I don’t want to mess up our friendship by dating.

Recently, I was watching Neil LaBute’s intriguing romantic drama, Possession, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, and the classically beautiful Jennifer Ehle (best known for her role as Elizabeth in the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice). The film revolves around the dual plot of two literary scholars (Paltrow and Eckhart) and the scandalous affair they unearth between the poets they study (Northam and Ehle). Paltrow and Eckhart’s characters develop a genuinely sweet friendship, which gently grows into a romance (albeit at the breakneck pace required for a 2-hour film). During the course of which, one says to the other something along the lines of, “I don’t want to mess up our friendship by getting romantically involved.”

While I highly appreciate a message in modern-day film saying, ‘Let’s slow down,’ and, ‘I genuinely appreciate you as a human being and a friend and not just as a sexual interest,’ the appeal to, ‘I don’t want to ruin what we’ve got,’ is quite common not just in film, but in real life, and it got me thinking. It seems to me that when we shy away from a potential romance because we fear losing what we’ve got, we are being foolish. Once romantic feelings come into the mix (mutual or otherwise), things have changed already; you’ve already “lost” your friendship—insofar as you’re trying to define the friendship by what it was. We can’t hold on to what no longer exists.

Relationships that are worth anything are worth taking risks for. Certainly we don’t want to run around haphazardly, never looking before we leap, but relationship is all about risk. That’s faith. That’s love. It’s about being vulnerable to loss, and consequently, open to gain. (See also the risks God is always taking on us.)

Friendships worth their salt (ie. the really good ones we don’t want to “mess up”) are likely to be strong enough to survive even when things “don’t work out.” I’m well aware there are many a horror story about friendships which never recover from a fizzled romance. But I wonder if that doesn’t often have more to do with the strength of those friendships in the first place, our maturity, and perhaps most particularly, the manner in which we maneuver our romantic relationships once in them.

At any rate, these were just some of my off the cuff thoughts on the topic. I’m sure there’s much more here to explore. What do you think?

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22 Responses to I don’t want to mess up our friendship by dating.

  1. Brian says:

    I can think of two other important factors:
    1. How deep were these feelings by the time the two talked about it?
    2. Did both have feelings, or just one.
    3. If only one had the feelings, how powerful was the sense of rejection?

    Those are just off the top of my head, no personal experience necessarily implied…

    • reneamac says:

      Those are good caveats, Brian. It’s true, my discussion and premise depend upon/assume mutual feelings.

      Another aspect to this, I believe, is the nature of friendship in and of itself: friendships, especially in our more transient seasons–which happens to also be when most people do most of their dating–are, largely, seasonal, perhaps especially male-female friendships. And that being the case, I think it’s also okay when we aren’t able to stay friends, or stay at the level of friendship.

      We grow and learn from rejection and “failed” relationships. I don’t have a single ex I regret, but even if I did, I’m willing to bet I will have grown and matured, learning about myself and relationships in general.

      Good points.

  2. Rhett & Valerie says:

    This was really well-written. I remember talking with you about this at L’Abri! I think it’s true… you’re going to lose one way or the other. And even if you end up with someone else, your friendships with people of the opposite sex are going to all take a very appropriate step backwards anyway.

    Like what was alluded to before, I wonder if it’s worth losing the friendship, though, if one party is fairly confident that the other doesn’t/won’t share their feelings. In that case, I think it may be better to let these feelings lie (and perhaps try to move on) rather than confess them and create an awkward situation AND distance. What do you think, friend? (I’m picturing a balcony scene all of a sudden at Bellevue!).

    • reneamac says:

      “And even if you end up with someone else, your friendships with people of the opposite sex are going to all take a very appropriate step backwards anyway. ”

      Yes. This is a major part of what I was alluding to in my comments above. Well put.

      I also agree with you that there is probably a time and place to serve the other by keeping quiet about one’s feelings. Part of the trouble is incorrigible hope inevitably comes along hand in hand with romantic interest (it must, or we’d none of us ever ‘risk it’) so that it is nearly impossible to be confident in the other person’s disinterest. Overall, I think the bigger onus is more consistently upon the one who is uninterested romantically. Sometimes life is just awkward and we need to be more okay with that and learn to be gracious.

