DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: About a year ago, I met the coolest guy I’ve ever known. We’re both grad students at the same university and we were in some classes together, and we just really hit it off. We share a lot of interests and have a blast when we hang out, often spending entire days together up until the wee hours of the morning. We play video games together, have movie nights, go out hiking, have study dates… you name it. His smile lights up my whole damn day and being friends with him has gotten me through some very tough times. He means the world to me.
I’ll admit I think he’s attractive, and a while back I asked if he wanted to date. He said he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, and after a couple of weeks of nursing my hurt feelings, I realized I felt the same way. I love him, but I don’t really want anything sexual either, and I don’t think we’d be a good match in a romantic sense, so I’m thankful he turned me down because actually dating would have been bad for our friendship. Things were a little awkward for a month or so, but we kept hanging out and for a while now we’ve been back to pre-asking out levels of interaction (so, nearly daily hours-long hangouts, texting all the time, cooking each other dinner, etc.). Things are awesome.
My problem is that I live in absolute fear that he’s going to start dating some other woman and forget about me. He hasn’t dated anyone since I’ve known him and seems pretty committed to the whole “I’m not interested in a relationship” thing right now not just with me, but with anybody. But he’s also talked about wanting to get married and have kids one day, so I know it will happen eventually. And it just breaks my heart to know that when he does decide to start dating, our friendship is going to change. At worst, he’ll find a woman who isn’t at all comfortable with him having a female friend that he spends so much time with and he’ll ghost me. At best, he’ll start having to split his time between us, and she’ll get the lion’s share of it (as a girlfriend should). And the thought of losing him, even a little bit of him, just sounds horrific to me.
One of my other friends suggested that I start weaning myself off of all the time I spend with him so that it’s easier later, but part of me just keeps thinking that if I’m going to lose him eventually, shouldn’t I spend as much time as possible with him now to maximize the memories? I mean, best case scenario is that I have maybe three more years with him before we finish grad school and move to separate parts of the country anyway, so I was already feeling like there was a ticking clock with our friendship. I just really don’t want him to cut that already short time down by dating someone.
Anyway, I guess my question is: How do I stop being insanely jealous of a theoretical woman who may not even exist? And if he does start dating, how can I navigate the new relationship so that I don’t lose him but he is still happy with his (theoretical) girlfriend? I know I’m panicking over something that might not even happen, but I feel like I can’t let go of my fear until I have a plan for how I COULD respond.
The Other Girl-Space-Friend
DEAR THE OTHER GIRL-SPACE-FRIEND: So I want to preface this by saying that the fear that you feel is real. The issue at hand is that I don’t think it’s a fear based on things that are actually going to happen.
The problem you’re having, OGSF, is what I call “borrowing trouble from the future”. What you’re doing right now is looking at A future — not THE future, not even a future that may come to pass — and reacting to it as though it’s happening already. Not only has he not met somebody, but he hasn’t even shown any interest in meeting people. And yet you’ve already mapped out several futures where you’re going to get your heart broken and you’re responding to them as though they were real and had already happened.
The thing is: while this can sound like someone vastly overreacting, this is actually an issue that happens to a lot of folks. See, our brains are kind of astounding. We have the capacity to imagine things in ways that are so real, so vivid, that our brains functionally can’t tell the difference between reality and what we’re imagining. Our brains will react to what we imagine as though it were actually real; the things hurting us are imaginary, but the pain is real. When we imagine those worst-case scenarios — or have those 3 AM moments when we ruminate over all the awkward cringey things we may have done, for that matter — we are, for all intents and purposes, are hurting our own feelings.
And to make matters worse, we have an inherent bias towards the negative. Negative thoughts, beliefs and experiences affect us more strongly than positive ones, and we tend to remember them more clearly and vividly than positive ones. This, in turn means that we’re much more likely to dwell on them and play them over and over again in our heads… which just makes the pain worse, reinforcing the negativity and reaffirming the worst case scenario as being “real” even though it hasn’t happened.
Now the reason you’re feeling like this is because you haven’t just made leaps in logic, you’ve pole-vaulted over them. To start with, you’re assuming facts that aren’t in evidence. The fact that he says he wants to get married and have kids one day doesn’t mean his dropping you as a friend is an inevitability. To start with: people say a lot of things about their future — even things that they mean in the moment — that don’t come to pass. I mean, in high-school, I was telling everyone that I was going to be a stand-up comedian and hey, that never happened. He may well never start dating or get married. Dude could well be asexual or aromantic. If he decides to start dating, he may well not be into long-term or serious, committed relationships.
(You’re also assuming that he’s necessarily interested in dating or having long-term relationships with women. While demographics say the odds are that he’s straight instead of gay or pansexual, it’s not an impossibility.)
