Dear Captain Awkward,
So this guy B and I have had a very close, very long-distance friendship for a few years now after meeting online. It’s never been 100% platonic – it started with his crush on me, which then became mutual, but the distance and my then-marriage meant that nothing came of it (though we’ve visited a few times). He’s since made it clear that he only wants to be friends and I’m fine with that, though I still have feelings; he supported me through my (mostly unrelated) marriage breakup, I supported him through various personal crises, plus hanging out (virtually) and drinking and watching movies and linking each other music and laughing and talking about history and politics and sharing hilarious sexytimes anecdotes and it looked like everything was awesome.
Then, earlier this year, he moved back to a town where he had a wider circle of friends, which unfortunately coincided with a bout of depression on my part that he suddenly wasn’t there to help me through. I didn’t handle it too well, and got clingier and needier as I perceived him to be drifting away, which of course made it worse (I have plenty of local friends, but none that I’m quite so intimate with). Now, I’m not completely mental, it wasn’t like five texts a day or anything, but it was very hard to get out of the habit of messaging him at least daily or every-other-daily when that had been the routine for so long.
Once I realised what I was doing, I managed to rein it in, and am currently operating a (strictly internal!) score-keeping to prevent me from spamming and give him enough space, and he still contacts me now and then so I know I haven’t ruined it altogether. But my problem now is I have no way of knowing what his new boundaries are, as he has never been any good at using his words for this, and is so emotionally-distant at random times that the usual barometer of “not responding to messages” is of little use (this has lost him several girlfriends in the past). During my semi-crazy period I asked him a few times how much space he needed, and all he would ever say is variations on “I’m fine, nothing has changed, you are being overdramatic,” while our actual conversations grew shorter, colder and much rarer.
How can I unfuck this friendship without risking a breach of these invisible boundaries that I can’t gauge from his behaviour and that he won’t tell me? There has to be some middle ground between “scare him off with too much contact” and “refuse to initiate any conversation until he thinks I’m no longer a friend” but I’m damned if I know how to find it, and I’m afeared I’ve lost too much goodwill already to even try testing the limits.
– Sadly Not A Mind-Reader
Dear Sadly Not A Mind Reader:
I have good news and bad-but-survivable news for you.
You don’t have to be a mind-reader. Contrary to being bad at communication and boundaries, your friend is using his words quite competently by saying “Stop worrying about this, you’re being overdramatic.” If you were to take him at his word, you’d realize that you didn’t really do anything wrong. You didn’t cause the distance between you. You don’t have to check in and atone and apologize or worry, in fact, he specifically doesn’t want to talk about the nature of your relationship or your anxiety about it. This makes a lot of sense to me, because that stuff feels like work. When someone calls you, they don’t want to have the conversation about why they don’t call more. The more he has to reassure you about how he’s not really annoyed, the more (secretly) annoyed he will get and the more (out loud) he will protest that he’s not that annoyed.
Relevant to your interests: The Dirty Normal: Primer on Attachment Styles
You’re not wrong to pick up on greater distance/less contact between you, because, as you pointed out, this is a long-distance friendship, and something HAS changed: This year he moved back to a town where he has a larger circle of friends and a more active social life.
Sad unfair truth of the day: Long distance friendships are real friendships and very important and true. However, in day-to-day life when people are deciding how to allocate limited time and attention, proximity often wins. Add that to the romantic/sexual-but-not-really/swapping crushes past you have, it’s not surprising that part of his moving away/reinvention of self is making a conscious decision to move on from those feelings and actively put his energy into other people and life closer to home.
Here’s how to unfuck this situation:
1) Take him at his word that nothing is wrong.
2) Take the giant hint that something did change about his priorities and how much time/attention/effort he is putting into your friendship. People don’t often get closure or satisfying explanations for why things are happening, but his actions are speaking pretty loudly here.
3) Continue your very smart, self-aware, and workable strategy of pulling back on communication and letting him initiate contact. Once you figured out what was going on, you reacted quite correctly. Your instincts are sound!
4) Put a moratorium on any conversations about the state of your friendship and whether he’s pulling back from it, discussing how often you communicate, or pressuring him to define the friendship in any way. Make no sudden moves or big decisions. Send no FEELINGSMAIL.
5) Your romantic feelings are definitely in play here, even if you basically have good boundaries about how you express/suppress them. You’re understandably missing your daily jolts of affection and attention. Whether it is or no, I think this is feeling like a breakup to you. So I suggest that you treat it as one – mourn the loss of your closeness privately, and then take all the energy you are putting into this friendship and put into being awesome elsewhere.
- Treating your depression, dealing emotionally with the aftermath of the ending of your marriage.
- Building Team You closer to home.
- Putting love into those other friendships you have & also family relationships, if possible.
- Pursuing interests, hobbies, learning opportunities and meeting new people.
- Kicking ass at your job or school or creative outlet.
- Meeting new people = maybe look into finding new outlets for sexytimes? Consider a stint as Makeout Spartacus?
- Committing to excellent self-care: Regular meals. Good sleep. Exercise. Flattering haircuts. Good books.
In closing, be really, really kind to yourself and give yourself a lot of credit for getting through a very real period of re-adjustment. Be glad that you had this kind friend to be your landing pad as you reinvented your life after the breakup of your marriage. Turn that kindness on your friend as he also adjusts to his new life. The best way to be kind to him is to give him a lot of breathing room and to focus on the good things when you do talk. This weird space you’re in right now is temporary.