Q. My friend likes me, but I don’t like them back. How do I shut this down without losing the friendship?
A. You might lose the friendship. At least for a time. I blame rom-coms and fairytales for leading us to believe otherwise.
It’s not to say this isn’t difficult and doesn’t suck. This sucks. It sucks for the person with unrequited feelings, who had the courage to shoot their shot. And it sucks for the person who is now tasked with potentially hurting the feelings of someone they care about. But part of building a consent culture means discomfort. Not the kind of discomfort we feel when we are pushed outside of our boundaries, but the kind of discomfort that comes with rejection - whether we are the one saying “no”, or we are the one experiencing the rejection.
When someone’s feelings cross the bridge from platonic to romantic, that bridge can sometimes crumble behind them. Probably most of the time. It doesn’t mean a new bridge can’t be built, but it takes time and willingness to build it. I believe this is true across genders and sexualities, although dominant social narratives, norms and power dynamics can inform our experiences with this. These factors can lead to confusion/one’s willingness to rebuild when told “I don’t like you that way” - ex. “they’re still hanging out/flirting with me, this means I have a chance…” “if I keep pursuing, they’ll come around…” I’ve 100% been on both sides of this misstep.
I invite you to be loving, let them down gently, but also be straightforward and honest. Very importantly, ask your friend if they need space to mend. Be willing to give it to them. Encourage them to be honest with themselves if they can handle friendship, or if in your interactions, they’ll be angling for more. Assure them that friendship awaits them on the other side. That said, give yourself permission to take space if this revelation has thrown you. You’re not a bad friend and there is no such thing as “the friend-zone”.
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