto the hope that your friend might be interested in you for a while now. And hey, that happens. Sometimes crushes linger in the background and re-emerge at profoundly inconvenient times. But the fact of the matter is that this isn’t a relationship that has much of a chance. I mean, let’s game this out a little. Let’s say that you do tell him. Let’s even say that hey, he returns your feelings! So, now what? Well, there’s the awkward fact that he’s got a boyfriend, who he loves dearly. Unless they’re about to have a series of very uncomfortable conversations about polyamory — and starting a relationship with you as soon as he’s got the OK isn’t exactly the best practice — then that relationship is probably about to come to a screeching halt.
Then there’s the fact that, while he’s dealing with the fallout of his current relationship, the two of you are still under lockdown. And while theoretically you could immediately quarantine together, that’s a lot of stress to put on a relationship that only just started, and even more of a clusterfuck when he’s still trying to exit his current relationship in the process. So either you two start dating on expert difficulty right off the bat, or you transition to a de-facto long distance relationship right from the jump where…well, things don’t really change much.
Another possibility is that you tell him, he agrees that he has feelings for you… but he isn’t willing to do anything about them because either he doesn’t want to risk your friendship or his relationship with his boyfriend.
And then there’s the greater likelihood of your telling him and his saying “um… thank you?” and not knowing quite what to do with it because while he cares for you and values you, he doesn’t feel the same way for you.
Now if it seems like I’m coming down pretty firmly on “don’t say anything”, that’s because I am. Not just because I think the downsides outweigh the potential rewards, but because I’m a believer that just telling someone “hey, I have feelings for you” tends to put the onus of dealing with your feelings on them. I’m a much bigger proponent of taking a proactive approach, an approach where you say something along the lines of “hey I’d love to actually take you on a date and see if there’s any potential for the two of us. It’s cool if you’re not.” This doesn’t require them to manage your feelings or balance their response against it. It’s a much simpler proposition, one where their only responsibility is whether or not they want to go on a date. It’s generally understood that the attraction is there; people rarely ask someone they’re not attracted to out on a date, after all. And that date or dates gives them the chance to decide over a period of time whether they want to pursue something with you or if they simply don’t feel the same way.
But just as importantly: we’re in a crisis situation and we have been since March. Everyone’s been on edge, we’ve all been confined to our homes for three months and everything is louder than everything else, especially our feelings. You’ve been leaning on this guy for some serious emotional support and intimacy, you’ve got your previous unrequited feelings and I suspect that you — like all of us — are desperate for a human connection that isn’t just through Zoom and Skype. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of your feelings for your friend, I suspect that they’re artificially enhanced by circumstance. If we weren’t in lockdown, if you were able to go out and see other people and socialize… I suspect that what you feel for him would be warm, but far less intense.
So I think for now, you’re better off not saying anything. Once it’s safe to meet up with people in person again and you can socialize and get those needs for contact and connection met by others, we can revisit the question. But I suspect you’ll find that the intensity will fade once we’re no longer living under the threat of a global pandemic.
Took the step to write to you, because I’m in a situation I want to handle correctly, as I’m trying and focused on changing for the better those days. There’s this girl, who’s a bit younger than me, that I met last year during a concert. We vibed and kept being in contact. So far, she’s become a member of my concert organization and we have a fun relationship. We always had a good relationship, and after lockdown, I proposed to her to come over by my place to have a drink. She accepted and the night was fun. She slept at my place, on the couch because I didn’t saw any “favorable” signs telling me to take things further. We kept in contact afterwards, even if I found her a bit distant.
Yesterday, she asked me to come over to her place to listen to vinyls. She welcomed me in a kind of pajamas clothes, which made me think that she felt safe being “natural” with me. We spent the night talking vividly about music, being really enthousiast, laughing and sharing intimate anecdotes. The only thing that went wrong was by the end, just before I left. She was looking at her messages quite a lot, so I asked her if she wanted me to leave, which I proposed right away. She hesitated a bit (by politeness I guess) and said yes. When going to the door, we said goodbye but her voice was a bit “cold”, even the look in her eyes, like if she was annoyed by something.
