My Guy Friend Keeps Flirting But Doesn't Want a Relationship
Some of The Most Classic Stuff
Here’s The Thing is an advice column/newsletter where I mostly beg people to either stop dating someone or to ask their crush out. Or I talk about weird things that came to my mind that no one is paying me to write about. I can never decide if I should capitalize the “the” in Here’s The Thing or not; apologies on lack of consistency.
You can submit your own question—or yell at me about how I’m wrong—by emailing me at email@example.com
A BIG SWEETIE:
I (23F) have no idea how to navigate my relationship with a close friend of mine (23M). We spend a lot of time together just the two of us and have both always felt like we have really good chemistry. A few months ago it seemed like things were taking a turn from friendship into something more romantic, and I realized that I was developing feelings for him and it felt like the same was true for him based on how he would act and talk to me:things were very flirty and close. At one point we went to the movies together and he bought my drink, which he’d never done before, and it felt a lot like a date— I also learned later that he told another friend of ours not to come to the same movie so that we could be alone together. Immediately after this, though, he started being really weird and avoiding my texts, and eventually admitted that he had started seeing a girl that he used to hook up with in college again. (They both have said that it’s casual and non-monogamous.) I had no idea that this was happening and felt a little bit blindsided by the news— I asked him to talk to me about it after a month of near-silence from him because I felt like I didn’t really understand what he wanted from me anymore, and he admitted that he was guilty of sending mixed signals because he had “mixed feelings.” He told me that he doesn’t believe it’s a good idea for friends to date because he didn’t think we would have enough privacy or space (we basically share the exact same group of friends), and I respected that and agreed to stay friends.
Recently, though, things have started to feel the same way again. We went from only hanging out in a group to hanging out one on one again, and he’s been so flirty, especially when he’s drunk, that our friends have noticed and commented on it: putting his jacket around my shoulders when it’s cold outside, putting his arm around the back of my chair in front of everybody. I know that this is getting beyond ridiculous and I have to do something about the situation— he’s still seeing the other girl, and I know that he’s probably not any closer to wanting a romantic relationship with me than he was a few months ago. I really value our friendship, and I knew that it would be hard to only be friends with him when I had deeper feelings but I was trying my best to make it work. (It’s pretty clear to me now that I should have been way more strict with myself, but it’s hard to make yourself stop spending time with someone you like!)
My question to you is: How exactly do I navigate the conversation I know I have to have with him now? How do I begin to set boundaries with someone that I have been way too flexible with in the past? Is there any way to come out of this as truly, genuinely, just friends? Selfishly, I feel slightly resentful of the fact that it seems like it’s always on me to initiate an uncomfortable conversation, but I don’t think there’s another way to preserve the relationship here.
Oh god, I could talk about this topic for like 13 hours with you, so please excuse the format/pacing/organization of this letter because it’s not going to be dazzling. It’s going to be much closer to the rantings and ravings of a dear friend or a drunk aunt. Let’s name your guy Alistair, because the name seems kind of douchey and the guy seems kind of douchey and no one who is reading this letter knows anyone named Alistair, I have to assume. (If you read this letter and know someone named Alistair you are not in the right tax bracket to be spending your time on my newsletter— please instead venmo me a bunch of money).
Anyway, the reason that I have 13 hours— the equivalent of watching The Irishman1 3.7 times— of things to say on this topic is that I myself have an Alistair in my past. (Two really, but who is up for counting after doing all that math about The Irishman?) As does EVERY SINGLE WOMAN I KNOW WHO DATES MEN.
🚨Generalization Alert🚨: for the rest of this letter I’m going to do some generalizations about men and women that I think are particularly relevant when you’re 23. Because at 23 all of us are figuring out who we are and part of that is doing a lot of performance of our socialization. It’s not a biology issue, it’s a societal and social structure issue. So if you’ve been socialized as a woman or around women, you might be more likely to act a certain way and vise versa. Again, these things are not innate and can be unlearned.
Men are, for all their sins, the great absorbers. They are aren’t even Takers necessarily— they don’t all thieve or manipulate their way to the top consciously or maliciously. They don’t prey on the time and attention of others out of cruelty, but rather out of comfort. Do you know about the Sleepytime Tea Bear? I know this seems insane of me (I promised diversions, didn’t I?) but it’s gonna make sense— I hope. Ok there’s this image of the Sleepytime Tea Bear where he is in his cozy clothesies (pjs) and he’s asleep by the fire with a little cat near him— which is a little concerning because we all know bears to be omnivores, but whatever.
Anyway, this bitch looks about as comfy as a person (bear) can be. I mean we all have some kind of deep-seated desire to live in little cabins in the woods because of fairy tale picture books making it look soooo cool, when really there is no running water and you have to shit in the woods. But this bear? He is living in bliss. He is absorbing the warmth of the fire. He’s succumbed to the slumber for which he is named. Life is good.
Well, a few years ago, someone on twitter posted the bigger picture. The picture that he is only a part of. And it is SHOCKING! This cozy dipshit is a father of at least four bears. Two of which are being put to bed by his presumed wife. She is turned away from her sleeping hus-bear dragging the no doubt cranky, overtired children to bed.
Now, I know nothing about the bear life; perhaps he put the other two already-sleeping bears to bed. Maybe he’s a stay at home dad who does most of the childcare and they’re really progressive about how they do the chores. I have no clue. But my point WHICH I REALLY DIVERGED FROM is this: when you’re a little sleepy baby near a fire, absorbing its warmth, feeling so safe and snuggly someone else has to do the work to make you feel that good, to keep the fire going.
