I’ve Filled My Adult Life With Unrequited Friendships
The friendships that have meant the most to me in my adult life have tended to be one-sided.
The last time I messaged Adam, there was no reason for me to think it would be the last time I would make an effort to talk to him.
But after a few weeks, when he still hadn’t responded, I decided to remove him as a Facebook friend and delete his number from my cell phone. My reaction to being ghosted by my former coworker, crush, and coveted friend was intentionally dramatic. Instead of just telling myself that I wasn’t going to be the only one making an effort to reach out, I made it next to impossible for me to do it anymore. If he wanted a friend, if he wanted to respond to my message on Facebook, he could still do that — I would find it among the HMUs from Nigerian men and the queer curiosities of a stock photo-faced account in my spam folder. But I would see it and I would reply.
I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about all that, though. Our so-called friendship was being built on a foundation of his guilt and my anxious attachment. And we just needed to let each other go in our own ways — him, with avoidance and me, with the symbolic scalpel. It’s been one year since I cut Adam out of my life, and I still haven’t made peace with what happened to me. Adam was hardly the first person not to reply to a text or a Facebook message from me. And I’ve certainly been ghosted (and done my fair share of ghosting) before.
But until I met Adam, I had never been rejected by someone whose friendship I had religiously pursued. In the end, all of my effort to have some kind of relationship with this man didn’t matter because in the end I didn’t mean as much to him as he did to me. Now, a year later, I think less about the reasons Adam didn’t reached out to me and more about the reasons I was willing to partake in a one-sided friendship. The signs were there all along that Adam had no real interest in deepening his relationship with me beyond work, and I ignored them. Why?
A few days ago the answer hit me. The friendships that have meant the most to me in my adult life have tended to be one-sided. Adam may have been the first to have stopped making an effort at being friends with me altogether, but he was part of a pattern of mine of seeking out — and prioritizing — unrequited friendships.
Last January in her advice column for The Atlantic, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb used attachment theory to explain why some people, namely those with anxious attachment styles, often seek out people who are unavailable to them. They “struggle with self-worth” and thus settle for partners that cannot commit to them (emotionally or otherwise) and keep them in a constant state of anxiety about their relationship.
Gottlieb was offering advice to a young man who was unsure what to do about a friendship that had turned sexual with a woman who did not share his romantic feelings for her. Adam and I had barely scratched the surface of friendship in the year that we knew each other, but the option to become friends came months after I had pursued more with him— and failed. Thus when I found Gottlieb’s column online, I knew she had been giving advice to someone like me.
Betraying a years-long promise to never make the first move on a guy again, I got up the nerve to ask Adam out for coffee six months after we began working together in January. In retrospect, I didn’t give Adam much room to say no. I framed the big question more as a suggestion than a question, and insisted this all take place after I had move on to another job (which wasn’t actually something I had been planning to do, it just seemed like the professional thing to say to the guy working directly above me). He agreed and even threw out a few coffee places as suggestions.
Deferring our date until after I quit turned out to be a huge mistake for reasons I would soon put together. First, asking a guy out on a date with no timeframe is the equivalent of giving a guy your phone number and telling him to call you sometime — no matter what he says he’ll do, he doesn’t have to commit to an actual date if he doesn’t want to.
Another problem is that if you work with a guy who doesn’t really like you, he will send signals long before he has the chance to stand you up on an actual date. This is what happened between me and Adam ultimately. He agreed to go out with me and indulged my daily fawning and flirtations, but he did so in addition to ignoring my texts, forgetting my birthday (after I spent an embarrassing amount of time and money on his), and declaring his married best friend to be the love of his life. I finally forced the truth out of him that December; but once again I insisted on having some kind of relationship with him—we were now going to be friends.
I was pretty devastated when Adam told me he wasn’t “romantically attracted” to me, but at the time friendship did seem like a natural conclusion for us, rather than a rebound. Although Adam had misled me about his interest in dating me, back then I chose to believe that he did so because he wanted to protect my feelings and to keep me in his life, which in late December was beginning to unravel. I knew Adam liked having someone to talk to about his problems. And like so many women do, I conflated being needed by someone in terms of emotional labor with being respected by him.
But when Adam left the company the following January, he kept me at arm’s length. He asked me to read and give feedback on a couple of short stories he had written, but the last time I messaged him over Facebook it was to ask what kinds of writing gigs he was interested in applying for. Being more familiar with the freelance job market, I was going to send him listings I’d found, just as I’d promised I would do before he left the company. But I never heard from Adam again. He made several posts to his profile and commented on others’ posts in the days and weeks after I last messaged him, so I knew he hadn’t died. He just didn’t want to talk to me unless he wanted something from me. This had been a pattern in our work relationship and it was now becoming a feature of our friendship. I was tired. So I let him go— this time for good.
My adult life has been filled with Adams — men who began as unrequited lovers and fizzled into unrequited friends. I’ve also had a number of women in my life whose closeness I coveted but who didn’t share the same longing for intimacy that I did. Time and again I’ve built relationships onto people that were disconnected from how we actually felt about (and treated) each other.
Some of this, I have found, is exactly what Gottlieb described: I settle for friendships that leave me panicky and angry because I don’t have a ton of confidence in my ability to make real friends. But more than anything, I am, at the age of 33, just now understanding what my needs are in friendship and all that I am willing to offer to others.
In other words, it has taken me a long time to figure out what friendship means to me, and to move forward confidently in life with these ideas in mind. Mutual respect, open communication, and constructive honesty are three things I did not have with Adam, a man I once fantasized about marrying someday. These are now must-haves for any relationship I consider to be close.
Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.