A few summers ago I finished writing a book about singleness – how to walk through its dark stages and how to maximize it in its purposeful stages. I’m currently working on revising and editing it, and as I worked through this section tonight, I thought I’d share it with you all on the blog. This is not based on one person’s story – it is based on many, many stories that I’ve observed over the years, some of them my own. I pray that it is a challenge and encouragement to many young Christian singles out there.
In theory, the progression of relationships should go: friendship, dating, engagement, marriage. In reality? It seems to be less and less so. More often than not we get a weird “attraction-ship” step thrown in. You know – “I think I like him, I think he likes me, but we’re just friends. Even though we text every day and hang out a lot and he’s the first one I’d tell if something important happened in my life.”
At that point it should be called dating. Because that’s what dating someone looks like. But for a thousand and one reasons we’re too afraid to call it what it is. And it often boils down to this: the other person really isn’t right for us to be dating but we don’t want to lose their friendship. Or maybe they are right for us but we’re too afraid to commit to them due to our own immaturity, the fear of problems arising, or losing our freedom. Regardless, we “stay friends” with the other person, even though it might be emotionally damaging to us or them.
Christians and non-Christians alike have tried to make opposite-sex friendships as harmless as platonic friendships, but that can’t always happen the way we’d like it to. And when it doesn’t, we don’t want to give them up – and we start heading into dangerous waters that end in the shipwreck of emotional carnage. We might even call it stringing along that would-be lover without any intention of making them your lover. Not sure what I’m talking about? Let me elaborate.
Charlotte and Peter are friends. They enjoy each other’s companionship, their good times together, and having someone to share life with. Peter develops feelings for Charlotte, but Charlotte doesn’t reciprocate. Oh, Charlotte tries to consider what a relationship would look like, and she wishes she could muster up feelings for Peter. But she just doesn’t feel anything there.
Yet she doesn’t want to lose the friendship. She likes having someone to share life with, and she also likes Peter’s attention. So when Peter sits down with her to have a “Define The Relationship” talk (DTR) and tells her of his feelings, Charlotte regretfully says she doesn’t return them and quickly adds on, “But let’s stay friends.” Which only tells Peter that there might be hope further on down the line if he can just convince her. Nothing really changes in their friendship, except for the fact that Peter keeps liking Charlotte and hoping she’ll change her mind – getting more and more dangerously attached to her, while Charlotte blithely keeps on in her platonic feelings, thinking there’s nothing to worry about.
But there is something to worry about. Although Charlotte might not like Peter “like that,” she is emotionally attached to his attention – which is why she won’t let it go. That is, until someone comes along whom she actually does like who will replace Peter’s attention – and then she’ll let go of her friendship with Peter, devastating him. She’ll think that he shouldn’t be so upset – after all, didn’t they have that “talk” to clarify that she didn’t like him?
Yes, but her actions still signified a certain amount of interest in him which kept dangling a carrot of possibility in front of him. And all the while she was lying to herself, promising herself that all was well between them.
This kind of relationship is toxic to both parties involved. I have seen it multiple times with guys and girls on both sides. I’ve been involved with it on both sides. And it never ends well.
There seems to be some kind of “nobility” about staying friends with someone after they have confessed their feelings to the other person. However, when “staying friends” means you practically act like you’re dating because there’s no one else around to fulfill that role – that’s not noble, that’s insensitive.
The harder thing to do – the thing that’s actually noble – is to be honest and act on that honesty. First of all, be honest with yourself about your own motives. You have to ask yourself, Do I actually care about this person? If you care about them in a romantic way, then tell them so that you can get clarity. If the feeling is reciprocated, then that’s wonderful. If it isn’t reciprocated, then you both need to take a step back and give the relationship space before being friends again – in a much lesser way.
Second of all, be honest with the other person. If you care about him/her, and he/she likes you more than you like them, then the most loving thing to do is to be honest and tell them that. Then do the hard thing and say, “We should probably not spend as much time together to let your heart heal from the hurt.” Don’t be selfish and ask them to keep giving emotionally when you have nothing to give back.
Some of us don’t want to be honest about how we’re feeling more for a friend because we don’t want to lose that friendship. But believe me, it’s better to be honest now, feel the sting (if rejection happens), and let your heart move on than to spend months or years pining for someone and pretending that there is something more significant with them than there truly is.
Hearts are dangerously tricky things that will lie to us and convince us that our motives are innocent. They cannot be trusted when it comes to our level of interest (or lack thereof) in another person romantically. That’s why it is imperative that we have godly people in our lives to help counsel our hearts through these choppy relational waters. We need to allow mentors to see into our hearts and help us prayerfully consider when a friendship might be entering the attachment phase, and if we need to do something about it. Sometimes we need to wait for the right timing, but sometimes we need to break ourselves free of an unhealthy dependence on a friendship that we want to turn romantic and isn’t.
Not sure if this is you? Here are some questions to see if your friendship has become more significant in your mind than any other male/female friendship in your life:
- Would he be one of the first people you’d want to tell if you got great news?
- Does her opinion of your choices and ideas matter more to you than other girls you’re friends with?
- Do you feel slightly jealous when he’s giving attention to other girls?
- Do you hope for her texts, her affirmation, or her attention more than any other’s?
- Do you attach significance to his comments, conversations, looks, and gestures?
- Do you intentionally plan ways to spend time with her regularly, even though you tell yourself they aren’t dates?
- Do you go out of your way to mentally defend yourself that you don’t like him?
- Does her name come up frequently in conversations with other people?
- Would you be devastated if he started dating someone else?
Believe me, I’m really good at this game of denial. I’ve been playing it since I was ten years old. And I can recognize the telltale signs within my own heart, even when I’m denying it to myself – which is why I know that I need an accountability partner to keep me honest about my attachments that may not always be wise.
However, I also want to challenge more Christian men to step up and be leaders in this area, because a lot of hurt and misunderstanding comes from guys not having the courage to step up and tell a girl when he is or isn’t interested in her. It’s not always the men’s fault, of course. But oftentimes, guys allow close friendships to continue with girls for too long without being clear about their intentions. They may not realize how closely her emotions are being wound around him, but they are, the more attention he gives her. And she’s patiently waiting for him to act on his attention and initiate a relationship, which sometimes never comes. Therefore, it’s time for men to be men and clearly put boundaries around friendships with women so that there will be fewer unhealthy attachments.
It is tempting to try to replace the lack of a real relationship with a pseudo-relationship – something that is happening more in the mind than in reality. Yet these kinds of relationships can end up being more hurtful in the end than a break-up, because you had the illusion of something real without the actual form in front of you. And it’s painful to time and again have the beauty of “almost” without the actualization of it.
Let’s not tease our hearts like this. Let’s instead honor one another more greatly by giving each other the space to grow and find real relationships. It’s time for us to man up and woman up and be forthright about our feelings. Don’t sidestep around it and say, “Well, I don’t really like you like that, but let’s stay best friends.” That is not respecting the other person. As hard as it is to let a friendship go, you need to allow them emotional freedom so that there is room for the one who will commit and pursue a dating relationship.
We need men who are leaders, who lovingly recognize when they’ve entered the attachment phase and are ready to pursue something more. We need women who don’t lead men on because they like their attention, and who respectfully articulate how they feel. And we need men and women both who aren’t afraid to take a risk and either explore a relationship or back off of emotional intimacy with the other person. Step up or step back.
Picture gleaned from Pinterest.