Indignity Vol. 3, No. 1: Can I Be in Love With My Friend, Please?


Indignity Vol. 3, No. 1: Can I Be in Love With My Friend, Please?

Hello The Sophist,

I’m in love with my friend. It is unrequited and I suppose this is one of those letters.

We have known each other a long time, and I have always liked them. Then I had a difficult couple of years, during which they have been kind and generous with their time. I don’t harbor illusions that we will somehow “end up together,” as that is simply impossible, for the many usual, middle-aged reasons. I don’t think they feel the way about me as I do them. I have not said anything about my feelings to them. They have done nothing to encourage me feeling this way, except be a friend.

I have sat with my feelings long enough to accept that I could live with them. Meaning that I could live with this unrequited love, because I have been, for a couple of years now. I suppose I could continue to live with it a while longer, and keep waiting for the feeling to pass. But part of me wishes to go back to the before times, when we were simply friends. I say part, because my romantic love has made me appreciate my friend’s qualities more than I did before.

Then I sometimes think the only solution is to end the friendship. But then I might be found out, or end up hurting my friend. And what I fear the most is that they won’t be in my life anymore.

I don’t know what to do except to keep waiting.

Not Self-Destructive Enough to Do Something About It

Dear Knottily Pining:

Like, do you want to have sex with this person, or what, exactly? It seems like if you did, you would, and if you simply wanted to enjoy the idea of being attracted to this person, then you would express and amplify the idea of your attraction in some safe and non-entangling way, to some third party. And here we are!

The Sophist hears you. Unrequited love is great stuff. Heady. Your heart jumps around in your chest. Your loins stir. You feel vital. These are second-person singular pronouns The Sophist is using here, not second-person plural. You don't really have some other person in the mix with yourself, just an image of a person, who in this case is roughly modeled on the figure of an existing kind and helpful friend.

So you think you're in love. But consider that person in their role as a person, for a moment. You're already friends. What benefits would you envision yourself adding to the friendship, in some hypothetical open-enrollment period, if it were possible? How much would you deduct from your paycheck to do it?

The trouble here is that people use the word "love" for two quite different things—well, a lot more than two, but here we're going to focus on the two. One of these, probably the more popular one, is kind of perniciously empty? There's love as a collaborative relationship between two people (within certain allowances, naturally, for the fundamental unknowability of one human being to another) and but then there's the love that so many of the singers sing love songs about, where they say they're "in love with" someone but what they mean is more like "in love at" at someone.

Wonderful songs! Songs full of yearning. Rays of yearning, shooting out in a certain direction with infinite narrowness, like in a plane-geometry textbook. Yet at the same time, you are sitting around feeling three-dimensional enough to talk about yourself, and your friend, as being usual and middle-aged.

This is good and important. Your friend, even as a target of your love-arrows, is an actual individual with whom you have an actual past and present. You're not coming at this like John W. Hinckley Jr. at Jodie Foster. How are you coming at it, though?

"I sometimes think the only solution is to end the friendship," you say. This would be (as you acknowledge) a pretty drastic and potentially hurtful way of dealing with a human being whom you like, and who has spent years being your friend!

Drastic, hurtful—and, once again, pretty impersonal. Dumping your friend is an alternative fantasy, the negative image of declaring your love. You'd still be turning your friendship into a love story; you just wouldn't even have the chance of getting any loving out of it. (Unless the fact of being dumped were to shake your friend into realizing they have feelings for you, thereby throwing the two of you togezzzz... Whoops! The Sophist dozed off a little there, from banality poisoning.)

Here The Sophist circles back for a third time to the question that your question provoked: what real-life outcome does this fantasizing connect up to? You say you harbor no illusions about it being able to happen, but what are the illusions you're so busily not-harboring? Are you dreaming your impossible dreams about life with this person as your full-time partner, around to hang up laundry and plunge the toilet and lose your mobility and visual acuity with until the day that one of you has to make a decision with the hospice team about what to do with the other? Or just about knocking boots sometimes? What would you do if you discovered that your boots don't knock together right?

But The Sophist isn't here to torment you with doubts. The Sophist is here, as always, to tell you you should do what you want to do. From your letter, it sounds like you're already doing it. Amid all your gestures toward drama or trauma, you say, "my romantic love has made me appreciate my friend’s qualities more than I did before." Congratulations! This is the place you should dream of an unrequited love ending up: with genuine warmth and admiration for someone with whom you feel close. Some might even call that a loving relationship.

Or you could make a pass and see what happens!
The Sophist

THE SOPHIST is the advice column that’s here to tell you why you're right. Keep your questions coming to, so you can keep getting the answers you want.

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