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How do You Know When You’re More than just Friends with Someone?

There’s an ongoing conversation happening about the communication differences between men and women, and sometimes, with good results. But in my experience, singles do not suffer as much from the differences in their communication as they do from their lack of clarity in their communication. In short, they have misunderstandings that leave them with a lot of hurt, disappointment, and discouragement about relationships in general. Have you ever experienced any of the following?

  • Feeling like you were “more than friends,” and then abruptly hearing that you are not?
  • Feeling like you were “just friends,” and then finding out that someone feels very angry and betrayed because you are not “more than friends?”
  • Wanting a relationship to work so much that you give in to things that you really don’t want to do, and then resent it later?
  • Or, wanting a relationship to work so much that you give more and more of yourself only to find it not work in the end?
  • Dating someone, getting somewhat serious, and then finding yourself surprised by their lack of spiritual life when it seemed different otherwise?

These are common experiences as someone who’s single and actively dating, but do they have to be? What causes these issues?

Bryn sat in my office heartbroken. She had been telling me for a few months about her new love interest, Mark. As she had described the relationship, they had begun as friends, and she thought that to be a good idea. She said that she had known too many people who had begun relationships romantically and then when the initial buzz was gone, there was not much left. She had wanted to begin on a sure foundation. She and Mark would do things together, sometimes in a group, and sometimes alone. She was loving the friendship, and in the beginning, it was clear that they were “just friends,” in terms of anything that Mark was doing or saying.

What had begun to trouble me as her therapist was that she was talking about a relationship that was “just friends,” and defending that while all along having a secret fantasy (at least secret to him) that things would progress to being more. I did not object to her not laying all of her cards on the table at once, for that is often how dating goes. People are friends, spend time together, and then open the door for more. What troubled me was the increasing deepening of her feelings that she was experiencing and it continuing to be hidden.

Then it got further complicated. Every now and then, when spending an evening together, they would find themselves watching TV on the couch, and little by little moving from hugs, to holdings, and further along to full “make out” sessions. But, the problem was, there was no mention of a change in the status of their relationship. They were still “just friends,” yet acting at times very differently than friends act

With each physical encounter, or each time that Bryn would do some kind of favor for Mark, her hopes and feelings would grow. Again, on the surface not a “problem.” But in the balance of things, a very real problem. The real issue was that this friendship was having very different expectations from each of them, and neither one was talking about what was going on. Mark was enjoying having someone do such nice things for him. She would come by and cook, go places at the last minute with him when he felt lonely, and lots of other “caretaking” kinds of things. And he was not about to gripe about the growing physical affection that he was receiving. But, Mark was having all of these benefits of the relationship without the responsibility of the commitment or the definition of being more than friends. There were no clear expectations of what he was supposed to be delivering. She was giving a lot, with high hopes, but he was just along for the ride.

It did not surprise me when she came in and said that Mark had a new girlfriend. He came and told her, like you would with any other friend. And to him, that was normal, because in his mind, that’s all he and Bryn were, “just friends.” She was furious and wanted him to explain the time spent together and the physical affection. He said nothing except, “I thought we were just friends and enjoying it.”

Clearly he was not an innocent victim of her expectations. Mark had acted in ways that friends do not normally act, unless they have some sort of understanding of what they were doing at any given moment. Usually friends who spend that much time together talk about it, laugh about it, or something. But at least it is understood. It is in the light and clear. In this case, as in so many others, things get dark and murky.

So, here’s what you do.  Be honest with yourself first. Know what you want. Stop fooling yourself. If you are being “strategic,” at least take ownership for that. Maybe you want to start as friends and see what happens. But if you don’t disclose that, remember that the other person may have no idea that you are feeling or hoping for more.

Make sure that your behavior matches your level of commitment or definition of the relationship. Friends usually are not at the beck and call of another. They have mutuality to their relationship. If you are becoming “too convenient” to someone, either with favors or physically, that is not a good sign that you are in a healthy friendship.

At some point, get it all out on the table. Hold each other accountable for behavior. “If you say we are just friends, what was that kiss about?” or “If we say we are just friends, then why do you get jealous when I date someone?" When the reality is different in any way from what is understood, talk about it. Practice forgiveness and understanding while you are trying to figure it all out. Friendships go through a lot over the years. Give each other some slack.

Friendship is a good thing. But if you are hoping for more, be clear about it. Otherwise, you may lose a good friend.

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