An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I am a grown-ass woman, closer to 50 than 40, in a long-distance relationship that, besides all the usual frustrations of distance, is going well.
A few months ago, a male friend (married, no intention of divorce) told me that he was in love with me. He knew very well that I was happily involved with someone else, and he said that I’d never led him on. He knew I didn’t feel the same way about him and had no expectations that this would change, but he still told me, and in a . . . graphic way that made me extremely uncomfortable. And then acted like we could still just go on being friends. I said I wasn’t comfortable with that and thought it was best for both of us that we end the friendship.
Last night it happened again, with another male friend. He isn’t in another relationship, at least, but he knows that I am and — again — says that I haven’t led him on. He knows his feelings aren’t reciprocated, but just wanted to be honest with me. At least he wasn’t gross about it, but I’m now trying to decide if this friendship is also too awkward to continue.
I’m lucky in that I haven’t had strong unreciprocated feelings for someone else in a very, very, very long time, but from what I remember, when it did happen I wasn’t anxious for the guy to know about it. Quite the opposite. So I’m having trouble understanding their compulsion to share. What do these guys expect from me when they tell me how they feel? Are they hoping their confessions will change my feelings for them? Do they not realize — or care about — the emotional burden this places on me, to be aware of their feelings and still try to maintain a platonic friendship?
Am I doing something wrong in how I behave with them? How can I keep this from happening again? I’ve tried to analyze my side of these friendships to see if, despite their assurances, I really am leading them on somehow. I don’t think I am, but maybe there’s something subconscious? I also wonder if they would feel as emboldened to tell me about their feelings if my boyfriend were a more visible presence in my life.
How do I make sense of this?
Not to sound too much like a character from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but what a bummer. To be puttering along, thinking that you are clear on the nature of a relationship, that everyone involved is clear on the nature of a relationship, only to find that everything is all a muddle? It’s so disorienting. Doubting yourself, which is what I hear when you ask whether or not there’s something you did to create these situations, is totally understandable.
It’s also a trap, which you are dangling at the edge of. Don’t fall in.
If your friends tell you, explicitly or implicitly, that you are responsible for their feelings or their lack of boundaries, they are not your friends. Just say no.
You know where it’s completely acceptable for men to proclaim their love for women who are unavailable and not asking for their romantic attentions? Hallmark movies. Because the idea that women are just walking around, despite any existing obligations or commitments, secretly waiting for some dude to proclaim his undying love so that she can upend her entire life to be with him is a fiction.
It’s a fiction created by patriarchy to make men feel justified in being emotionally unintelligent and entitled, and women feel like they’re supposed to think that’s cute. It’s not cute. It’s disappointing.
In case you, like some readers, are feeling a little defensively protective of your friends in the face of my complete lack of patience for their behavior, let me be clear. I don’t think that either of these guys making such incredibly poor choices makes them inherently bad people. We all make bad choices sometimes. We all are stumbling and flailing. We can offer each other some empathy for being occasionally stupid humans, but we don’t learn how to be less stupid next time by having other people take responsibility for our stupidity.
Patriarchy teaches men to expect women to bear the emotional burden of their stupidity. Patriarchy teaches women to pick up the burden of that stupidity and call it their own.
Look, everyone gets to have their own feelings. There is no shame in that game. Maybe both of these guys genuinely developed romantic feelings for you, even knowing that you are in a relationship. Even knowing that those feelings likely weren’t reciprocated. But to bring those feelings to you? Of course they hoped that you might actually reciprocate. Why else even bring it up?
Even if they were just “getting it off their chest”, at best they were saying, “I am deeply uncomfortable with my own feelings so I would like you to join me in my discomfort”. At worst they were saying, “I am deeply uncomfortable with my feelings so I would like to make you uncomfortable instead. I feel much better now. So, honest and authentic! Phew!” Either way, you get left uncomfortable for their benefit. That’s entitlement, not friendship.
I do think that one of the unfortunate ways in which straight men are damaged by patriarchy is that they are taught emotional intimacy with other adults can only be experienced tied up with erotic attraction. They tend to only experience emotional intimacy outside of their families and children, assuming they experience any emotional intimacy there, within the context of their sexual relationships with women. When they experience emotional closeness with a female friend, even if that friend is unavailable, often the sexual attraction just comes along for the ride.
Women are given much more latitude to develop emotionally intimate connections with all kinds of people without triggering romantic or sexual feelings. Do women who sleep with men sometimes develop romantic or sexual feelings for their male friends? Absolutely. But because in women’s lives emotional intimacy and sex are not so constantly tied to each other I think it is easier for women to think consciously about how to deal with the sexual attraction piece in a way that respects the friend and the friendship.
It is the mark of a man who takes responsibility for his own emotional material if he can feel sexually attracted to a woman he’s friends with and keep his mouth shut about it, until or unless she is available or communicates clearly that she’s willing to receive that information.
How does a woman communicate that she’s willing to receive that information?
One, she makes it known that she is polyamorous or ethically non-monogamous. Being either of those things doesn’t mean she will be interested in adding a sexual aspect to a friendship, but she’s likely used to doing a fair amount of communication around emotions and sex and so may be more willing to have the conversation without it ending the friendship.
Two, she engages habitually in overtly flirtatious, sexualized banter that she initiates. Not that she’s willing to respond flirtatiously if men flirt with her. Many women engage in flirtation when prompted as a survival mechanism. I’m talking about women who flirt of their own accord because that’s the one they are (hand raised over here). Again, just because a woman is authentically and genuinely flirtatious does not mean that she wants to be romantically or sexually involved with any guy who catches feelings for her, but she may be more willing to have the conversation without it ending the friendship.
Are you either of those types of women? I’m guessing not, but only you can say.
You asked how you can prevent this from happening again, and here’s the only thing I can offer. In my experience, if we continually have emotionally uncomfortable or upsetting experiences of a similar type then it is likely that there is an emotional hook for us in it. The emotional hook is hanging out there, getting snagged on stuff, because there’s something we need to learn. Once we learn that thing, whatever it may be, those repetitive emotional upsets seem to dissipate.
Not that those experiences never happen again, but they don’t hook us anymore. They don’t upset our emotional equilibrium. We just keep moving.
What might you need to learn here? Is there some way in which you have managed the emotional burdens of men you couldn’t easily get away from in your life (family, former spouse, teachers, colleagues) to your own detriment? Have you allowed fuzzy boundaries or poor communication in relationships because it felt easier than potentially dealing with conflict? Has your sense of self-worth been tied up with men’s attractions to you? Have you depended on having a male partner physically present to establish boundaries with other men that made you feel safe and comfortable, instead of learning how to do that yourself?
Whether your answer is yes to one (or more) of these questions, or you come up with some other answers, it still doesn’t mean any of this is your fault. Both of these guys transgressed the emotional boundaries of a friendship. The guy who got graphic with it was also propagating rape culture. I don’t care if he thought he was “just being funny”. Women are not obligated to listen to you graphically describe anything sexual because you’ve got shitty social skills. That’s a hard no. Any consequences for transgressing boundaries are on them, whether it is losing your friendship or just feeling like an enormous dumbass. Hopefully, consequences will help them learn something.
You also probably have something to learn here — about communication, boundaries, friendship, men. I don’t really know, ultimately. But I do know that having stuff to learn does not equate to culpability. You have your own work to do. Don’t waste your time also doing theirs.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at email@example.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.
Want to walk further together? A new Walk With Me is published every Wednesday at noon (Eastern Time). You can also catch up on recent Walk With Me columns below.