Friendship, Love … or Something In Between?

Dear Dr. Hurd: I have two questions which are kind of related.

One, is it possible to have a friendship with someone to whom you’re attracted romantically and sexually, even if they’re not interested that way in return?

And two, is it possible or advisable to be friends with your ex-spouse or romantic partner?

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

Romantic love, by definition, has to be a two-way street. However, it’s not impossible to be friends with someone to whom you’re attracted, but who isn’t attracted back.

A lot of this depends on you. For one thing, how comfortable are you in the presence of the person to whom you’re attracted? And how much do they really have to offer you outside of a sexual relationship, since that won’t be happening?

It’s interesting and, in a way, kind of ironic. If you ultimately don’t gain enough from the person to enjoy a sustained friendship with them, then this calls into question how sustained a romantic relationship it would have been, should you have had the chance to pursue it. I say this because relationships that last over the long haul are, in part, excellent friendships. Without that component, there’s not enough to hold a marital or romantic relationship together over the long-term.

So in a way, for the sake of “closure” or full understanding, it even makes sense to attempt a friendship with a person to whom you feel romantic attraction — assuming you can tolerate it. If it’s too frustrating or painful for you, then it’s probably not worth it. At the same time, if you’re in such pain over the loss or disappointment of not being able to pursue romance with this person, it’s sometimes better to have the distance so you can move on.

The other factor is whether the other person knows how you feel. If he or she honestly doesn’t, or only suspects it, then there’s a better possibility for a friendship. If you’ve made a painful or embarrassing scene over it, then it will probably be much harder, and it might make sense to simply go your separate ways.

As for being friends with your ex-spouse, it also depends on circumstances. The main question here is: Why is your ex- your ex-? Was the break-up more at the initiative of one partner than the other? If so, then we’re back to the context I just described above.

However, if both of you are certain you wish to be ex-spouses, then the question is why. You need only answer this for yourself. Did your falling out of love with the person happen due to severe disappointment with the person’s character or basic values? If so, then there’s not a basis for friendship any more than there was a marriage. However, if you simply grew apart with respect to compatibility or other non-fundamental factors, then you can certainly pursue friendship. Many ex-spouses have successfully done so, either out of necessity (when children are involved), as well as by mutual choice (even when there are no children).

In some cases, there has been marital betrayal and yet couples have gone on to be friends. While the betrayed spouse would never trust the ex-spouse as a romantic partner again, the infidelity doesn’t necessarily extend to areas involving friendship. This is a borderline kind of situation and will vary from one context to the next.

Ex-spouses becoming friends? It happens all the time. But it can never be counted on. An ex-marriage or romantic relationship places a special burden on a friendship, but it also provides a special opportunity. You already understand and know each other well. And sometimes the shift can be made quite naturally, especially when two people no longer feel “in love” as spouses, but still value and enjoy having one another in each other’s lives.

Both of these situations call for an unusual amount of rationality and sensitivity for everyone involved. While these qualities are certainly attainable, not everybody possesses them in strong enough doses to make it work.

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