Asking for a Friend: In Love and In Agony

Dear Olive,

I’m in love with my best friend. We don’t live in the same city, but we text or talk almost every day, sometimes for hours at a stretch. We have a deep honesty in which we talk about sex (more graphically than I do with anyone else), our various crushes/partners when we have them, our families, money, our work, everything. We make each other laugh like crazy people, we’re in the same field, we have more in common than not, and as a rom-com character might say, he’s the person I want to talk to about the book I’ve just read, the people I meet, all my decisions and insecurities and delights.

About six months ago, I told him about my feelings for him, which kind of terrified him, maybe? (Side note: he’s never really had a serious relationship.) But we talked and talked about it, and he basically said the timing was wrong, he “wasn’t there.” He hasn’t made me believe I should wait for him or anything like that, but when I asked him point-blank if the problem was that he wasn’t attracted to me, he also denied that.

We’ve had two crisis points when I decided that I couldn’t keep the friendship going because it was too painful to want him unrequitedly, and he always understands, though he hates the idea of us not being friends. We take space from communicating, then we “get back together” and I’m always so happy I re-engaged. The last couple months especially I feel like our relationship is even deeper, more real, looser, more honest, and more fun than it’s ever been.

But I still wonder: What am I doing? Is it obvious that he just doesn’t want me and it’s never going to happen? Am I holding myself back from finding someone who does want to be with me? I’d never try to convince him (or anyone) to feel something they don’t feel. But Olive, what is wrong with this man-child? Why doesn’t he see what I see when I see us?

-Unrequited and Unsure

 

Dear Unrequited,

How I wish I knew what that extra grain of fairy dust was that turned true friendship into true love. Up there with flying, telepathy, and time travel, being able to see through the slippery ways love continues to confuse is high on my list of dream powers. No more mystery, no more yearning, just clear, cold answers. Add up affection and intimacy and time and fairy dust, and love emerges from the sum of its parts like a cake from a cookbook page.

But the knowledge of that extra ingredient eludes me. (Incidentally, so do cake recipes.) I’ve always stumbled into love like the extra step at the end of the stairs, the same swoop of delight and spark of danger, the same surprising revelation while I’m paying attention to something else. I’ve sought one explanation after another, told stories about my heart and my history to explain how that stair ended up there — or how I ended up tripping over it — and come up empty, still baffled as to the hows and whys and mostly just along for the stumble.

I wish I could explain your mismatched magnetism with your friend, but there’s no explanation that isn’t at least partly just a puzzled shrug. I don’t know why you say yes and he says no. I don’t know why my feelings for my best friends — though we too have friendship anchored by soul confessions, riotous laughter, real support, deep affection — have never wandered toward the romantic, or why those sparkly feelings emerge instead for people with whom I have less history or clarity or contact. The best explanation I can summon is that the traffic between heart and brain is one-way only, and hard as we try, we can’t turn logic loose on love.

So: that’s the news, bad or beautiful depending on how much you like to suffer. Your heart remains capacious and unplottable, obscured in a fog of something mysterious, offering up love and longing without knowing how it might be met.

The friendship you describe sounds wonderful: joyful, honest, expansive. Romance aside, you have a person in your life who sees and trusts and loves you. That’s a lot. I hope you don’t fall into the toxic trap of believing that the “friend zone” is an exile when it should be a haven. Of course, even havens can feel confining when we’d like to be somewhere less safe.

Right now, you’re imagining the relationship you could have with this person instead of celebrating the one you do, and who could blame you? There’s a bottomless VHS shelf in Blockbuster purgatory stacked full of stories that tell you exactly what you’re missing. Being requited, they claim, is only a matter of time — ideally before the popcorn runs out and always within a tidy hour and a half. The confession of love is merely a prelude to the kiss and the credits, never anything resembling an actual question.

But you’ve been bold enough to ask the question in real life, to seek an answer that nobody has written for you in pursuit of a future that no one has choreographed. Not everyone finds that kind of strength. And now, on the other side of the answer, you’re tasked with finding still more to reassemble the scraps of your fantasy into something that might endure beyond the end of the tape.

And you are, in fact, on the other side of the answer. Though you’re full of questions about what to believe instead, I think you know this. Your best friend told you — in so many words; a gift, even if it stings — that he’s not available to be anyone to you but that. The details don’t matter much; whether he’s scared or confused or unattracted or even immature — he might be, who knows! — he didn’t say yes.

Let me try that again: he didn’t say HELL YES. The person you want to be with won’t just be hilarious or supportive or sexy or kind; they will want to be with you so powerfully that they won’t hedge or cower or acquiesce. They will show up and shout it from an available rooftop. They’ll love you back now, instead of maybe later. They’ll respond in full force instead of in half-baked denials and misdirections. (Also, they’ll probably live in the same city as you do.)

I know it feels like this is the one person on earth you could love, the one Hollywood match waiting for you before the credits, despite all odds. I know it feels like he’s worth it, even if “it” means agreeing to drag your doubt with you along with your desire.

It’s not worth it. Nothing, no one, is worth the sacrifice of making yourself smaller piece by piece as you try to fit the outlines you think will convince your friend to feel the same way you do.

I can’t tell you with any certainty that this person won’t fall in love with you one day; I can’t even tell you that he’s not in love already, and just incapable of saying so. What I can tell you for sure is that your friend, right now, is not offering you anything worth waiting for. He’s saying no. He’s offering you solid floor exactly where you’ve always known it was, instead of a step into something new.

You trust him, so trust him on this. Stop looking for different answers just because you didn’t like the one he gave you. Spend your hours without him. Take more space.

By trailing after the fantasy he’s punctured — after the ghost of fantasy that remains — you’ve replaced all the maybes that surround you with a no you don’t believe. Yes, you’re stuck. That doesn’t mean you have to cut ties with your best friend, and it doesn’t make either of you wrong for how you feel, but it does mean that the emotional connection you’re cultivating with him will be better nurtured elsewhere.

Stop spending regular hours on the phone with this person. Stop sharing the most intimate details of your sex life. Stop asking him for reasons to explain why the bug bit you and bypassed him.

Call a different friend when you want to share a work conundrum. Send a long nostalgic email to someone who drifted away a year ago, and see if they’ll drift back. Go to the movies by yourself and don’t share your popcorn, and carry your feelings home on your own instead of tossing half of them into a text message as soon as the lights come up. Make room in your life for yourself first, even for your loneliness, and then for the possibility of someone who could join you.

Give yourself a chance to remember how much bigger the world is than the people who say no to you. Bake cakes. Burn your VHS tapes. And see if you can find in your heartbreak and, eventually, in your healing, some solace that a few things at least remain unknown and unbound and unstoppable, and that every now and then we get to feel them.

Love,
Olive

 

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to yourfriendolive@gmail.com or to our anonymous portal. We want it all: the embarrassing, the baffling, the epistemological. Check back in two weeks from now for another dose of aggressively earnest advice, next time on Asking For a Friend.

 

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