      (The other side of the coin would be the many instances in which one is confident in the other’s disinterest and couldn’t be more wrong. Yet this confidence dissuades the one from making a move, he/she pines away for nothing, and an opportunity is missed.)

      I understand, and again, think there’s a place for Smit’s condemnation of the ‘I must tell you my feelings or die’ sentiment [from Dr Smit’s excellent book, Loves Me, Loves Me Not], but wonder if overcoming this emotion is an act of the will more readily available to some than others. I tend to want to balance Smit with a point which Frederick Buechner puts to words so well: “Pay mind to your own life, your own health, and wholeness. A bleeding heart is of no help to anyone if it bleeds to death.” If we recognize that Smit’s overall premise (that we ought to be as truly other-oriented as we can be by God’s grace when we like someone who doesn’t like us back and vice versa) must include Buechner’s, then we will be doing well I think in our efforts to orient our romantic lives toward Christ’s Kingdom.

      Love to you, my friend.

      • Rhett & Valerie says:

        What a great reply! It’s like you anticipated it. 😉

        Of course, I think we’d agree that there are times/places that you shouldn’t voice your interest. Period. Some examples:
        -The other person is married
        -The other person is in a position of vulnerability/subservience/not equal to you (ie professor to student)

        But that goes under the fold of being “other oriented”. Love the Buechner quote.

        xo

        • reneamac says:

          Goodness yes, those scenarios didn’t even enter my mind because their so off the table, especially the married scenario. I’m glad you point them out, because in our feelings-reign-supreme social context, all boundaries go out the door so that it is impossible to be other-oriented.

  3. Let me join you two on the balcony at Bellevue!

    “I wonder if that doesn’t often have more to do with the strength of those friendships in the first place, our maturity, and perhaps most particularly, the speed at which we maneuver our romantic relationships once in them.”

    I think this is the main point of many reasons a relationship heads one way or the other. And I think it’s important for us to define what “romantic” looks like for each relationship that would cause it to be different than just a friendship. Does that make sense to you or just in my head?

    • reneamac says:

      Joy, welcome to the balcony! 🙂

      The quote you’ve pulled was really one of my major points. Are you saying we need to consider how a friendship-turned-romance should be handled differently from situations where we begin dating someone with whom we’ve no such history? I quite agree with that.

      (Looking out my window, I can almost see the Alps. <3)

  4. Marie says:

    It’s amazing how you said everything I was thinking. I have known this person every since high school and in between me moving away and going to
    college and her living her life….we ended up
    seeing each other at the high school reunion. It had been like maybe 8 yrs. since I’ve seen her. I have always been attracted to women but never acted upon it until her. She has been in relationship with men and women but I’ve only been with men. Well she was in a relationship with a guy but not anymore. So….in the mist of that she develops feelings for me that were there every since high school(that’s what she told me) and I developed feelings for her as well. So we text and flirt and said the I love you’s and I miss you’s and everything …but she would tell me that she doesn’t want to cross that line bc she doesn’t want to ruin our friendship. But then she made a statement and said that…”No matter if it’s right or wrong I would be with you anyway”. One time she ended up kissing me and said that she should haven’t done that. My point in all of this is that I feel stupid bc my feelings have developed deeply for her but I’m getting mixed signals from her and it’s weighing on my heart badly. I’ve told her how I felt and she thought that maybe we needed to chill out but then here comes the mixed signals again. Then I think about why I decided to be single in the first place. We haven’t gone passed flirting and that 1 kiss. I really need some help with this situation.

    • reneamac says:

      Hi Marie. Thanks for commenting and sharing your story, painful and confusing as it is. My heart goes out to you. It seems to me as though your friend, who you wish were more than a friend, wants to have her cake and eat it too: hence the mixed signals. Either she is genuinely confused and conflicted and concerned about messing up your friendship, or she likes you, likes flirting with you, but isn’t really that interested in an actual relationship with you. I don’t know either of you personally, so I can’t say, but those are pretty much what your options boil down to. If such a person exists, it might be worth asking someone who knows and cares about you both which option seems more accurate.

