Dear Captain Awkward,
I recently broke up with my partner. It was actually the best breakup I’ve ever had, if such a thing can exist: mutual, honest, open, and with what we hope will be a genuine friendship remaining. I’m still sad and I miss him terribly, but I know that it will be okay. For now though, I am often sad and lonely, and so I’ve been leaning on my friends a lot. Which has become weird since a few of my friends have begun expressing interest in sleeping with me.
Many of them identify as polyamorous, and some seem to have no friend zone. I don’t have a problem with casual sex, but what I need from my friends is friendship and company and hugs, and what I’m getting is flirtation that makes me feel both guilty for saying no and angry that they can’t see that this is not the time. I’m scared to accept those hugs and company for fear of sending the wrong message, and I’m even more scared that I’ll relent in a moment of vulnerability and loneliness and do something I really can’t handle. I have blatantly told them that I only want friendship right now, but I still feel paranoid, like I am being set up for the polyamorous edition of this XKCD comic.
So I guess I have two questions: first, how do I keep boundaries so that I don’t seek validation from people I like, but don’t find supermegafoxyawesomehot? And second, how do I stop getting angry at friends who are attracted to me, or questioning their motivations for friendship?
Dear Fresh Meat,
Congratulations and condolences on your good breakup. I’m sorry that it has done strange things to your mojo and that your friends are choosing this way to “comfort” you.
There is one phrase that can throw cold water on the intentions of people from the planet of no friend zone.
“Thanks, I don’t like you that way.”
Your letter shows that you are just fine at standing up for your needs and asking for what you want. I mean, you can have a lengthy discussion with them where you try to spare their feelings by explaining that you would totally hit that if things were different (which leaves the more hopeful or persistent perpetually wondering when the right circumstances will take place so they can make sure to be right there), or you could just come out and say “I do not like you like that.” The only adult response to “I’m not interested in you that way, I wish you would stop suggesting it” is “Ok, sorry” and backing off immediately and never raising the subject again. Think about how people behave when they make these offers. Do they offer despite you telling them not to offer? (Not cool. Be angry.) Do they offer once but then back off immediately? (Eh, not ideal, but you can work with it). Or do they try to convince /coerce you? (NOT COOL.)
As for what you do with those lonely feelings and the worry that you’ll want to seek validation? Read this Sharon Olds poem and know at least that you are not alone.
Celibacy at Twenty (Sharon Olds)
After I broke up with someone,
or someone with me, days would go by,
nights, weeks, soon it would be months since I had
touched anyone. I would move as little
as possible, the air seemed to press on my skin, my
breasts like something broken open, un-
capped and not covered, the buds floated in the
center at the front, if I turned a corner too
fast I would almost come. Swollen,
walking like someone carrying something
filled to the brim, the lip of the liquid
rocking, taut, at the edge, at the top –
and at times, in the shower, now matter how quickly
I washed I’d be over the top in seconds,
and then the loneliness, which had felt enormous,
would begin to grow, easily, rapidly,
triple, sextuple, dodecatuple,
the palm fronds and camellia buds bent
double under a campus sky of iron.
Later, when the next first kiss would come,
it would shock me, the size and power of happiness,
and yet it was familiar – lips aching and
pulling, hands and feet going numb, I’d be
trying not to moan, streaming slowly
across the arc of the sky – it was always
a return, the face in the dashlight closer
and closer, like the approaching earth,
until it is all you can see. Each time,
I wanted to be coming home
to stay. But every time I went
from months of hunger to those first kisses
soon there were the last kisses , and I
felt I stood outside of life, held
back – but no one was holding me, I was
waiting, very near the human,
my violence uncommitted, I was
saving it. Once I stripped and
entered the pit I did not want ever to come up out of it.
Yeah. You get to decide what your own boundaries are. If you make a rule “I’m not sleeping with people right now, I just want to be friends,” then don’t sleep with people, and/or these particular people. If you want to sleep with someone because it offers comfort and distraction, then sleep with them. You’ll find no finger-pointing or “shoulds” here.
You can’t make people not be interested in you, and you certainly can’t pre-empt all of their desires with a well-written speech, and you can’t make them responsible for you acting on your own desires – “I accidentally slipped and my face just fell onto his face, Your Honor, but it’s just that I was lonely and he hugged me and smelled really good, so it’s totally his fault for not respecting my boundaries!” So you will have to handle it on a case-by-case “No, but thanks” basis. On the other hand, if you say “no thanks” and someone keep trying to bring it up and constantly offers you backrubs? You are right to avoid that person, they are not safe for you especially when you are feeling vulnerable. Coercion, wheedling, whining, manipulation, badgering get a sharp “No! I am not interested in you that way!” and you leaving the room/party/situation for a good while.
In the meantime, spend some extra time “in your bunk” and just generally loving your body with good food, exercise, stretches, clothes you love, hugs from friends who don’t mack on you, and whatever pampering makes you feel good.