Ask Richard: In Love with a Friend


Nov. 18, 2009

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I am 28 years old. In the last year, I have admitted to myself that I am an atheist and that my wife and I are no longer in love. We have been separated for about seven months now with a divorce in process.

There have been many new things for me to get used to. We married young, so I've never really lived alone and I've never been single as an adult. Any emotional issues I may have had in the past were met with lots of prayer and scripture and convincing myself that God was taking care of everything. Obviously, I no longer have those options available to me and, in hindsight, I realize that they only masked the problems and didn't solve them.

Here is my problem: over the last three months or so, I have slowly come to realize that I am in love with a woman who has been my friend since 2006. We have more things in common than anyone else I know, and the things she doesn't have in common with me absolutely fascinate me. I want to learn everything I can about her.   

Unfortunately, she does not have any romantic feelings for me. She is one of my best friends and she loves me–just not in that way. She allows for the possibility that her feelings for me may change in the future, but the way things stand now she doesn't want me to pursue her romantically and we both agree that doing this would destroy our friendship.

I can't stop thinking about her and how much I want to be with her. I want her so much it hurts, and knowing that she doesn't reciprocate my feelings hurts even more. I am deeply concerned that I will do or say something to damage our friendship (which, sadly, may have already started to happen), and that is the last thing I want. I am hoping to be her friend for the rest of my life and she hopes for the same.

There are three possibilities that I can think of that would resolve this, ranked in order of what I want most (at the moment, anyway):

1She falls in love with me and we live happily ever after.

2.  She doesn't fall in love with me right away, but my feelings become manageable and I'm able to concentrate on other things, like work and music, and she eventually realizes that I'm the guy for her.

3.  I stop having these feelings and things go on as they were before.

I really don't know how I should proceed. I don't know how to stop feeling these things or how to stop feeling them so strongly. I hope you can help me.

–Sad, and a Little Pathetic in Seattle


Dear Sad,

I won't call you "A Little Pathetic" because you deserve more respect than that. You are in love. As painful or confusing as that can sometimes be, it's not something to be sneered at.

Being in love is the beautiful, awful, tragic and splendid specialty of our species. It is the central part of what makes us human. We admire lovers, we feel sorry for them, we cheer them on to go forward and we warn them to go back.

But we should never, ever look down our noses in scorn and contempt at those who are lucky enough–and unlucky enough–to be in love.

You have never lived alone, you are new to your atheism and, up until recently, you have relied on prayer, scripture and God to deal with your emotional issues. So inside, you are very young.

For many people, living alone for an extended period free from the distractions of an intimate relationship is necessary for them to understand themselves. I think this may be so in your case. In the months since separating from your wife you have begun to get glimpses of insight into yourself. But now you have started another powerfully distracting love relationship and your growing insight may once again be slowed.

Until recently, your main way of coping with emotional challenges was to rely on something intangible outside of yourself. Being convinced that God was taking care of everything hindered your developing self-reliance, self-confidence and the skill of using friends for advice and support. Building these up now will take time, patience and work. If you don't have friends with whom you can confide, find some. These must be friendships that you will not begin to romanticize or sexualize. 

I agree with you that if you continue to pursue your friend romantically you will probably destroy the friendship–especially since she has specifically asked you to cease.

Your friend sounds like she is very level-headed, but even so, she may be experiencing a dilemma. When a friend learns that their friend loves them romantically but they don't have that kind of love to return, they often feel a tension because of an odd quirk in our culture.

The healthiest response for the friend would be to feel sad about their love-struck friend, knowing that they are frustrated in their love. But unfortunately, people often take upon themselves the responsibility for other people's feelings, thinking that they are supposed to somehow fix those feelings. So if they are unable to return their friend's romantic love, they may feel guilty. It's not rational or fair, but it's all too common. 

Unfortunately, guilt is almost always accompanied by resentment. They don't want this responsibility, but they don't realize that it isn't really theirs to take on. So they gradually begin to resent the source of their guilt. They cannot imagine themselves saying to their smitten friend, "I care about you and I'm sad that you're so frustrated, but there's nothing I can do to fix it. My feelings are just not the same as yours."

This is why your friend may at first have wished that your feelings would go away, and later may start wishing that you will go away. If she's caught to any extent feeling a sense of responsibility, the discomfort of guilt and resentment will take its toll on her friendship with you.

Sad, I suggest that you assume possibility number three in your list is the correct one. Your friend has told you that she doesn't love you that way. That's very strong evidence. The other two possibilities are merely wishful thinking on your part–perhaps similar to the kind of wishful thinking that propped up your belief in God. You have seen through that clearly; now see through this clearly.

If you jump right into another love relationship, you will continue to delay becoming familiar and comfortable with yourself and will continue to impede your emotional maturing. You need much more time by yourself to confront your insecurities and look through them to see the confident man you can become—someone who can offer a mature love to another who can love you in return.



(Richard Wade is both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)