Many signs, like the context, the sensation of closeness between us, tell me that we share something special, having good times and getting along well. But on the other hand, I feel like she doesn’t give me signals of interests, besides touching the tips of our fingers while exchanging the lighter.
She has a great personality, which I like a lot, with strong feminists opinions that we share. But I still feel like something’s going wrong, that maybe she’s waiting for something to happen by my initiative, or that there’s nothing and maybe I am trying to find signs too hard.
By then, I’m willing to know what I’m doing wrong or if I’m just seeing things that aren’t there. The fact is I really enjoy her company and really start to have feelings for her, but I don’t want to mess it up, like I’m used to do.
One of the most frustrating issues when it comes to dating are people’s attempts to read other people’s signs. The majority of people are really bad at it, for a number of reasons. For one: people tend to put too much importance on one particular gesture or behavior, without any real context for that behavior. Playing with one’s hair or adjusting or fidgeting with one’s clothes is often held up as a sign that someone’s attracted… but just as often, it’s a form of self-soothing or a sign of anxiety. Someone might touch another person on the arm or shoulder, which is another traditional sign of attraction… but they may just be someone who is just very touchy-feely. Without context for that behavior, any particular gesture or “sign” is just noise, without meaning.
There’s also a lot of, well, wishful thinking involved. Guys are especially prone to seeing anything as being a sign of interest because they want it to be a sign of interest. Guys who, for example, really want to believe that the friend they have a crush on is into them will take almost anything as a sign to keep hoping that maybe, MAYBE she’s starting to come around. Did her voice sound a little different when she said “hi”? That’s a sign! Did she not immediately laugh off the idea of maybe possibly hanging out some time? That’s a sign!
Then there’s the fact that some of the signs that guys see are indeed signs… but they’re not the signs they think they are. Men, as I’ve said many times before, have very few emotionally intimate relationships. We’re taught from our early teens onwards that emotional intimacy is equivalent to sexual or romantic intimacy, that it’s something we’re only supposed to have with people we might conceivably fuck. And so we are both starved for an emotional connection and misunderstand it when we have it. Women, on the other hand, are actively encouraged to have emotionally close, open relationships with others. Female friendships are, as the saying goes, face to face; they’re encouraged to connect, to share and to bond. Male friendships tend to be side-by-side; they’re often based around shared activities rather than emotional connections.
When the women in a man’s life offer emotional intimacy, openness and closeness, men have a tendency to mistake that for romantic or sexual interest. As a result: they either think that their friend is treating them like a boyfriend and get confused and upset when she doesn’t want to date them… or they end up in The Friend Zone. Meanwhile their friend gets upset because she was just acting like a friend and doesn’t understand why her buddy put her in The Fuck Zone.
(Standard disclaimer: there is no such thing as The Friend Zone. There are just people who don’t want to date or sleep with you.)
So let’s get to your situation, CK. The short version is that I think you’re seeing things that aren’t there. The reason why you’re getting frustrated and confused is because there’s a conflict between what you want to see and what you’re actually seeing. Things like your fingertips touching when you share a lighter isn’t really a sign of anything other than “you’re passing off a lighter”. On the other hand, that sense of closeness, the way she acts with you and the way that you both enjoy each other’s company? Those are all indicators that she thinks you’re a good friend. And y’know what? That’s a damn good thing. She likes spending time with you and feels comfortable with you. That’s all a mark in your favor. That speaks well of you as a person.
And the fact that you enjoy spending time with her doesn’t mean that this is something that needs to be upgraded to romance. It’s good to have people to spend time with, people you feel secure with and that you can be close to. That’s an incredibly valuable thing to have. Having her as a friend is going to bring more good to your life than trying to force it into a shape it’s simply not meant to fit into.
Besides: she may not be into you, but she may well know people who would.
Now considering how confusing signs can be and how easy it is to misread them, let me leave you with the one guaranteed way to know if someone likes you — the way you can be 100% assured of knowing whether or not they’re interested in you sexually or romantically.
Ask them out on a date.
Just say “hey, I really enjoy spending time with you and I’d love to take you out on a date to do X thing at Y time. Are you interested? It’s totally fine if you’re not”.
Then you’ll get your answer — an answer you can be sure of, instead of spending more time trying to read the tea leaves.