Are we just friends?

As much as I want to be a great friend, I feel that sex makes friendship difficult. What is our relationship without sex?

Dear Modern Austen,

I should have known that I’m not someone who can have a love affair. But I am a romantic, and the idea of having a casual and intense sexual relationship with a man excited me, felt like something I should want. The only problem is that I’ve fallen in love. I’ve attached myself to the idea that we’re meant to be together.

Our relationship began like a modern retelling of a Jane Austen novel. We met at a bar about two years ago: I was sitting alone at a table, he walked over with a beer he purchased for me that I only pretended to drink because I wasn’t sure of his character but didn’t want to appear rude. A man had never talked to or looked at me with such passion and intensity before, never praised my appearance so profusely, and I was taken aback. Even though I didn’t feel quite the same level of attraction, I felt compelled to give him my number when he gave me his. But a couple of days later, I ended up blocking his phone number because I wasn’t sure how to handle the passion he had for me. Perhaps I was afraid of it. Yes, I think I was.

Fast forward a few months to the day we met again by chance. This is really where our story begins. I was sitting at my desk at work, listening to music while entering numbers into a spreadsheet, when a group of new hires who were receiving a tour of the office walked by my desk. I smiled at a man on the tour whose eye I happened to catch, not recognizing him until he said, “Cleopatra?” This was a nickname I had received only once in my life (I was wearing a Cleopatraesque necklace at the bar the night we met), and I pulled out an earbud to make sure I had heard him correctly: “Sorry?” “Never mind,” he shook his head and ran to catch up with his tour.

The next day, he came over to my desk to apologize for his behavior the night we met, worried that I would make life at his new job a living hell. We introduced ourselves properly, and I told him not to worry. I was actually impressed by him and thought that apologizing to me was pretty courageous. That night, I unblocked his number and texted him to let him know that I was interested in us getting to know each other.

I remember thinking our relationship was moving way too fast, but I didn’t want to stop it. It was also never a relationship and still isn’t (though my therapist has a different opinion on the matter). We’re lovers, to be sure, and the sex we have is incredible. While the relationship is free of commitment and strings, that somehow makes it more hurtful. I hate the jealous and obsessive person I can sometimes become when he’s unresponsive or has one excuse after another about why he needs to cancel our plans last minute. I tell him I understand, and I do, but I can’t help feeling that the way our friendship works is a little unfair to me. And I tend to get angry with myself for always being available when he wants to meet up.

I’ve never really shared these feelings with him before. I try to rationalize what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it, until I finally get to a point where I’m more understanding of myself and where this man is coming from. I did confront him (via Facebook message) about how poorly he was treating me once: he hadn’t made any effort to contact me, and while the fact that we have a romantic relationship is very much not apparent in our interactions at work, he seemed to be brushing off any effort I made to talk to him as a friend, even though he was nice and friendly to everyone else. In my message, I made a point of saying that I’m not always sure where I stand with him, to which he made very clear that we’re “friends and nothing more.” He really doesn’t want to be in love again, and he doesn’t want someone to place any kind of expectations on him. He’s in a place where he really needs to fix his life and heal from past wounds.

As much as I want to be a great friend, I feel that sex makes friendship difficult. What is our relationship without sex? It’s something we always do when we meet. And I think that what I want has changed as I’ve gotten to know him and how well we work together. It’s not that I want him to be my boyfriend and for me to be his girlfriend. I just want us to live our separate lives together and be available to support each other. I want to be more open about us; I don’t want to go on hiding it, which is what I felt I needed to do at first. But, mainly, I want clarity.

He thinks he’s been clear with me this whole time, but that’s not really the case. I always hold onto the fact that he said we’re just friends, but he’ll often use if statements like “if we get married and have kids” when we’re talking about life, and he has let “I love you” slip from his lips several times. I have also tried to end this a few times, thinking that the relationship had run its course, but we do keep coming back to each other: We both deeply respect and care about one another.

I feel that one of us has to do or say something to move us forward — in whatever direction that may be — but I’m afraid it’s going to have to be me. I love this man, I want to be in his life forever in some capacity, but I’m not sure it’s possible.

Can’t Define the Relationship

Dear CDTR,

At times, it is much easier to fall in love with someone who is unable to be yours completely. While having intercourse with this man may feel like he is giving you his heart, the truth is that he is probably afraid to let himself fall in love. But your letter isn’t really about this man; it is about you, how you believe you should be treated, and, perhaps, how you treat yourself.

I am reading a great deal of fear between the lines of your letter. You have already made clear to me what you need to do in terms of your intimacy with this man, but it sounds like you lack the courage to say what you need to. You write that the relationship — and I must say that I am in total agreement with your therapist that this is a relationship, whether you chuse to define it as such or not — has reached a point where it needs to move forward or end, and one (or both) of you needs to be the impetus for this change. Even though you know what must be done, you’re angry with yourself for chusing to do nothing.

Perhaps you lose courage when you remember this man has told you — on a few different occasions — that he only wants to be friends, and you believe that telling him you need something more will ruin whatever it is your relationship is. The very honest truth is that the connection as it stands might be ruined, for you cannot make someone desire the same things you do.

But the intercourse is good, you have a comforting and easy friendship, and you’re both drawn to each other for some unexplainable reason. Could being honest with this man about what’s in your heart really put that all at risk? If you believe it can, then I must question why you want to be with him at all. Instead of facing this man about your feelings, what you’re doing is blaming yourself for falling in love; for not being the type of person who can have a love affair; for wanting something more than he’s been willing to give you. You might have once desired having only a casual intimacy, but you’ve moved on. Now what you want is an open relationship that’s giving and loving and easily defined.

While your Amor — whether it’s intentional or not — seems to be trying to suppress a discussion about this by telling you that there never will be anything more between you than kind friendship, he is not actually forcibly keeping you from speaking what’s in your heart. But at the core of your letter, I sense that there is a fear of your ruining a perfectly good modern Jane Austen novel. Your great fear is that you shall disappoint the story. But what sort of story do you desire to be the heroine of? One where you silently continue with an arrangement that feels a lot like a relationship and gives you a few bursts of happiness amidst a sea of pain? Or would you rather take charge of the situation, declare what you want, and lead the story that comes from this strong-willed and independent action?

I am not suggesting that this relationship is bad for you or your lover; it can be wonderful! But it must first be equal. You must speak your mind to him. If you seriously want this story to carry on like an Austen novel, your understanding must be based on openness and honesty.


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