Men have been socialized (aka it’s not their fault but it is also their fault) to be very good at letting people bustle around them doing work that makes them feel good while they do nothing— or very little— in return. They’ve been taught to feel ok when everyone else around them is doing dishes and they’re watching a football game. It’s a little sick to watch when men don’t fight against this (because they can but it’s not as convenient for them as letting others do the shit work).
Here’s the Sick Stuff Part Two: straight men aren’t very good at female friendship2. They provide friendship in ways that women simply don't provide it for one another. I'm not trying to say that female friendship is better (it obviously is) but the ways we give and expect care from one another are different than what men give and expect. We tend to put in a lot of effort. We tend to be very good at talking in meta ways about the friendships we have. And those things are valuable to us! Straight dudes... not so much, it seems. They like being in a room together drinking a mai tai, watchin' The Departed after not seeing each other for six months and that's really valuable to them. I’m not trying to be dismissive or trite.
What you are providing this dude, through the simple virtue of your type of friendship is a lot of care and attention. And for guys, a lot of times care and attention feels romantic, because that is, in general the only time they do shit like that. So they start making vaguely romantic gestures, like buying a soda, because they like the feelings. (Who doesn’t like care and attention?! Men, I swear you could incorporate this into your friendships in fun healthy ways!) Which gets really sticky when you start to feel romantic back.
This guy isn’t doing this stuff to be shitty or to lead you on. At least, I don’t think so. He’s doing it because it feels nice to get attention and affection from you, and he’s doing the bare minimum in return to keep those good things going. Because, unfortunately, he’s only been socialized to do the bare minimum. And because he’s 23. I’m not trying to be like Oooooooh I’m sooooo much older and wiser than I was at 23; you two are little ignorant dipshits, this isn’t a real problem. This will pass!! I don’t mean it that way at all. I just mean, the way you learn how to care about friendship and tend to it and draw good boundaries when other people don’t do those things is you go through shit like this. This painful, crappy, scooped-out-insides-of-a-pumpkin shit.
Ok, awesome Sophia, thanks for all your weird tangents on bears and Scorsese movies— what the fuck do I do?
I’m of the mind that in situations like this we can plan what we’re going to do and make decisions and decide on boundaries while we’re in the car crying to our best friend about how much it hurts, but then the second you see your guy friend again all of it kind of … goes the way it goes. It’s really hard to want to disrupt a friend group (NOT THAT THAT IS WHAT DRAWING BOUNDARIES IS, IT JUST FEELS THAT WAY SOMETIMES) or end a flirty friendship by having a Big Serious Conversation. It’s not that I think you shouldn’t have one. If you want to, have one and say, “My good bitch, Alistair, I know that you and I have been flirty with each other on and off, but it’s getting annoying3. I know that while you like me, and even maybe like me in that way, it’s not going to happen between us for reasons4. So I'm going to pull back a bit, not out of a lack of friendship, just to get things back on less shaky ground for myself."
HOWEVER, if you don’t want to have a Big Serious Conversation, that’s ok, too. (I think you’re perfectly correct to feel resentful that it’s always on you to initiate this shit!!!!) You can make the boundaries internal. You can be the Sleepytime Tea Bear and luxuriate in the things this friendship does give you. You can flirt harmlessly when you want to and back off when you don’t like he is. You can make an effort to not hang out one on one. You can completely back off a bit from the full-tilt flirt. You can make up silly excuses for not seeing him for a while until the friendship fades into a less romantic one and you go back to Big Group Event friends. You can be confused and sad and in pain on occasion and decide that’s an ok trade off for keeping things more or less how they are.
You probably, unfortunately, aren’t going to suddenly not feel a little zing when it comes to this guy—at least not for a while. Such is the nature of crushes. You can feel those jolts of attraction and still maintain a friendship. (I mean, ostensibly that’s what he’s doing, even if he’s being messy about it!) This isn’t an issue of you not being strict enough with yourself or not having enough discipline or being a big cabbageheaded baby. You don’t need to do better or be better. You weren’t a fool. Your job as a person and a friend is not to watch out proactively and make sure you never get hurt, that the lines never get blurry. Your job is kindness and grace— to yourself (and others, but it seems like you’ve got that covered).
You aren’t responsible for managing everything. You aren’t responsible for making the most correct, unassailable decision every single time. You aren’t the host of a children’s TV show. Give yourself a break. Show up in ways that feel good in the friendship, forgive yourself when your boundaries are flimsy in the face of attraction5. You won't get an award at the end of your life for cutting this attraction off as soon as possible because it might hurt your feelings. You won't get an award for handling this maturely. You won't get an award for never "giving in" to how nice it feels to have an arm over the back of your chair. You most certainly can't protect yourself from all future pain with good planning.
Sorry for making a The Irishman reference in 2023. I don’t know what long movies came out this past year.
Obviously female friendship is a rich tapestry, but we’re doing big brush strokes here, you little freaks. Please just put up with my generalizations. I didn’t take enough adderall to type out all the nuanced thoughts in my head.
Excruciatingly painful for my heart.
The reason being that he’s enjoying romantic attention from a lot of different venues, which is NOT a crime at all! If he’s kind and responsible about it.
LITERALLY ALL OF US BEND THE RULES FOR CRUSHES AND HUNKS. ALL OF US. Every single person you know.