Almost every college student has had some version of this experience: A friend is romantically inclined, but you think of it as a strictly platonic relationship. UC Davis communication professor Michael Motley tells students how to maintain a friendship after experiencing a romantic rejection. His research on unrequited love appears in “Studies in Applied Interpersonal Communication.”
What made you interested in this subject?
I knew that usually in situations where two people are friends and one expresses unrequited love, the friendship falls apart. But sometimes, it doesn’t. I was curious to know what happened in friendships where they stayed friends versus what happened in the relationships that fell apart.
Is it possible to stay friends with someone who wants more from the relationship than you do?
Absolutely. That’s not usually what happens, but it’s possible.
How do you stay friends with that person?
If the two people don’t sincerely want to be friends, then it’s not going to happen. Some will say, “I want to remain friends with that person,” while the other [romantically inclined] friend will be thinking, “I really wanted all or nothing” – that friendship won’t last. The desire for friendship has to be genuine in order to stay friends.
Should the more romantically inclined friend hold on to the hope that the other friend might change their mind?
They absolutely have to give up on the idea of romantic inclinations with this friend. Otherwise, if they don’t, what happens is that it never really turns back into a friendship and the platonically inclined friend will feel pressure to be more than a friend … It’s really important to mean it when you say that you want to remain friends.
How do you handle the awkwardness?
Everybody who has this experience almost always has some awkwardness – it’s embarrassing for everybody. One person said that they had romantic feelings and got shot down, the other has had a friend say that they have romantic feelings toward them and they have to let that friend down. [The romantically inclined friend] has to say one of two things: First say, “Look, I can handle this. Yeah, this was unpleasant and awkward, but I can handle it if they can,” and secondly, “The friendship is important and, yes, I hoped that the feelings would be mutual, but that’s not how it turned out, but I want to stay friends, this friendship is important to me.”
How do you maintain that friendship?
There are four rules which both people need to do: 1) Talk about it. 2) Talk about how important the friendship is. 3) Maintain contact patterns – it’s important that they keep up the same patterns of contact that they’ve always had. If you avoid the other person, they will think that you couldn’t handle the admission of romantic inclinations after all and they won’t want to be friends. 4) They both need to cut down on the flirtation, sex talk and sexual innuendos that they had before, because the romantically inclined person will think that you’re leading them on. Tons and tons of people who said that the friendship lasted after an unrequited love admission said that they cut back on the flirtation, and tons of people who said that the friendship failed was because they didn’t quit the flirtations.
What are the rules for the rejected?
After they’ve done rules one through four, it’s important that they drop the matter. I know that they can’t switch off the emotion, but they have to stop talking about it because the other friend needs to not feel pressure in order to come around. [Secondly], if the platonic friend later on starts developing a romantic attraction to someone else, the person that was the romantically inclined partner in the episode needs to accept it and not act like a jealous partner.
Are there rules for the platonically inclined friend in this situation?
If [the act of] remaining friends is going to be done sincerely, acknowledge that the other person (the romantically inclined person) was probably justified to feel that their feelings might be reciprocated. Try to justify your feelings to them and apologize for leading them on, don’t tell them that they’re crazy for feeling the way that they feel; they feel badly enough as it is. [Secondly], don’t say that you may develop romantic feelings later. When you say that, then the other friend never gets back into a friendship mode, they will just always be waiting around for you to change modes. Finally, don’t tell other friends about it – the romantically inclined friend is already embarrassed.
What advice would you give to people who have been romantically rejected by their friends?
I think that [people who’ve been rejected] come in two categories: People who are so disappointed that they don’t care to pursue the friendship because they’ve had an all-or-nothing attitude – for these people, I don’t have any advice except for happy hunting. For the people that want to stay friends, my advice is that you start over and pursue somebody else, because you ultimately know that you would both hate to see the friendship end over a little awkwardness.
MEGAN ELLIS can be reached at email@example.com.