Just Be Friends?
I have a friend who wants to “just be friends,” but it seems like more to me. How can I know for sure?
The best way to answer this question is to tell you about someone I counseled.
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 was a good idea. She knew too many people who had begun relationships romantically only to find when the initial buzz was gone, there was not much left. She 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. 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 was she was talking about a relationship that was “just friends,” while all along having a secret fantasy (at least secret to Mark) 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 and her continuing to hide it.
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. 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 favor that Bryn would do for Mark, her hopes and feelings would grow. On the surface this was not a “problem.” However, in the balance of things, it was a very real problem. The real issue was each of them was having very different expectations from the friendship and neither 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. He was not about to gripe about the growing physical affection 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 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.
The solution is the old Scriptural command to “live in the light.” As Ephesians 4:25 tells us, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.”
At some point, friends or people dating must define what they are looking for in the relationship. It may be they do not know, and that is OK too, as long as they communicate that. It is OK to say, “I don’t know where this is going. I am open to finding out.” That is a clear message, even if it is lacking closure. The problem comes when someone is saying one thing and secretly holding on to another reality, or saying one thing and acting in another way. Saying friends, and acting like more usually is a formula for hurt.
Some points to remember:
- 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 the other person may have no idea you are feeling or hoping for more.
- Make sure 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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