So you’ve got this great friend. You do everything together: shop, hang, talk, work out, talk about your lame love lives and NATO expansion. You know each other’s families; you take care of each other’s plants. You fend off friends’ suggestions that you should be a couple, saying, “No way, that would be too weird!”
But then, somehow, you realize, that what you really want to do … is the one thing you haven’t done together.
So you (a) freak out, and (b) make a list.
|- friendship as sturdy foundation for Relationship||- friendship crumbles under weight of Relationship|
|- undeniable attraction, intense bond||- can’t kiss friend, cooties!|
|- close-knit group of friends think we should be together||- if something goes wrong, who gets the friends?|
|- It’s fate.||- I’m horny.|
Valid points, all. And here are a few more, from Denver psychotherapist Carolyn Bushong: “Romances built on friendships can be deeper, stronger, and in some cases more ‘equal’ than others, especially when they start off mutually, with no one taking the role of pursuer or pursued. But, she says, love that didn’t start as lust also comes with a unique set of pitfalls and second thoughts. Couples may be troubled not only by the high stakes of gambling on a valuable friendship, but also by the feeling of having “settled,” she points out. “Especially when things aren’t going well, one person might wonder ‘What if I never was all that attracted to him? What if I was just comfortable…?’”
Ugh. So what are you going to do? Especially ’cause you can’t ask your, uh, friend for advice. That, of course, is where BG comes in:
- What to ask yourself.
“What flavor of friends are we?”
Are you longtime pals from, like, before you were old enough to date? (Pro: The “Mr./Ms. Right There All Along” thing. Con: You’ve already bathed together.) Or are you more recent friends who, for whatever reason (say, other boy./ girlfriends) have never had the opportunity to upgrade? There’s no one right way to proceed in either case; I’m just trying to give you ways to calibrate your feelings. In the latter scenario, for example, it’s possible that you’ve become friends because you’re attracted to one another — but you’ve been treading water for so long that no one dares take the plunge.
“Is the crush enhancing the friendship — or interfering with it?”
I can say with complete certainty that YES, men and women can be just friends. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t wondered “what if?” about practically everyone you know, and it doesn’t mean you don’t develop crushes from time to time (hey, just about anyone can start to look like The One when s/he is The One … Who Calls). So: does this crush add a flirty frisson to the friendship — or, at this point, does it actually take something away — from both your rapport together and the rest of your life? … Like, you really DON’T want to hear about his/her date last night. You can’t enjoy the party when you’re tracking your “friend’s” whereabouts. And, as a result, you’re lukewarm about the other hotties milling around.
Again, these situations do not present an absolute either/or, but: in the first case, I’d say take your time. No rash moves. Enjoy the crush it while it lusts. I mean lasts. It could even be permanent … but sometimes that is exactly what you have: Friendship Plus. 10% more fruit juice. You know? Yum.
So in the former case, you’re getting your friend AND all that tingly goodness. Fine. But in the latter, you’re getting — frankly — neither. That’s why, in case #2, you really might want to take a chance take a chance take a chickachancechance (reference both to ABBA and to the teeth-chattering, stuttering fear that this prospect no doubt invokes. Don’t worry, I’m still here.).
- What to say to your “friend.”
How you feel: “We would be perfect together. This is incontrovertible fact. I will die if we can’t be together, and also if I mess this up. But hey, sport, no pressure.”
What you say: “Um. Hi. Um. Hi. Hi. Oh, I said that. Um. Okay. Hey, you know, I have to say, I’vealwayswonderedwhatitwouldbelikeifyouandIwereyouknow <sotto voce> morethanfriends.” BG’s point: no matter how strongly you feel, I recommend that you bring this up as A conversation about A possibility. Keep decisions, demands, and death out of it. Way less scary, for both of you.
What you say (alternate): “MMMMMWWWWWWHHHHHPPPFFFTTTTTTT.” That is: Sound of a big fat brave kiss (sorry, no RealAudio). The smooch surprise is a completely viable approach. But no matter how strongly you feel, I recommend that you bring this up: without tongue.
Also: If given the opportunity, find a way to squeeze in the point that — while you couldn’t not ask — it is also okay with you to remain friends. (Unless it’s not. See “Embarrassed as Heck,” below).
- What to be prepared for.
1. Flat out rejection. OWOWOWOW. Let’s just get this one out of the way, shall we? IT COULD HAPPEN. Important: state explicitly that since you would like to maintain the friendship (if indeed you would), you duly accept the rejection and assert that you will not pursue them or try to change their mind. You may not feel this way, but this is your task. And they have your word. They are, after (before) all, your friend. Things may feel weird at first, and I can’t guarantee that they’ll ever be quite the same. But if you are/act kind and respectful and dignified, hey, really, what else can you do?
2. “I need to think about it.” Hell’s bells! Worse, perhaps, than Option 1. All you can do is: take his/her word for it. Let them think. Don’t try to earn or win or perform. Ask what they need; give it to them. (Note: see-how-it-feels nooky does not count.) Then proceed to Option 1 or 3.
3. Cue love theme. Yesssss! (Also, MMMMMWWWWWWHHHHHPPPFFFTTTTTTT.) For all the “pros” described above, many happy Harrys and Sallys do manage to keep their footing after making the leap from friends to lovers. In fact, they say that while the presence of friendship is what makes the transition rocky, it’s also, ultimately, what pulls them through. Yay.
But I can’t let you go without two big fat caveats:
> You can’t just add romance and stir. It will not just be all the same stuff as before, plus kissing. I can’t predict exactly what new issues and insights will come up between you; point is, don’t be freaked when they do. No matter how comfortable you feel with each other, this IS new territory for you guys.
> You are still taking a chance. But when are you not? Look, just like any other relationship that begins any other way, this may or may not work out. And if it does not, you may not be able to distill your old friendship back out, intact, from the fizzy new mixture. THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU MADE A MISTAKE. Inspirational speech: Perhaps the friends -to-lovers evolution was natural, powerful, irresistible, even inevitable — just not, for whatever reason, permanent. Call it an encounter with the worth-it chaos of life and love, where feelings burst out of the words and labels with which we try to contain them. Painful though the fallout may be, hey, whatever: better passionate messiness than tepid, prudent restraint and lingering what-ifs. Right? Look at it this way: you did not kill what otherwise would have been an eternal friendship; perhaps you two always were, ultimately, more than friends.
A version of this column was originally published September 28, 1998.