But more than that, you’re also assuming that your relationship is going to take the back seat to his relationship with his future partner, which, again, is neither guaranteed, nor suggested by the behavior you describe. Friendships don’t end just because somebody starts dating. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that ditching your friends for your partner is more likely to damage your romantic relationship. Having friends and a life outside of your relationship actually makes your romantic relationship stronger. So while the amount of time he has to spend with you may change, that doesn’t mean that your friendship will end. After all, the amount of time he has to spend with you could change for any number of other reasons — work schedules, travel, your finding a romantic partner and so on.
But what about if he starts dating somebody who doesn’t trust you or dislikes that he has a close and emotionally intimate relationship with another woman? Well, that’s more of a her problem than a you problem. But more to the point, you’re back to assuming facts not in evidence. First: you’re assuming that he’s going to date somebody who has a problem with his being friends with you. But you’re also assuming that your friend thinks so little of you and your friendship that he’s going to drop someone he very clearly cares about because his girlfriend had a tantrum. I would assume that he’s not the kind of guy to do that in the first place — you know him better than I do. But you also don’t present any indication that this is even likely outside of your imagination.
Hell, even your “best” scenario is that you both split after you get your degrees and never see each other again.
I think it’s not a bad idea to examine just why you’re so convinced that this friendship is doomed. That sounds a lot like anxiety issues that’re latching onto the nearest available fear — which is the sort of thing that’s worth unpacking with a counselor or therapist. But in the meantime, let’s talk a little about what you can do. But rather than how to hold on to a friendship in some theoretical future — because I don’t think that’s actually going to be an issue — I want to talk about how to get some of those free-floating anxieties under control.
To start with: you need to start practicing some mind control. Not on him, on you. There’re a lot of ways of doing this; in my experience, mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to start getting some of these anxieties under control. Part of the point of mindfulness meditation is learning how to be bigger than your thoughts; rather than trying to force them away or repress them, instead you “pop” out of them. You recognize that you’re thinking and redirect your mind back to your focus, letting those thoughts simply dwindle and fall away. Similarly, you learn to acknowledge that you’re having those thoughts or feelings without validating them. By acknowledging them, you recognize they’re there… but you’re not accepting them as real or valid. They don’t define you; they’re just momentary thoughts or feelings that will pass. Noting them and naming them reminds you that your thoughts are just thoughts. Your anxieties are just anxieties. By getting that space, you diminish their immediacy and intensity. By doing that, you reduce their power over you.
If you give this a try, I recommend working with an app or a guided meditation program that focuses specifically on calming anxiety or fears. The app Calm, for example, has a number of good guided meditations about handling anxiety, as well as dealing with complicated emotions surrounding relationships.
By that same token, you can also defang them by deliberately changing them. After all, these thoughts are just that: thoughts. They’re something you can control. So rather than letting those nightmare scenarios play out, start to change them. Imagine it playing backwards and upside down. Or turn it black and white and add old-time-y music so it plays like a silent movie instead. Or, when you imagine his future girlfriend trying to tell him he can’t see you, picture her head inflating like a balloon or shrinking like the end of Beetlejuice. The more absurd and outlandish you make these imaginary scenarios, the less power they have to affect you.
However, you don’t want to just focus on the negative. Instead of assuming a worst-case “our friendship is doomed” future, imagine one where you’re still tight. Think of the episodes of How I Met Your Mother that saw everyone as old, grey and wrinkled and still hanging out together. Or a Golden Girls-esque situation. After all, these are as likely as any scenario where you and he are splitsville.
What you shouldn’t do is distance yourself from him “just in case”. I’m sure your friend meant well but that is, honestly, one of the most absurd things I’ve heard in a while. By pulling away from him in order to avoid a painful future — a future that may never happen — you’re all but guaranteeing the end of your friendship. By trying to protect yourself from heartbreak in some theoretical future, all you’re doing is robbing yourself of the joy, friendship and companionship of the present. So not only do you end up getting friend-dumped (again, in this theoretical, not real future), but you don’t even have your friendship until that time. That’s both ridiculous and short-sighted.
Honestly, the best thing you can do — both now and in the future — is continue to be friends and keep on as you’re going on now. While I understand that you want some plan in hopes that it’ll ease your anxieties, the problem is that there’s no plan that’s going to cover all of those potential futures. Worse, trying to plan for an eventuality that only exists in your anxieties is more likely to cement it in your brain. You’re going to be looking for signs that it’s happening, instead of enjoying your friendship. And ironically enough, that can end up being the thing that pushes you apart.
The key to keeping a friendship strong through adversity is… well, being a good friend, being willing to work through adversity together, bond over the things that you enjoy, be vulnerable and supportive with each other. So, y’know. The stuff you’re already doing and have already done when you powered through that awkward patch.
Focus less on trying to stop a future from coming true and more on getting those anxieities under control. That is your issue, not some future friendship break up. Stop borrowing trouble from the Days of Futures Past and just embrace the now.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org