Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

What Do I Do About Unrequited Friendship?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I just started reading your column and I need advice on the following problem: I have an unrequited best friendship with someone (you could call her A). Like, I want to be best friends and she wants to be good friends or friends. And I don’t know how labels work. I just want to hang out with her all the time. And I just worry that I’m not good enough (like, everything I like about myself, such as being friendly and funny, such as enjoying sci-fi books, she has tenfold) and I worry that I will drive her away (maybe us hanging out so much puts strain on the friendship, maybe me finding excuses to hang out with her has started becoming transparent) and I worry about my ulterior motives that, maybe if I hang out with her enough, we will magically move from being good friends to best friends.

I really can’t help it that I’m so happy hanging out with her and she is for all intents and purposes my best friend. We see each other in groups and one-on-one almost every day each week. I look forward to hanging out with her all day on the rare days that we don’t see each other, then I’m waiting to hang out with her the next day. Like, I have a good number of friends. She just far outshines them all.

As background, we have the same lifestyle (a few years out of college, work part-time) and hobbies (hiking, books). We have the same taste in everything. We now hang out almost six days each week. The timeline of our friendship is as follow:

11 months ago: we started seeing each one-on-one as friends. We hung out one to four times each week to do our mutual hobbies.

2 months ago: we become, in my view, best friends. We really started discussing our personal lives and we realize just how many shared interests and commonalities we really have together.

1 month ago: she becomes incredibly busy with a personal project and is worried that I think we’re dating. She tells me that we need to stop seeing each other one-one-one. I tell her that I have no desire to date her and that I only want to be friends. I incorrectly figure we’re breaking up as friends (and I text her a few days later that ‘she’s one of my best friends and that I wish we could see each other again’).

1 week ago: she asks for my help with that personal project. I, of course, say yes (while it’s work for her, it’s fun for me and I also want to see more of her).

So, as we’re working on the project, about a week ago, she clarifies that she thinks we’re good friends. She explains that she’s had some bad, male “friends” who wanted to date her (which is additionally not good because she’s gay). She said she likes me as a friend. And I really like that. I just can’t think of her as a friend, because, while I have plenty of friends, she is my only best friend. Like, I see her four times more often than anyone else. And, unlike all my other friends, she and I have the same taste in basically everything. I know I shouldn’t compare other people. She’s just my favorite person to hang out with and, if I had a choice, I would hang out with her every day.

And I just wonder what your advice is as follow:

1) Do I just keep going along with this friendship like I don’t have all these feelings (besides that earlier text, I have never said anything about us being “best friends,” even though that’s basically how I feel)?

2) How do I stop worrying about our future as friends (like, I personally already have plans for us eating brunch twenty years from now; well, we do also have a few plans set for six months from now; I really see potential for us as friends and I just can’t help thinking constantly about ways to be a better friend to her)?

3) How do I avoid becoming too much for her (like, I have stopped texting her as much given she’s now a lot more busy; and I’m trying to keep myself collected. I’m just always available for plans with her in a way that I wouldn’t be for other friends and I think she’s starting to notice that)?



DEAR CONFUSED: As with many questions like this, there’re the questions you’re asking… and then there the questions you SHOULD be asking, Confused. But let’s roll it from the top, shall we?

You have a platonic crush. Some folks call it a squish, some folks call it “falling in like”… it’s basically a non-romantic fascination. And honestly, I get it; I’ve got people in my life that I feel the same way. I don’t want to date them or sleep with them, I just think they’re awesome and like being friends with ’em.

The annoying thing about this sort of crush is that… well, it can come with a lot of the same anxieties and insecurities that come with a crush or romantic interest in someone. Just because the end-goal is different doesn’t mean that you don’t worry about someone liking you back in the same way and to the same level. And, like with a crush, you need to not get so far out over your skis that you end up crashing. It’s easy to inadvertently get so caught up in the New Friendship Energy that you get too intense for someone and cause them to back off. This can be especially tricky when dealing with friendships with someone who’s of your preferred gender; an intense friendship — or the desire for one — can come across like romantic interest. A lot of folks, women especially, have had people try to use friendship as a Trojan horse for starting a romantic or sexual relationship, so they’re understandably cautious.

And honestly, it sounds like you’re coming across as really intense, so I’m not entirely surprised she’s got her shields up.

Part of the issue here is that it sounds a lot like you’re taking the wrong tack for trying to improve your friendship with her. If you’re focusing on “what can I do to be a better friend”, then it’s really easy to trip yourself up. The idea of understanding somebody’s love languages applies as much to friendship as it does to romantic relationships; if, for example, your language is gifts or acts of service and they don’t receive in that way, it can come across as though you’re trying to create friendship via a sense of obligation. It may not be what you’re intending — you just like doing things for your friends — but intent ain’t magic, especially if it’s setting off their Spidey-sense.

It’s also not how you build a friendship.

The key to building friendships and transitioning from “acquaintance” to “friends” to “good friends” is through time and repetition.  Spending time together, doing things you enjoy and enjoying each other’s presence is the core to turning an acquaintance into a good friend. Hanging out, grabbing a beer, playing games together or otherwise having fun — including good conversation — are how you solidify the ties between you and your friend. And, critically, it needs to be leisure time, when the two of you choose to spend time together. Spending time when you are required to, such as at work or on school projects, doesn’t have the same effect.

And when I say “time”, I mean it. It takes approximately 50 hours to go from “acquaintance” to “casual friend”, about 100 hours to become “good friends” and more than 200 hours to become “best friends”.

So if you want to be friends, you need to just slow your roll and be willing to invest the time and let the friendship grow organically. Trying to force it or rush it is how you end up coming across as entirely to eager and end up putting people on the defensive. That eager-to-please excitement can be adorable in a child or a puppy, but it’s kind of annoying (at best) in a grown-ass adult.

Right now, you’ve pushed a little too hard and she’s putting up some boundaries for her own emotional protection. The best thing you can do rebuild her comfort and trust by showing that you respect those boundaries. If she’s worried about hanging out with you one-on-one for now, then don’t push it. You can still see her, but you will just have to do so at group events and the like. Show that you are willing to prioritize her comfort and limits and she’ll see that mistaking your friendship for romantic interest was just a wacky misunderstanding.

But it’s going to be on you not to push too hard or let your enthusiasm get too intense. You can still chat, you can still hang out… but you may just need to let it be a series of short, shallower conversations, or hang-outs in group settings. Be willing to let her take the set the pace, keep things low-key and you won’t end up overdoing it.

Now here’s the question you need to ask yourself: is the label “best friends” really so important to you? Is it so vital that she gives that stamp to your relationship, or can you simply just appreciate that you are friends without having to quantify it? Needing to label things in this case sounds a little less like trying to define the relationship and more about the validation of her saying “yes, you’re my BFF”. Focusing on the exact level of your friendship meters with regard to one another or trying to plan things out 20 years from now is a lot like a finger pointing to the moon; if you focus on the finger, you miss all the heavenly glory. Be in the now, live for this moment; otherwise all you do is sabotage your future and miss out on your present.

If you want to be a good friend to her, then appreciate the friendship for what it is, instead of strategizing how to turn it into more. Just relax and enjoy the time you spend together; that’s how you become best friends.

Good luck.

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