Friendship is messy business. So is love. It’s hard to be friends with someone who turned a cheek to your kiss, or cut your heart strings. And yet, getting over rejection is basic adulting.
You crush on someone, and they let you down gently. Someone asks you over a drink, “So are you still friends?”
You shrug and say, “Sure.” And you try.
But it feels weird.
When you think about them, you still touch yourself.
The darker truth comes out. We have no idea what it means to be friends with someone we love.
Friendship is a stretchy word
There’s not a great word in English for the kind of relationships we have with the ones we love or loved, who don’t love us back. We use “friend,” a catch-all that ignores those infrared emotions.
Think about the different types of friends we have. This is why we always stick anterior shifters onto the f-word. We have work friends, college friends, high school friends, friends we have sex with…
Friendship means something different every time we say it. We even use friendship to define what a relationship isn’t.
We use the word “friend” too much
A lot of us define this as being friends with someone we used to have feelings for, like an ex:
You can stand being in the same room at a party, because they’re still in your social circle. You can make small talk. You’re not planning to frame them for murder or or anything.
You laugh at their jokes.
You even admire them from afar.
All of this makes you a mature, healthy person. But it doesn’t really make you friends, just acquaintances.
That’s such a thick, soupy word to drop into a conversation though. So we stick with the shorter one— a very loose definition of friendship. It’s easy to say, and hopelessly vague.
Calling them a friend doesn’t help
“Let’s just be friends” is a confusing thing to tell someone who has a crush on you, because it could mean anything. All it does is communicate what you don’t want — like physical intimacy.
Think about all the times you’ve heard someone say something like that, either to you, or someone else. Here’s what they really mean:
They’re not physically attracted to you.
They enjoy hanging out sometimes.
They don’t want to hurt your feelings.
Not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings isn’t friendship. We don’t coddle our real friends’ egos. We tell them the truth. We like spending time with them, and it never feels awkward. We share good news, bad news, and secrets. We gossip. We stay up too late.
We make them a part of our lives.
None of us want that kind of relationship with every single person on the planet, and probably not with someone who wants affection that we’re not prepared to give them. You’re better off telling the truth, instead of using a word that’s so open — and so vulnerable to misinterpretation. When you tell someone you want to be friends, but you really don’t, you’re not letting them down gently. You’re degrading them.
Sometimes you learn the hard way
In college I fell hard for a guy who wasn’t into me. He had a thing for a girl who looked just like me, and she even had the same name. Of course, the other Jessica wasn’t into him.
It confused everyone, especially me.
It kinda hurt, being the surrogate girlfriend he called up when he was lonely. We did everything a couple would, except touch. We went on dates. We went for long walks. We had deep conversations. One night he asked me if I thought friendship could turn into romance. He mused about how his mom couldn’t stand his dad before they started dating. A day later he un-invited me to a party. (The other Jessica was going to be there.) Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I stopped returning his calls.
A year went by, and we ran into each other at a cafe. He came up and apologized. “Can we be friends?”
I asked, “What do you mean…?”
“If I see you, I’d like to come up and say hi. Like this.” It sounded more like he wanted me to acquit him. Anyway, I agreed. If we crossed each other’s paths, we would smile and wave.
Fortunately, I never saw him again.
That conversation taught me what a lot of people mean when they say they want to stay friends. They want you to pretend you never had deeper feelings for them, and hide any pain you might feel.
True friendship can happen, but it’s rare
If we’re honest, we usually don’t want to be “just friends” with someone we have a crush on. It’s hard. You can easily wind up hiding from your real emotions, and make yourself unavailable to someone who might actually reciprocate your feelings.
Being someone’s friend doesn’t mean you keep spending time with them, secretly hoping they change their mind.
This isn’t Beauty and the Beast.
If you have a crush on someone, you can’t be their real friend until you deal with your feelings and stop wanting a romantic relationship. Before then, being around them will only shred your heart.
Nobody fantasizes about their friends
Nobody really wants to spend months or years pining after someone under the cloak of stealth friendship. They don’t want to turn anyone into Pavlov’s dog, either. You ring their bell, and they come drooling. But you never feed them what they so desperately hunger for.
There’s a simple fix.
You don’t have to hate someone to realize they’re not good for you. It’s nobody’s fault that the chemistry didn’t happen. You’ll still like them. You’ll even still crave their company.
A lot of times, you can’t have it.
You’re not ready yet.
So gift yourself the truth, and tell the other person. Here’s when you’ll know you’re ready to be their real friend:
Do you still think about them every day?
Would you do special favors for them?
Do you still fantasize about sex with them?
If they said they wanted to date you, would you say yes?
Those last two are pretty essential.
You can’t really be friends with someone if you think about them every time you touch yourself.
When you can answer these questions with an honest no, then you’re ready for friendship. Otherwise, keep your distance.
This advice also applies if someone has a crush on you. If you think someone’s not over their infatuation, then do them a favor. Tell them to ease off. Stop inviting them out. They might not take it well at first, but they’ll thank you later — if they turn into a real friend.