I had an experience today that made me grow as a person. I don’t always get to say that, but today I did. Like many such experiences, it wasn’t one I wanted, but unlike many I’ve had, I made the most of it and grew from it.
I went out on a few dates with a woman that I really, really liked. She wasn’t perfect, but we seemed to have a genuine connection on multiple levels. Today, she told me as graciously as she could that she was not interested in a romantic relationship with me, and that she wanted to be friends. There were a number of factors involved for her, but in some ways it was a real disagreement between us – I truly thought it could have worked out if we had made time for it. I wished her the best, and hold no resentments towards her for doing what felt that she needed to do for herself, but I told her that I cannot be just friends with her, because I wasn’t interested in that kind of relationship. This was hard, because it was a first for me.
For most of my life, whenever a romantic relationship ended, I handled the “let’s just be friends” conversation with a verbal agreement…and with a concealed intention to employ what Harris O’Malley (aka Dr. NerdLove) refers to as “the platonic friendship backdoor gambit.” This particularly loathsome move is essentially when a person agrees to be friends with someone they are primarily interested in romantically, with the hope that their prospect will one day realize that the person they call their best friend is really the one they wanted to be with romantically all along. It’s dishonest, it’s unhealthy, and perhaps most acutely, it’s painful. Despite that, nearly all the John Hughes coming of age movies from my adolescence have some form of this situation as a basis, and I can’t tell you how many times I thought “maybe THIS is the one that catapults me from Lloyd Dobler, lovable loser, to Lloyd Dobler, guy who gets the girl.” (sidebar: How in the world did a movie with such a clearly unhealthy relationship become so foundational in depicting the kind of relationship I once thought I wanted?)
It’s not that this plot line never happens in real life. Some people really do realize that their best platonic friend is actually their soulmate. But more often than not, the result of trying to maintain a mere friendship with someone you’ve fallen for, particularly a close friendship, is an exponential multiplication of heartbreak as the prospective beloved finds happiness in the arms of someone other than the person who was placed in the “friendzone,” often after months of spurned advances and painful attempts to convince the other to change his or her mind. The crazy part, in some ways, is that the friendzoned person has nobody to blame but themselves for not having clearer and stronger boundaries about what they actually want. Their problems, as we say in Alcoholics Anonymous, are largely of their own making.
I know all of this personally, because I’ve done it repeatedly. In the wake of my second marriage, I had a short (mostly drunk) fling with a woman I never should have, and when she repeatedly told me she only wanted friendship with me, I chose instead to believe what I wanted to, rather than what she was actually saying. When it all came crashing down, she very accurately pointed out that she was not, in fact, being cruel to me, because I had accepted the terms she had presented, but had not been honest with my own intentions.
Today I didn’t do that.
I knew going into the conversation that it was not going to be a “and then I realized how you’re so much that I’m looking for in a guy, Pete” conversation. But I went anyway. I have no regrets for having developed interest and feelings for her, nor do I regret telling her so. She’s a truly great person, and any man would be lucky to be loved by her. At the same time, I have no regrets for telling her we can’t be friends, because that was absolutely the truth, from the deepest, most integrated corners of my integrity. I will miss her, short though our time together was, but I will also sleep peacefully, live deeply, and move forward well knowing that I did what was right. A year ago, I didn’t respect myself at all, but today I have the courage to face into a situation of pain, while not sabotaging my own future happiness.