DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Been friends with this fellow for nearly three years and he’s more affectionate with me than anyone else we know. Like when I asked other people, “Here’s what he did, do you think he like-likes me,” they all said yes. I had the feeling like someday we’d get together and it seemed like from some things he said, it felt like we would. When we first met, doing theater, he was still getting over a breakup and he had told me he wasn’t good at flirting or figuring that out or asking girls out and he had crushes on people but never did anything about it. I eventually “deduced” that the crush remark meant ME, and I was all “okay, fine, we’ll just see how friendship goes for awhile, give him some time, and if he ever seems like he wants to, I’ll ask him out,” but we were still ah…snugglier than with other people. Like beyond just usual hugging and “touch is my love language so I hug people” stuff. I felt special and like he cared about me. I won’t get into it all, but I did think it was a mutual crush even if nothing was exactly coming into fulfillment at the moment.
Pandemic effed everything up and he seems to be an “in person” person rather than “chatty online” person so things didn’t super progress on any front after all when in person wasn’t a safe option. After awhile I got convinced that he was over it/me, because being pandemic alone screws with your head and I wasn’t around him IRL to know differently. Then I actually was around him again last month and surprise, that ol’ physical buzz had not gone away, he was happy to see me and said so, agreed that we need to hug more often, and ah…well, I finally decided to suck it up and ask him out, which he took as “oh, so we’re having a friend hang?” and invited others along, but nobody else went. You get where this is going. We were alone, I spelled out at the end I was referring to “wanna get into a romantic relationship” and he said he “suspected” I liked him, but “no” and “You’re a really good friend, but.” He didn’t say a lot other than that but my impression is that he NEVER had a mutual crush on me in the first place. Like the mutual connection I thought we had all these years? Wasn’t. I don’t think he had a clue as to what I was talking about with regards to that.
It actually came out worse than I thought to find out that he NEVER had a crush on me and NEVER liked me back like that at all, he’s just…overly cuddly, I guess? Not to mention clueless? Like seriously I would not have been as affectionate as I was, said the things I said, given him handmade affectionate presents that he loved, had I not thought this was mutual feelings. I really hate it when someone likes me and I don’t like them and, well, you know why a woman’s terrified to reject a dude — I make like a banana and split out of a guy’s life if I have to tell him no, it’s a nightmare scenario thing for me and I didn’t want to cause anyone else to feel like I do when it happens. So I feel horrible that I made him have to reject me and I was probably tromping over boundaries and thinking it was okay. Like why was he doing what he was doing if he wasn’t into me romantically? Like everything I thought about this friendship/relationship/potential relationship was wrong. It breaks my brain now, thinking back on all the moments we had together and apparently it wasn’t mutual at all. Was it EVEN a friendship at all, or was I just lying in wait waiting for him to come around like dudes have done to me? Am I one of those creepers that I hate? Even if he doesn’t feel that way, I now feel that way.
People are telling me not to throw out the friendship — he clearly likes you, just not like that, they argue, especially my therapist and my mother — but how do I get over someone romantically while they’re still around? Isn’t the advice to cut them off so you stop thinking how wonderful they are? Also, see above on “was it actually friendship?” After all this, what I would normally choose to do is go back to not talking to him again — like, did he even notice I wasn’t talking to him for most of the year? — and he probably wouldn’t even notice, I presume. Or at least dial it way back to “just see him at occasional group hangs and that’s it” territory, which is probably all it was ever going to be anyway. I did tell him after the “no” answer that I was going to be dialing back our relationship, though I didn’t really spell out what that would entail. I was too shocked to really figure that out in the moment.
However, two issues with this: (a) I talked him into auditioning for a show I was auditioning for, we both got in, and now I’ll be seeing him a LOT for the next few months. At the bare minimum I need to stay on public good terms with him until this show is over, so “avoid him/get some space” isn’t an option. And (b) it’s Present Season, he likes to give Christmas gifts and at this point I feel incredibly awkward about gifting him anything again. I do make handmade gifts for certain friends and he was in that category, but I wouldn’t have given him as…affectionate…ones as I did had I but known. I kind of want to say “We’re never giving gifts again” except it feels like a whopping slap in the face and would definitely hurt his feelings and be Not Normal. I think it’s jerky to not reciprocate gifts and not give him one if he gives me one, which he will, and it also seems kinda face-slappy to go from “knitworthy” to “here’s a gift card when you know I don’t normally do that sort of thing.” I will definitely see him a lot during the Christmas season now and it’s gonna come up.
I’m trying to subtly avoid him as much as I can in rehearsals, but he’s acting like things are normal and came up to me to chat the other day like nothing had happened, texted for Thanksgiving, very deliberately sat next to me anyway today at one point. So presumably he’s fine, but I feel weirded out. I don’t EVEN know on the hugging issue if/when that comes up again. Can one tell someone “Uh, with the level of affection we had going on, I feel misled here and you need to dial it back down?” There’s another fun conversation I don’t want to have either. I told him I was going to dial back our relationship after that but didn’t spell out stuff like “no touch, no presents” exactly, and while part of me wants to lay down those boundaries, another part of me feels bad doing that and know that while he’d go with it if I said that, it would also hurt his feelings. It’s not like I want to shut him out of my life, but aren’t I supposed to be not caring about him more than he cares about me? How do you get over that when he’s around you being cute and talented most days of the week?
