Harry Burns: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally Albright: So, you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry Burns: No. You pretty much want to nail ’em too.
– When Harry Met Sally…
I never thought that I was afraid of falling in love with a friend. It had seemed like a sensible way to form a lasting relationship – the cliches constantly remind us that your lover should be your friend, so does it matter which comes first? There is already trust, respect and shared interests. All that is really missing is sex, so the step across to that level of intimacy shouldn’t be that far, should it?
The often quoted opinion above from ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ claiming that friendships can become difficult once sex gets in the way is one that I am inclined to believe. Every time I meet someone new, I do wonder what they’d look like naked or if I wanted to fuck them. Usually, the answer is a simple ‘no’ and is rapidly dismissed, but it has crossed my mind. Occasionally, it’s some version of ‘yes but…’ or, more rarely, ‘yes, yes please’ and then I remember that we’re supposed to be friends and, well, I pretend not to have thought what I had thought… The friendship is different because of the sexual attraction. Not ruined or impossible, but certainly different. One day I’ll write about my history of pathetic unrequited loves but, for me at least, this difference is of very little consequence in the long run as I won’t risk ruining friendships, even if it breaks my heart.
This reluctance is a little strange, however, as I have grown up seeing this jump from friends to lovers as quite normal. My parents were friends for 12 years, and really were just friends, until one day they crossed that line and changed their relationship completely. Once that step was taken, they were engaged within a month, married within six, and are still happy now over 30 years later.
How did they do that? How does anyone do that?! A surprisingly good outcome from an accidental fuck? Someone speaking up and taking the risk, only to be rewarded that the feeling is mutual? It’s extraordinary! But how many friendships are ruined this way? How many times does it go wrong?
I’ve been dwelling on this because I recently caught up with my oldest friend and continued to try to fix our friendship, which might been irrevocably broken by an unexpected advance. No, that’s not fair – it’s not broken…it’s just weird. We see each other more than ever, but I feel awkward. I can’t quash the niggling fear that he’s going to make another move, or wonder if he has that same sense of guilt that I have, both of us pretending to act normally so we don’t have to admit that the friendship has been damaged.
Although we were not always especially close friends, and there have been years when we haven’t seen each other at all, his friendship is important to me as he’s always been there, somewhere in the background and comfortingly familiar. He knows me better than most of my other friends for the simple reason that he’s been there for all the major events that have shaped who I am. Then, out of nowhere and after we’d met up again after a particularly long time without seeing each other, he texts me on New Year’s Eve to ask if I wanted to go on a date with him. And everything implodes.
I *hate* New Year at the best of times, but this made it a particularly special year. What could I say? How could I turn him down at literally New Year? I’d never thought of him like that, and when I tried, I knew I couldn’t see him as anything other than a friend. I love him, no doubt, but like a brother or cousin. When you’ve shared a bath with someone when you’re both aged 5, it’s difficult to imagine them naked in any other way! So I declined, as nicely as I could, and wished more than anything that he could take it back, that the words could be unsaid, because it has changed everything. If he wasn’t such an old friend, I would have cut him off and given us a proper break apart, but I haven’t and I can’t. I’m just sitting it out, hoping that time will heal that wound.
I mentioned this to my mother, bemoaning how strange everything had become, and I asked her how it had happened with her and my father. How, and more importantly, when she had known he was worth the risk…the story had always been a bit vague about the finer details of the Great Seduction!
She told me that she had always suspected that he wanted to be more than friends, but they’d successfully managed to ignore that particular elephant in the room. Then my uncle died. It devastated my mother’s family. And my father was there for her. He had a pretty serious girlfriend at the time, but he was there for her whenever she needed him. She got through it because he’d been there to lean on and when she fell apart. Once the worst was over, he stepped back and they returned to their previous pattern, but to her surprise, she missed him. She looked at his girlfriend and couldn’t stop criticising her – she wasn’t right for him, she couldn’t make him happy. So when my father broke up with her, my mother was pleased. She began to crave his company, looking at him in a new way and seeing him as she had never seen him before. In short, she realised that she loved him. So, one Christmas party, she went out in thigh high boots and, well, the rest is history…
This makes sense to me and is how I’d always imagined it would be to fall in love with a friend. The friendship becomes closer and closer, until you realise that you have no need for another. When the thought of spending time with anyone else becomes impossible. When seeing them makes you tingle with excitement. When you start imagining kisses and touches. I guess this is easier with some friendships than others… I didn’t imagine a bolt out of the blue, a text message declaration, with no preparation or warning. I doubt I would have reacted differently to another approach, but my fight-or-flight response to his surprising text was always going to be ‘no.’ And that makes me sad.
I’m sad that our friendship has changed. I’m sad that either he’d been building up the courage to speak and chose poorly, only for me to knock him back down, or that he was so low that it seemed like a good step to take. I’m sad that even though six months have passed, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve started worrying now that it’s becoming *my* issue, that I’m dwelling on it unnecessarily and that *I’m* the one stopping the friendship from healing, but I’m still struggling with how our friendship has been redefined and I don’t know where that has left us. It’s not helped by the fact that he is always the one to suggest meeting up. He hasn’t given me the time to miss him.
So friends to lovers? Not such an easy step after all… I don’t know why I expected anything less really when I’m not sure that building any relationship can be described as easy. Yes, you already know that you get on with a friend and are less likely to be surprised by a strange habit or weird interest later down the line, but that is definitely out balanced by what you risk losing. Opening your heart to a stranger and being rejected hurts, but at least you won’t end up with less than you had before.
I’m in awe of anyone who has the courage to upset the status quo like that and is willing to take that risk, because when it works out, it could be like a dream come true. But I would advocate caution, and perhaps preparatory work to become invaluable *before* taking the plunge! After all, there’s no rush. If you’re meant to be together, you have all the time in the world…