      If it’s the later, then the sooner you call it off, even the friendship… or at least the emotional closeness of the friendship, at least for a while, the better. I know that’s difficult and painful, but trust me, it’s not as difficult and painful as allowing yourself to be strung along.

      If it’s the former—if she really does care about you and your friendship—you need to let her know (more resolutely this time) that you can’t handle the mixed signals any longer and she needs to make a decision. If she needs a few days to think about it, that’s fine (I wouldn’t let it drag on… no longer than a week I think), but you’ve obviously reached that point where it’s time to fish or cut bait: either she wants a real relationship or she doesn’t.

      And then YOU need to decide. Either you can continue being friends with some definite boundaries drawn about not flirting… physically, verbally, or otherwise… or you need to not be friends, at least for a while. You may decide to try to be non-flirting friends and find it doesn’t work and then decide you need to not have any contact for a while. That’s okay. If she’s really your friend she’ll understand. Or you may come to discover that even being just platonic friends is too painful for you and you need to not even be friends for a while. That’s okay too. After all, it’s not really that you’re not friends anymore necessarily, it’s that you aren’t friends in contact, at least for a season, like you were before you reunited at your reunion.

      Don’t feel stupid. Your feelings are real, and if she’s a person who is worth liking, even if your feelings aren’t reciprocated, they’re not stupid.

      From my heart,
      Renea

  5. Josephine says:

    I realize this was posted ages ago but it really is amazing how right you are. I am currently in this situation where I met a guy at the start of the year, and over this period of time we have become really really really great friends. He recently just asked me out and I have no idea how to respond. I know that I will at least be in constant contact with him for the next couple of years so I don’t want to mess up our friendship and the worst thing is I don’t know if I like him or not. I don’t know what to do! I really don’t want to hurt his feelings because he really is such an amazing guy.

    • reneamac says:

      Hi Josephine. I think the real issue for you is, like you said, that you don’t know if you like him [romantically] or not. If you think you might like him if you give it a try, then give it a try! But if you turn him down, let it be because you don’t have romantic feelings for him, not because you are afraid of losing his friendship and/or making things awkward between you. Whatever you decide, be honest with him and tell him straight up. Guys appreciate that.

  6. Kirsten Bohme says:

    I have been working with this guy for like almost 4 years. He is sweet and always treated me like an adult and not a sixteen year old little brat like the rest of the kids that worked there. I knew I was too young then. When I got to the age of….18 I believe I really started to get ahead of my years with my family isssues and everything. Anyways. When I turned 18 he was becoming 25. Yes 7 year age difference, and I knew this was going to be a problem when I began to find him interesting and I wanted to get to know him more. He asked for my number but we really never really texted that much until I moved away to college. THAT is when he started to text me every night, we would call each other like4 times a week. He always knew if something was wrong and generally he was there for me. We started to hang out a little before I went to college was awkward at first. But when I came back to visit from college he would be like “where are you” “when can I see you” “You coming by work?” To see him. He would always take me out for dinner and a movie. Or bowling. ALways opened the door for me. Smiled, always listened to me, like actively listen to me, or remembered a conversation we had like months ago.
    Here is where my feelings for him really took off, like this made me jump the cliff and fall hoping he would catch me.

    I told him I was afraid of coming him for break because I liked who I was at college, stronger, more forth right, respected, didnt take bullshit anymore… like i became more mean or something, or badass as my friends would say. They never believed me when i told them i was the complete opposite back home. When I told him this (i also forgot what else I have said too) he responded with “Dont change too much, or you wont be Kirsten anymore”

    Now, I am a girl who has been bullied, used, mentally abused, cheated on, like I have been put lowest to the low. I had no worth from what people made me feel like. My ex best friend (a guy) told me i should change to fit the guy I like. Which defeats the purpose. ANyways. TO hear this, made my heart cry. THis guy just said like the…most beautiful sentence ever for me to listen. TO just hear that, I cant even describe how hard I fell.

