I am a single woman. I have had a few long relationships but I have been single for a long time. I have been on dates but have not kissed a man since my last relationship. I have a close male friend who is in a committed relationship. I have feelings for him but I do not want to tell him. I don’t want to lose him as a friend. When we are together I feel safe and secure. However, when we are together with other friends I act differently and almost ignore him because I am afraid that they will pick up on the fact that I have feelings for him, which I am ashamed of.
The friendship causes me to worry and get upset but also gives me joy. I think about what would happen between us if his relationship with his partner ended. I do not want to be the reason why his relationship fails. I want him to be happy and I do not want to add stress to his life. How can I maintain this friendship while thinking these things?
Right now, you have feelings for this man that are affecting how you interact with him, to the point where you’re ignoring him and not really experiencing his friendship any more. You don’t want to tell him that you have feelings for him, so you’re struggling with your feelings alone. This predicament of being stuck is now causing you “to worry and get upset”, and to spend your time fantasising about the end of his relationship without having any intention to pursue it.
If this is “safe and secure” to you, I think there’s some re-evaluating to be done.
Let me get to the spoiler of this response immediately: I don’t think you should tell this man you have feelings for him. Firstly, because he’s in a relationship and that’s not a respectful thing to do. Secondly, you give no indication that he has ever hinted that your feelings are reciprocated (and I fully believe that you would be over-analysing any such evidence if it existed). And thirdly, I don’t think your feelings for this man are all you believe them to be. I’m not convinced that this man makes you feel safe — rather, I think you’re using him as a safety net.
Regular readers of the column know that I don’t really believe in unrequited love. Unrequited crushes, sure. Crushes are all about projection and obsession; about taking pieces of information about a person, then creating a narrative in your own head about why they are perfect — both generally, and for you. Crushes and obsessions rely on gaps, on distance, on a sense of non-reality, so that we can keep the object of our obsession on a pedestal. To know a crush fully would be to know too much; we wouldn’t be able to control the narrative any more, because reality would come crashing in.
This man is a safety net. But eventually, you have to let him go
You know this man and are friends with him, so your feelings are probably deeper and more layered than a crush — but I still think they’re less than love. Because romantic love requires an openness from the other person, an openness to being loved, an openness to some kind of relationship so that you can get to know each other in a romantic context. And it’s from that closeness, that knowledge, that layered understanding of each other that the love grows.
You’re in an in-between zone of feeling something more than a crush, something less than love — but it’s important to remember that you only know this man as a friend. You’re filling in all the gaps of what it would be like to be in a romantic interaction with him with your own narrative.
This is why I think you need to look at the difference between a person who makes you feel safe, and a person you’re using as a safety net. You mention that you have been single for a long time and haven’t kissed anyone since your last relationship, which implies that you have some anxiety about dating, that you’re not ready to open your heart back up again, that you’re holding yourself back from even early or casual connections with people. You’re protecting yourself. Exploring what you’re scared of will be the key to understanding why you have chosen this man as a safety net. He is a friend, so you know him, and he is in a relationship so you know he has been in some way “vetted” by someone else, which makes him seem safe.
But the safest thing about him is that you can’t have him. And because you can’t have him, you don’t have to try, you don’t have to date, you don’t have to open your heart back up again and risk anything. You can simply spend your time controlling the fantasy you have in your head, without ever dealing with the messy reality of real romance, real love, the real possibility of real heartbreak. You have, consciously or unconsciously, chosen an unavailable man because you aren’t ready to be available yourself.
All of this is completely understandable. We protect ourselves and our hearts in a myriad of ways and lingering in feelings for someone unavailable has got to be in the top three. But acknowledging this will be important for you, both to demystify your feelings for this person somewhat so that you can feel more comfortable around him, and letting you acknowledge what you want from your dating and love life moving forward.
I’m not pushing you to go back out and date immediately if you’re not ready — by all means, take your time, think about what you want, and move at your own pace. But don’t let fear dictate all your moves. I think you’re so scared of opening back up to real love right now because you are aware of its power and value it so deeply. Move back towards it, slowly. Focus on healing, and self-awareness and building back up your hope and resilience so you can remember the joy of it, not just the pain.
There’s a quote from Louise Erdrich that I adore, and always turn to when I need reminding to not be ruled by fear. “Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
This man is a safety net. But eventually, you have to let him go so you can have something real. You have to accept the danger of being open to real love. You have to risk your heart. It’ll always be worth it.