When Ethan* met Jenna* on January 1, 2018, she seemed to be half-asleep — who isn’t the day after New Years Eve? But for him, it was one of those "'angels start immediately singing' moments," he remembers. In the beginning, they’d go out together in groups, but over time they would hang out one-on-one. Sometimes, when they'd watch foreign films together, she'd rest her head on his shoulder. Once, after they went on a seven-mile run together, he asked her out.
“You mean like a date?” he remembers her saying. First, she said yes, but later she texted him to say she didn’t want to make the friendship awkward. She’d have to pass. “We just never mentioned it again,” he says, but his feelings lingered on and off for 18 months as they became increasingly close. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to just blurt it out that I like her,” he says. “I feel like everyone knows I like her, except for her. It’s not like I’m James Bond in my secrecy about the whole thing.” When he thinks about telling her, he gets anxious. He doesn't want to lose her.
Ethan's unrequited love for his best friend is the stuff of rom-coms — yet in real life it’s not uncommon for friends to fall for each other, according to Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D., a behavioral expert and the author of Red Flags. She says studies have shown familiarity breeds attraction, so it makes sense that we fall for people we already know. And that can be tricky.
The reality is, admitting romantic feelings for your friend can go in one of two ways: 1) it works out and you get to share a spaghetti noodle with your bestie, Lady and the Tramp-style; 2) you wind up losing a friend and crying into a bowl of rigatoni alone. So what's the best way to gauge your friend and potential partner's interest? It depends on the relationship but we've searched out some guidelines.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
You might be tempted to avoid your feelings for your friend, but it's best to consider them, and figure out how you're feeling. Talk through your emotions with an outside party you trust, or try journaling about them.
Actions speak louder than grand proclamations
It might seem like a great idea to write a love letter or profess your love for your friend in a grandiose way, but Patrick says it's not the best idea. “Normally with friends, one person begins to have feelings earlier than the other,” Patrick says. When this happens, proceed with both caution and strategy.
“Some friendships aren’t ready for a conversation about feelings," Patrick says. “Many times, the best path is by behavior instead of words… Taking baby steps with strategic invitations that allow you to test the waters. For example, inviting your best friend to be your date at a casual event, or to meet your parents for coffee when they are in town, will allow you to explore your friend's comfort level — and potentially note his or her flattery over having been invited.” If they’re not into it, you can play it off as a friend asking a friend a favor.
As you’re deciding to make a move, Patrick recommends tailoring it to what you already know about your friend — what do they like? How do they treat people they’re interested in? Do they talk about you like they talked about an old partner? Are they attracted to people of your sexual orientation?
She also says it’s important to think about their personality. If they’re not someone who likes to talk about their feelings, maybe a long conversation about your feelings isn’t the way to tell them. You know your best friend better than most people do, and the best advice may, in fact, come from you.
Don't lash out
Thanks to the old playground cliche in which the boy pulls the hair of the girl he likes, your subconscious might prompt you to lash out against the friend you have feelings for. This is not an acceptable way to treat a friend — or anyone, for that matter. "It's better to handle your own feelings, than to take it out on an innocent party," Patrick says. "Talk your feelings through with a friend, sounding board, family member, or therapist, instead of doing something you'll regret to an unsuspecting friend."
Give it time
Ethan says he’s afraid to tell Jenna about his feelings, partially, because he doesn’t want to lose her — he likes having her in his life. But Patrick says, if you tell your friend you like them and it doesn’t go well, you can still salvage the friendship. It will just take some time. “Time is the great healer,” she says. “Damage control for this is often letting it blow over and acting normal as if you’d said nothing. Rather than attempting damage control, let’s move on.” If the friendship is worth having, it will survive, and so will you.
*Names in the story have been changed.