    Well after amonth or two into my first year of college, I told him that I liked him more than a friend, and that I like how he treats me, and just is there and sees me as a girl not “one of the guys”. Well, got quiet and he said these words.

    “I’m not really looking for a relationship right now…”

    Well…wasnt a no or a yes. But…was weird. Well we just continued on or friendshiply ways. He knew I liked him and he treated me the same. The vibe felt a little different, he hugged me more often. But didnt really do much more than that. Still took me out, texted me or called me when i needed someone to talk to. Summer break we hung out like twice a week. then I left again and he was well…. upset. Well he looked upset and he was like “be safe” and all that.

    Sooo then I have survived one year of college, then the time came back around a again. Fall in october of 2010 i told him i liked him. Then 2011 october came. bout the sammmee damn time. This time when I went home for the weekend i couldnt take it anymore. I tried hanging out and hooking up with other guys at college but all I wanted was him. SO i wrote a letter, being straight the hell forward. I told him I want more than friendship and I cant see you as a friend anymore. (heres the embarrassing part) I know where he parks his car at work and stuck teh letter under if windshield wipers.
    Got a call later that night, asked if i wrote the letter i said yes. And I have no idea hwere this confidence came from but i told him straight up that is how I felt.

    His reply? “I’m not looking for a relationship right now, its not a no or a yes, its a good possibility for the future…but not right now..”

    Then I plainly asked him. “If youre leading me on, tell me now. If you dont see me anymore than a friend, youre too good of a guy to lead me on and something tells me youre not but.. I really cant handle that. If its friendship its friendship.”

    Talk back and forth blah blah blah. Comes down to this.

    “I have had and seen to many friendships get ruined by having a relationship.” So this is the reason…doesnt want to risk it now….okay..

    So that was like a month ago. Not much has changed. Still takes me out still talks to me, worries bout me and everything. Theres probable more details but too much to write.. but like. I know he likes me, i know he does. Just something is holding him back…or am I just complelty stupid and being led on like people are trying to warn me about. but he is like no other guy friend i have ever had. Doesnt talk about other women, doesnt look at other women when with me. Nothing just its me and him.

    So…am I being led on or is this dude believe that I am too good for him and just wants to leave it as friendship. Or what is he scared of.

    Like I am literally tearing apart a lot of things to see what the problem is. And I don’t want to push him but I want this. And I know I am not giving signs of desperation, unless i am… idk.
    I’m just so confused.

    Should I move on? Wait? Because this is worth it I feel it, in my heart, I am so sure. And to say all this is like…huge. I have never thought myself as worth something. But I am worth the risk. I believe this.

    • reneamac says:

      Wow. Thanks, Kirsten, for writing and sharing your story because there are others out there in a similar situation who need the encouragement too! If I’ve got the timeline right, you’ve had feelings for this friend of yours for 3, going on 4 years. That’s a heck of a long time. I can tell you’re a “sink with the ship” kinda gal. That’s a good quality.

      I don’t know your friend, but chances are he is not maliciously stringing you along or leading you on. Most likely, he genuinely does value you and your friendship and he’s afraid of messing that up and loosing you. And yet, even though his intentions may be good, his actions are selfish. You’re in misery. And by refusing to just say no, he is keeping you miserable, in limbo.

      As I see it, you only really have one option considering all the information you’ve given. Move on. You have to move on.

      Now, you can do this one of two ways: you can move on while still being his friend, or you can move on entirely. Both are valid options. I know everyone thinks that the more noble choice is to continue being friends, but that’s just not true. Sometimes what is more healthy for both of you is to let go of the friendship too.

      If you decide to still be friends, you’ll need to reestablish some boundaries in your friendship with this man and let your feelings for him fade. You’ll need to let him know that you’re fine just being friends but that your friendship has to change. You can’t spend time with him in the same way you would a boyfriend. That’s gonna keep you from being able to get over him, and it will keep you from being able to be with someone who actually wants to be with you! And, this won’t work if you’re trying to use other guys to help you forget about or have fewer feelings for your friend. It. Won’t. Work. On top of being an unhelpful solution for you, what you’re really doing is using people, and that’s just plain wrong.

