Can Potential/Former Lovers Be “Just Friends”?

A reader asks if it’s possible to be just friends with somebody to whom you are attracted romantically, even if they don’t feel the same way. She goes on to ask if that can also apply to an ex-spouse or ex-romantic partner. Romantic love, by definition, has to be a two-way street. And, in my professional experience, it is indeed possible to be friends with someone to whom you’re attracted, but who cannot reciprocate.

Well, dear Reader, 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 sort 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 might have been. 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 marital or romantic partners together over the long term.

So in a way, it actually makes sense to attempt a friendship with a person to whom you feel romantic attraction — assuming you can tolerate it emotionally. If it’s too frustrating or painful, 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 perhaps even awkward, 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 breakup more the initiative of one partner than the other? If so, then we’re back to the scenario I described above. However, if both of you are certain you wish to be ex-spouses, then the question becomes, “Why?” You need only answer this for yourself. Did your falling out of love with the person happen due to disappointment with the person’s character or basic values? If so, then there’s no more a basis for friendship than there would have been for marriage. However, if you simply grew apart in terms of compatibility or other non-fundamental factors, then you can certainly pursue friendship. Many ex-spouses have successfully done so, either out of necessity (i.e., when children are involved) or by choice.

In some cases, even when there has been marital betrayal, some couples have gone on to be friends. While the betrayed spouse would never again trust the ex-spouse as a romantic partner, the infidelity doesn’t necessarily extend to areas involving friendship. Of course this will certainly vary from one context to the next. Ex-spouses become friends all the time, but the longevity of that friendship can be in question. A failed marriage or broken relationship places a special burden on a friendship, but it can also provide a special opportunity. The parties already understand and know each other well. And sometimes the shift can be made quite naturally, especially when they 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 a strong enough dose to make this sort of relationship work.



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