I don’t know what the hell to do here. Do I want to be friends with him after this? Yes and no. My instinct is “burn it to the ground” right now but I’m not 100% on that and acknowledge that I might not quite want to utterly get out forever even if I feel like that now. Can I take immediate time away from him? Nope. I can’t figure out to go no gift/token gift card gift/buy some random thing/still make him a token something/go with what I was going to make either, since that’s kind of based on whatever friendship level we may have going in the future. My therapist thinks I’m making a big deal and I am, but the very foundation of what this relationship was built on for me turned out to be wrong, I do not know how to proceed from here, and I gotta figure that out like, now. (Especially if I end up making something, hah hah, because I’d have to start that soon.) Now what do I do? I really don’t want to discuss this whole thing with him ever again, I feel uncomfortable as s--t and I’m not at all sure I can just be “cool” and “normal” either about it for the next few months, acting be damned. I don’t know what the hell to do. Any suggestions?
I Am So Totally Clueless
DEAR I AM SO TOTALLY CLUELESS: Believe it or not, IASTC, you’re not the only person who’s gotten confused by how touchy-feel-y-cuddly someone is with their platonic friends. Some folks are just cuddlebugs and really enjoy platonic cuddling and snuggling with the people in their lives. While it’s not necessarily common among straight guys — hellooooo toxic masculinity and touch starvation — it’s actually rather nice to see some dudes feeling like they can be more affectionate and expressive. Just, y’know. Not when it confuses people into thinking there’s non-platonic interest behind it.
But while we’re talking about normalizing desired behaviors — like guys being less afraid of giving platonic physical affection — another behavior I’d like to see become more common amongst guys, gals and non-binary pals is to be willing to just ask for what you want to know, instead of trying to read the tea leaves. One of the reasons why there are often so many miscommunications like the one you had with your friend — or that Rejected had with hers — is that folks try to read between the lines, and try to piece together interest and intent from various clues. The problem is that people aren’t jigsaw puzzles; just because the pieces all seem to fit doesn’t mean that you’re actually seeing the right picture. And since everyone’s different — such as, say, being more cuddly than the average bear — one person’s “couldn’t make their interest more obvious with charts and graphs” is often another person’s “what do you mean, this is what I’m like with everyone.” As a result, you get folks who get their feelings hurt because everyone may have been acting in good faith, but there was a translation error that completely changed everyone’s expectations.
Granted, the pandemic and attendant isolation almost certainly didn’t help either, especially if your crush was the sort of person who communicates better in person than over text or video chats.
Now, as with Rejected, I think an important thing is to not let the sting of being turned down retroactively ruin everything that came before. While I know it hurts right now, the fact that the relationship wasn’t what you thought it was doesn’t mean that the whole thing was bogus and fake. That’s just self-doubt and pain screwing with your head.
I also don’t think you necessarily need to throw away the friendship — assuming that he’s still interested, or that you are. Trying to play “ha, I care less about you than you care about me!” isn’t a winning strategy either; that’s the sort of thing that causes people to do stupid s--t while they convince themselves they’re over someone and they really aren’t. It’s better to be honest about how you feel — to yourself at least — rather than trying to force feelings away. Not only does that not work, it usually just makes things worse. Accepting them and acknowledging them without acting on them and just letting them be works much better for letting inconvenient crushes fade.
By that same token, while I’m a believer in the value of the Nuclear Option when it comes to break-ups, it’s a tool that needs to be used with care. The point of the Nuclear Option isn’t — as I’ve said before — “we broke up AND NOW YOU’RE DEAD TO ME”, it’s to give yourself breathing room to heal and keeping you from prolonging the healing process by being tempted to text them at 3 AM or check up to see if they’re dating someone else.
I don’t know if complete separation is strictly necessary here, or even possible, seeing as you two are in a show together. Even if you’re in the same production, unless you’re doing scenes together, you should be able to have space from him at rehearsals… even if it means hanging out in a different corner of the rehearsal space at times. However, in this case, I think spending (limited) time around him might help reassure you that while he may not have been into you the way that you were hoping, he did like you as a friend. Seeing him act normally around you may help ease the fear that the entire friendship was bogus and you were just hoping to backdoor your way into his pants.
Or it might not; I’m not there, so I can’t tell.
What I can tell you is that the way to handle things — at least until you find your footing again — is to be polite and friendly, if a little distant while you two figure things out. Keeping things polite, at the very least, will help with making things work during rehearsals and performances, and it’ll make any sort of reconciliation/”how do we want to do this” easier. The less you have to walk back, the easier it is to pick a friendship up again.
Just as importantly is that, yes, using your words is the right way to go with him. Saying “hey, just FYI, the hugging/cuddling/physical affection was a bit much for me, could we dial it back to a level I’m comfortable with” is entirely within bounds for you. Yeah, he might have a brief sad about it, but these are your boundaries. You don’t need to do things that hurt or upset you because he feels a little disappointed; that’s a him problem, not a you problem. His feelings aren’t your responsibility to manage. Having that boundary, on the other hand, makes it possible for the two of you to be friends again and — if you’re ok with it — to resume hugging/cuddling privileges down the line.
And as far as gifts this year go? You don’t need to give anything hand-made, but you don’t need to just throw a gift card at him. If there’s something small but meaningful — a book or graphic novel, maybe — that might bridge the gap between “here I knitted this with my feelings” and “f--k you take your card and choke” without either slapping his had away or sending the wrong message.
The last thing to keep in mind: you don’t need to rush any of this. You’re allowed to take things slowly, process your feelings and let whatever the next stage of your relationship will be grow at its own pace. Yes, you’ve got rehearsals and s--t, yes, we’ve rounded the final lap of the holiday season and now the New Year’s here… but that doesn’t mean that you’re on a deadline. Feel your feels, establish some boundaries and then see where things go from there. Everything’ll be ok.
Just make sure to make a point of using your words, next time. The heart you save may be your own.
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