Going from “friends” to “more than friends”
“But I don’t want to ruin our friendship.”
What do you do when you like someone, but don’t want to “jeopardize” your friendship?
Well, the answer is not: just hang out, flirt for the next year, and develop a strong emotional attachment along the way, with no commitment from either side—only to lead to jealousy and confusion when a third party enters the scene.
How do we avoid this?
If you’ve gotten to know someone well as a friend—and they are the kind of person you’d like to end up with some day—then take the risk and move forward. Especially in groups gathered in Christ-centered friendship, I’ve seen quite a bit of stalling right here: in other words, such groups have rejected the hook-up culture and are striving to follow Christ, but they are often shy about showing romantic interest—and unfortunately relationships that would otherwise blossom never get off the ground. And right here is where I frequently hear the line “I don’t want to ruin our friendship.”
But more often than not, it’s a friendship in motion—that is, you’re probably not destined to remain “just friends” forever. That relationship will probably change as life continues and one of you gets married, or the like. So, if you have a good friend that you greatly admire and respect, and would like to pursue the possibility of a future with, take the risk.
It’s always seemed to me that there needs to be (to use a cheesy, but helpful phrase) two DTRs (defining the relationship): first, there is the initial showing of interest—something as simple as “I really appreciate our friendship, I’d like to get to know you better.” If someone says this to you, then you’re not just friends. After a period of time (and there’s no magic length, but it’s best not to extend it any longer than necessary—I’m thinking a month or two), there needs to be an end to this “getting to know you better” phase. And so we proceed to the second DTR: the “what are we?” conversation. At this point, we either make a commitment, or the “getting to know you better” phase ends (for more here, see my wife’s Emotional Virtue, 125-37).
If a commitment is not going to be made, we can still be friends, but we are no longer “friends in motion”—that is, no longer pursuing the possibility of a relationship together. At this point, we need to return to the “just friends” category, a good test for which is this: would I engage in these same activities/conversations with this person if I were seriously dating someone else?
The twofold DTR (initial showing of interest and then making a commitment) has the advantage of taking some of the pressure off the first phase. Especially in the Christ-centered communities mentioned above, very often nobody is dating—in part, because asking someone on a date becomes so monumental that it feels like a marriage proposal. This, it seems to me, is an overreaction against the hook-up culture—a good reaction, but perhaps swinging the pendulum too far. But if the first DTR is simply the initial showing of interest, (hopefully) it becomes a little less intimidating. At the second DTR, the relationship obviously becomes more serious—or at least has the potential to become so.
Now what if someone pursues the first DTR (initial showing of interest) with me and I don’t feel the same way? Just politely, say I appreciate your friendship but I see us as just friends. And if someone says that to you, just take the hint. It might sting a bit, but at least there’s clarity.
What if you’re thinking—“I’m a girl, shouldn’t I wait for the guy to ask me out?” Ideally, yes of course. But we don’t live in an ideal world. For my part, there are all kinds of healthy ways a female can drop hints and show interest (like consistently laughing at our dumb jokes). We guys are dense, but not that dense. If you drop these hints and there’s no reaction, I would simply move on; a guy who doesn’t follow up on these hints probably just isn’t interested.
Yes, the man should take initiative and leadership here; but for my part, far worse is the ongoing confusion and gray area. If female-initiated hints lead to clarity sooner, then all the better.
Lastly, pursue even the first DTR with only one person at a time. This better communicates sincerity and interest and will minimize unhealthy aspects of the gray area.
Finally, don’t date just for fun; you want to be confident that each person you date is the kind of person you’d like to end up with. And the litmus test is this: if something happened to me, would I trust this person with my kids someday—as their primary influence?
Since the second DTR does move into a semi-serious phase—after all, you’re acknowledging that this person is the kind of person you’d like to end up with—dating in this kind of a committed way really doesn’t make sense if marriage is a decade away. In other words—and I know there are success stories out there that are the exception—exclusively committed and emotionally-attached relationships in high school seldom go well for a couple of reasons: (1) there’s so much growth happening at that time that you often miss out on the opportunity to grow with friends and really grow spiritually—becoming the person God has called you to be (not the person that fits the mold and expectations of your significant other over the past two years); and (2) it is exceedingly difficult—just as a matter of basic biology and psychology—for a couple to get that close emotionally and expect to remain pure sexually for the next ten years. This would be difficult in high school—let alone persevering in chastity throughout four more years of college. And remember: anything that aims at the arousal of the other person crosses a line that is reserved for marriage.
My advice: run to Jesus; make great friends with both men and women; and when the time is right and someone has the character to pique your interest, then take the risk—at least with the first DTR: you never know where it might end up; but if you don’t even try, you already know the answer.
Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology and is the author of Spiritual Survival in the Modern World, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Nature and Grace. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, KS.