      If however, you decide you can’t just be friends because you’ve tried that already and it didn’t work. It might not be possible for your feelings to fade. That’s okay. Let him know you can’t be just friends with him, that you don’t see him as just a friend and it kills you to be just his friend; that you want something more and you’ll never be satisfied with less. If that’s how you feel, that’s okay, and it’s important to know what you want and persue it insofar as what you want and your persuit of it is not self-centered in a way that comes at the cost of another person.

      Who knows, moving on may show him that he can’t have his cake and eat it too. It may help him realize that he does indeed have feelings for you as you feel sure he does, or if nothing else, that he is already messing up his friendship with you by trying to hold on to you in a way you’re unable to be held.

      Like I said, this may happen as a result of moving on and not hanging out with him anymore. But, it may not. So you can’t decide to stop hanging out with him entirely on the hope that this will happen. If you need to move on, you need to do it out of care for yourself and care for him even if he never returns your romantic feelings.

      However, if you decide to have your cake and eat it too by still holding on to him or the idea of him even though it’s killing you, then you can’t blame him for making you miserable; you’re making yourself a martyr and you only have yourself to blame. So, if you can’t just be his friend, then you ought to let him go. It’s a diservice to you and to him to hold on to something that isn’t there.

      You’re absolutely right about one thing, Kirsten. You’re valuable. You’re worth the risk. So take a risk on yourself, and move on one way or another.

      I’m rooting for you.
      Renea

  7. Pingback: Flashback Friday: The Risk Worth Taking | speak what we feel

  8. Erin Colby says:

    Hi Renea,

    Thanks so much for featuring this topic and for replying to our comments!
    I wanted to share with you my story and maybe see if anyone else has been in this situation before, and I’d appreciate any advice you may have, as I am very confused.

    I have a had a good guyfriend for a few years, and I have really appreciated being around him. He has always been very good to me and safe and just what I needed in a friend. For a while he ended up liking me and asked to date, but I didn’t want to at the time because I didn’t know how I felt and because I was so used to dating guys who were mean to me, that I couldn’t see how great he really was.
    So it was awkward for a little while after that, but then we returned to being friends. Some months passed where we spent a lot of time together as just friends, and we both dated other people. I never felt jealous because he was just my friend, and because deep down inside, I never thought I deserved a man so good as him. I didn’t want to date him because I didn’t think I was good enough for him, and I didn’t want to “soil” his life by bringing in my baggage. What I now realize is that I had been hiding my feelings from myself for years because I was too cowardly to pursue something with someone who I actually thought it might work out well with.

    At some point later when we were spending time together, we talked about the idea of hooking up for a couple days, and then we actually hooked up. Immediately afterwards it was awkward, and we decided to talk. Then when we did, I told him how I felt. I had feelings for him and I wanted to try dating. But this time, he said it was a bad idea, because it would ruin our friendship, and he realized that he wants to be a good friend to me. He says that if we dated, there would be pain and hurt because the expectations would be different, but if we were friends then that wouldn’t happen.

    This confused me very much–I wonder if he just doesn’t like me anymore that way, or if he really is just afraid of ruining our friendship? What I don’t understand is that if he wanted to date me before and really cares about me in multiple ways, then why wouldn’t he try? The whole situation makes me sad because I miss his friendly company already. And I regret not having let myself take a risk before because I was too cowardly and also had low self-esteem.

    What do you think is happening here? Has anyone else been here before? What can I do to make this situation better?

    Sincerely,
    Erin

  9. reneamac says:

    Hi Erin.

    Thanks for commenting with your story. You’re right. Either he’s no longer interested romantically, or (and I think it’s important—especially as you consider him a trustworthy person—to largely give him the benefit of the doubt that he means what he’s said) he is nervous it won’t work because of your history together—particularly perhaps because yall’ve hooked up and that ‘didn’t work out.’

