I said we could still be friends but now I just want him to leave me alone.
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Towards the end of last year, I was surprised to see a university acquaintance from a different city – we’d had one tutorial together – at my squash club. I greeted him, and we had a nice chat. He then started messaging me … a lot. He seemed lonely and we had some shared interests, so I would reply, but I reckon he sent maybe 70% of the words in our conversations. I was getting some slightly flirty, and certainly intense, vibes from his messages – when I got a new headshot on my work website, he messaged me about it – but I made it clear super quickly that I had a boyfriend, who he has since met multiple times. I told him about various groups and events he might be interested in, some of which I was in too, hoping he’d make more friends, so he met some of my friends at my pottery class, and helped organise a repair day at the local community centre. He was a bit awkward to be around, but some people just are, I told myself – that shouldn’t exclude them from friendship.
Then last week I got a handwritten letter in the mailbox, describing his ardent feelings for me, as a friend and as something more. It referenced American political thinkers, Polish poets and Greek philosophers. It detailed my “loving” actions towards him – waving to him at an event, hugging him after squash practice, aka normal behaviour towards platonic friends. It did not mention my boyfriend, but it did compare me to a butterfly. I felt deeply troubled that over months of friendship, I’d been seeing one version of events and he’d been seeing another. I felt like the wife from the “don’t email my wife!!!!!” garage.
I promptly told him that his feelings were not reciprocated. But the thing is, I don’t want this man to take my squash club away from me, so at squash practice last weekend I told him it was all water under the bridge, we could go back to being friends and all that. But I’m finding that is easier said than done. I wish I didn’t know about his feelings but I still feel sorry for him because he has various other difficult things going on in his life. And he’s messaging me again. I know that I’m not responsible for his feelings, but how do I cope with the awkwardness of having to continue to see this man? And what does being a kind person look like in a situation when the other person has a lot more to lose than you do?
Platonic (ideal of a?) friend
Dear Platonic Ideal,
Reading your letter I felt like I was watching the opening scene of a horror movie. Don’t go into the abandoned barn, I wanted to yell. There is no antique rocking-horse for sale. But sometimes we don’t know what genre of story we’re in until it’s too late.
Your situation reminded me of Natalie Portman. Poor skinny Natalie and her habit of being romantically misinterpreted by famous men. Remember when Moby wrote about dating her in his autobiography, and Portman said they never dated, and then Moby doubled-down and posted a bunch of photographs of them standing next to each other as “corroborating evidence”? Remember when Natalie Portman had an email correspondence with Jonathan Safran Foer so good he left his wife, despite the fact Portman was already happily married?
Your letter reminds me of Portman, not just because you’ve stumbled across that same specific archetype – a guy who writes long, emotionally overwrought emails, filled with quotes from Socrates and The Gettysburg Address – but because his letter implicates you in his fantasy. Not only do you have to cruelly dash someone’s romantic hopes, you have to challenge their perception you were ever involved to begin with.
I sense an undercurrent of deep annoyance in this letter. You’re obviously embarrassed at being so misunderstood. Nobody likes having to go around refuting things. The louder you say “I didn’t burn that hospital”, the more people start wondering if perhaps you might have burned that hospital. But having basic friendliness occasionally misinterpreted as flirting is, unfortunately, the female condition, and you’re wasting your time scrutinising your past actions. You’ve been cast in the sequel to Garden State against your will, and anything you do is the kind of thing any female character might do before eventually falling in love with the protagonist.
I’m not against bold epistolary declarations of romantic love. If you accidentally develop feelings for a friend and decide you need to tell them, you can, and perhaps even should, confess. You just have to be prepared for the conversation to end or permanently alter the relationship. But it doesn’t sound like this guy was ever your friend. This guy was always three boyfriends in a trench coat. To be honest, it doesn’t sound like there’s much genuine affection for him on your end, either. Your letter makes him sound like someone you pity, rather than like. Neither of these attitudes are a good foundation for a meaningful platonic friendship.
In a way, him confessing his feelings was the perfect opportunity to shut things down. Your mistake was in telling him you could still be friends, and then pretending like nothing happened!!! Note my use of three exclamation points. NO! I want to yell. Don’t put your head down the disused elevator shaft, even as a joke.
You’re right that his feelings aren’t your problem. But in another, more literal sense, his feelings are your problem, because they’re going to continue to haunt you until you find a way to permanently quash them.
I know you’ve already told him you’re not interested. But I worry he hasn’t heard you. I can’t help feeling like he’s going to take anything that’s not outright rejection as a subtle form of encouragement. Maybe I’m wrong. But someone who categorises “being waved at from a distance” as an example of “loving behaviour” is clearly someone with a profoundly optimistic romantic mindset, who doesn’t seem poised to take no for an answer. He’s already messaging you again, which shows he has, at the very least, taken your renewed offer of friendship seriously.
It’s all very well suggesting you go around romantically disappointing men who don’t have the firmest grip on reality. But I think you need to seriously consider backtracking here. You can’t be friends with this guy. It’s obvious from your letter that you actively dread the prospect. And we already know this guy is no Poirot when it comes to reading social clues. There are some people who subtlety just doesn’t work on.
I think you need to issue a retraction. I know you don’t want to cause drama. But he wrote you a dramatic letter that deserved a dramatic response. I think you should message him and say his letter took you by surprise and after thinking about it further, you’ve decided you’re not comfortable being friends, but you wish him well, etc. It’s absolutely a fair response, and something anyone who writes an “ardent” letter should be prepared to hear. Particularly as you already have a boyfriend, who presumably doesn’t love the fact there’s some guy hanging around the wings, waiting for him to conveniently die in a paragliding accident. Hopefully he’ll respect your wishes and gallantly forfeit the squash club. But if he can’t handle a stronger rejection, or you get another seven-page letter trying to change your mind, surely it’s better to know sooner rather than later?
Usually I’m against corporate “I’m at capacity” scripts, but there are some situations where tact just doesn’t cut it. You obviously have a horror of upsetting other people – even those you don’t particularly like. But the best way to be kind is to be clear. Don’t litigate your decision with him, or attribute blame. The last thing you need is more handwritten correspondence. Be polite, firm, and get the hell out of the haunted kleenex factory.
You’re asking something deeper in this letter: what do we do with the problem of other people’s loneliness? It’s an impossible question, and one we desperately need better solutions for. But his confession of love has let you off the hook. You can’t comfort the person you’re romantically disappointing. It’s counterproductive, and won’t help either of you. This guy needs some real friends for support. Luckily you’ve already introduced him to lots of people he presumably doesn’t want to sleep with.
This is an annoying situation. I don’t blame you for wanting to bury your head in the sand, and hope it all blows over. But you’ve negotiated a very fragile peace. And his confession is a golden opportunity to shut things down permanently, before they go any further. If I were you, I would, like Roman poet Horace, seize the day. Like George Washington, cross the Delaware. And like a bronze butterfly, blowing like a leaf in green shadow, stop wasting your life and reclaim your beloved squash court today, before it’s too late.
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