DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This letter was spurred by your recent column about letting folks down gently. My question is related but separate: how do I keep a relationship platonic when the romantic interest is mutual?
For some context: I’ve recently met this lovely person with whom I have a great deal in common, including stated romantic interest. However, for reasons unrelated, I (though poly) am not open for new relationships at this point, and falling in love would cause serious harm to both myself, this new friendship, and to my already established relationships.
We’ve spoken about this explicitly and seem to have a good understanding of each other’s positions, but I want to make sure my actions match my words here. It’s a precarious situation.
So. How do I maintain a platonic relationship with my new friend, while minimizing the risk of catching feelings? Emotional intimacy is a major aspect of all my relationships, and I want that to be true for this new friendship as well, to the extent that I can manage it.
What advice do you have for navigating these deep waters? What are your do’s and don’t’s for not falling in love?
DEAR LOVE FOOL: This is one of those times where I feel like an oracle in Greek myth, except my answer would probably be “You realize that by asking this question, you’ve more or less ensured the fate you’re trying to avoid is going to happen, right?”
The sad thing is that I’m only partially joking.
I’m, gonna level with you, LF; you can’t really force yourself to feel or not feel something, and trying to do so usually makes things worse. It’s rather like folks in monogamous relationships who get bothered by the fact that they’ve developed a crush on someone. The more that people try to force their feelings away, the stronger and more intense those feelings tend to become. Trying to bottle up your emotions or force them away is more akin to a pressurized gas in a fragile container; you may have it contained for now, but the odds are good that things are gonna blow up and make it everybody’s problem.
So, under normal circumstances, I would say you don’t need to worry that feelings are inevitable. After all, people are complex creatures, capable of multitudes; just because someone is friends with a person they’d be into doesn’t mean that sex or romance is automatically going to get in the way. Folks are quite capable of being happily platonic, no matter what When Harry Met Sally says.
The problem is that you and your bud already are attracted to each other. You both know it. You both are trying to avoid it… but you both know it’s there.
That can be an issue if the two of you aren’t very good at compartmentalizing. There’s only so much “oh but if things were different” you can do before you start thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if you indulged this a little. Especially when you, LF, already prioritize emotional intimacy in your relationships. While I’m very firmly of the position that emotionally intelligent folks can tell the difference between emotional intimacy and romantic attraction… the two tend to go together like nitro and glycerin when both parties are already into each other.
Does that mean that this friendship is doomed to fall under the weight of your mutual attraction? Not necessarily. A lot is going to depend on how disciplined you can be and how much you’re willing to sacrifice some of the emotional intimacy that is so important to you and your friendships.
A big part of how you can try to decrease the odds of falling in love is to try to try to avoid subjecting yourself to unnecessary temptation. I realize sounds like a sex-negative religious group telling men to block women with bikini pics on Instagram, but stick with me for a second. Human willpower is, in a way, a limited resource. Think of it like a muscle; you have a fairly finite amount of energy, and the harder that muscle has to work, the faster you burn through that energy supply. The less it has to work, the more energy you have overall. With willpower, the less you have to utilize it, the less likely you are to run into a scenario where you no longer have the willpower to resist a particular temptation. If, for example, you’re trying to cut sodas out of your diet, not having any in the house means that you don’t have to expend willpower to choose water instead of Dr. Pepper. Otherwise you end up in a situation where you’ve expended your willpower on other things — maybe you had an awful day at work — and you know you’ve got an ice-cold can of God’s own nectar in the fridge that would taste like pure happiness.
The same general principle applies to dealing with relationships. One of the things I suggest to folks who want a casual, no-strings relationship with a sex partner but want to avoid things getting more emotionally entangled is to avoid the trappings of romance. Get-togethers that feel particularly date-y — things like quiet, intimate restaurants, long walks on the beach watching the sunset, and so on — carry connotations and emotional associations that yell “WE ARE WORKING TOWARDS ROMANCE”. Similarly, getting deeply emotionally intimate in conversation, talking about future plans together…. the sorts of talks that people who are moving towards romance do also carries that connotation of love and emotional entanglements. Avoiding the sorts of behaviors that carry those connotations and implications helps keep the likelihood of developing feelings to a manageable level.
I realize that talking about framing and connotations sounds weird, but humans are bad at lying to ourselves and understanding why we feel the way we do. Our brains don’t rule our emotions; more often than not, our brains take their cues from what our bodies are doing and assign a reason for it that lines up with what it’s experiencing. When we do things that we associate with a particular behavior or emotion, our brains assume that we’re feeling that emotion. It’s part of why actors who play couples or whose characters fall in love will often end up dating; they’ve been imitating being in love and their brains said “oh, must be real, then.”
This sort of “brain follows the body” result is hard enough to shake. But there’s also the fact that you and your friend are already into each other; having those intimate moments together — especially alone, with physical intimacy or in a romantic atmosphere — makes it harder to say “we probably shouldn’t do this.” I mean, falling in love feels amazing; that new relationship energy makes our brains kick out the jams and dump dopamine and oxytocin into our systems. That increases the likelihood of hitting a point where you and your new friend aren’t going to be as able to pull things back a little.
And of course, it’s made that much harder when you’re constantly thinking “ok, can’t let this go too far, can’t fall in love, can’t let myself get too into this.” Much like trying to not picture a purple elephant — or, say, Bea Arthur wearing a strategically ripped Deadpool costume — the effort of not doing so just ensures that it will be on the top of mind. So it becomes this little reminder of how you feel that gets harder and harder to ignore, like a metaphorical rock in your shoe.
So as unpalatable as it may be for your usual relationships, having to keep this one a little at arm’s length until things have time to fade may be the key to not catching feels.
Now with all that being said… the problem isn’t falling for your friend, it’s what pursuing a romantic relationship with them would do. After all, catching feelings for somebody doesn’t mean that you have to do anything with them. You can realize you’re in love with somebody and not act on it. Emotions are just that — feelings; they’re not commands or obligations. You can be in love without doing anything about it. As I’ve said before: crushes, even romantic and sexual attraction are like a fire. As long as you don’t add more fuel, they burn out and fade on their own over time.
Rather than dwelling on it or pining away, you can note those feelings, name them, and just let them be. Rather than damming them up or taking them as a call to action, you can just let them flow through you. When you become aware of it, you say “ah, yes, that’s my affection for %FRIEND” and allow it to just be there while you do other things.
Of course, it helps if those other things aren’t, y’know, deep and meaningful conversations over a candlelit dinner or something.
Does this mean you can’t pursue a friendship with them? No, of course not. It can certainly work; it just means that the two of you will have to be mindful and willing to not act on this attraction. If you can manage that — or if you can keep this relationship at a bit more of a remove than you might prefer — then you can have a great and meaningful relationship. If you can’t… well, then you have to ask yourself whether this relationship would be worth the effect it would have on the other aspects of your life.
Just be aware that aspects of this friendship will be more difficult than they would be otherwise. Go into this understanding that and you have a better chance of things staying to a level you would prefer.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org