    So, which is it? There’s only one way to find out. I’m going to pull directly from my friend Sharideth’s recent post on this very issue. She wisely states:

    safe is lonely.

    friendship is to dating, what dating is to marriage. the trial period.

    stop limiting yourself.

    guys, for more on picking the lock on the friend box you’re in, read an open letter to nice guys.

    girls, find your pride… and move on. either he’ll realize he missed out and run you down or he won’t. then you’ll be free.

    Erin, you’ve gotta move on. You don’t need to convince yourself or force yourself to stop having feelings for him. Just close the door but leave the window open. Be friends if you can… if you can’t, don’t. But have boundaries. Don’t hang out with him all the time like you would a boyfriend. Don’t hookup. As my friend Joy says, don’t snack.

    I hope that’s helpful. Don’t spend too much time regretting the past or even your current situation, learn from it. I’m so glad you’re at a place now where you’re more confident in who you are. Use that confidence now. Stand up for yourself. If this guy really is your friend, he wouldn’t want you to do anything less.

    From my heart,
    Renea

  10. AC says:

    Hi all,

    I have a question, hope that’s ok. I have known this girl for a few years. Was attracted to her (noy just physically) but she was married. Recently I found out she wasn’t married, made contact and we went out a couple of times. There’s great chemistry between us, and a real connection. I honestly believe I could end up with her (I’m 41 so I’m pretty in tune with what I want and she is it).

    Anyway, we kiss after a great second date. She was into it. Later that week she becomes tougher to get a hold of, then she postpones date three, then she tells me she’s not ready to date; just came out of a relationship two months ago.

    I say no worries, and go on to probe as to whether I scared her off, or if the kiss was a turn offn knowing that the “I’m not ready” line is the oldest one in the book. She says, no, she thinks I’m great, in fact I could be her perfect match; she’s just worried she’ll screw up a great thing. I do believe she’s telling me the truth, and that she does really like me.

    My question is, why would she do this? If you like someone, why would you ask to put things on hold because you’re not ready? I’m having trouble extrapolating any logic from this. Any idea on what’s going on in her head?

    I hope to chat with her about it this weekend, but any insight would be helpful.

    Thanks

    • reneamac says:

      Hey AC. Welcome to swwf. The answer to your question is easy. She’s been hurt. She’s scared she’ll get hurt again. No one hurts us more than the people who love us. The greater the love, the greater the hurt. That’s why love requires discipline, hard work, communication. But I’m sure you know that already seeing as you’ve stuck with your love for so long thus far.

      The point is, she’s scared. And who can blame her? Divorce sucks. So give her time. Let her know you’re not going anywhere, that you know she’s been hurt and you know she’s afraid of being hurt again… Let her know you understand. But at some point she’s got to make the decision to stop living in fear. If she doesn’t do that but wants to be “safe” with you in the friend zone, you’ve got to move on one way or another for both your sakes. See my comment above to Erin.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      Rooting for you!
      Renea

  11. AC says:

    Thank you so much Renea. Makes sense. Really appreciate you taking the time to reply.

  12. Jamie says:

    Relationships are weird. Fell for a friend got many mixed signals. They don’t want to hurt the friendship bc I’m younger. But said if I were older they would date me. So I asked then u do feel something romantically? They said no. I’m concussed why would they say they would date if older.

    • reneamac says:

      Hi Jamie. Thanks for commenting.

      Maybe they said they don’t have romantic feelings for you because they didn’t want to get your hopes up. If this is the case, you need to respect that they don’t feel right about dating you and you need to move on for their sake and let them go.

      Or maybe they were only flattering you when they said they’d date you if you were older, but they didn’t really mean it. If that’s the case, then you need to move on for your own sake.

      Either way, it’s clear you need to move on. If you can’t be friends with them because your feelings are too strong, that’s okay. Do the hard thing and break off the friendship and don’t see them (at least for a while). Don’t fudge on this. You need to make a clean and complete break, otherwise you won’t be able to get over them and get a grip on the confusing feelings between you.

      If you don’t move on and get over this person, you will be unavailable to someone else who may be out there. So do yourself a favor and don’t waste any more of your time pining after this person.

      Rooting for you,
      Renea

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