You know that feeling when you’re on an amazing date with someone and you think you’re living in a movie? You laugh all night. He wins you a stuffed animal at the carnival. She holds your hand and it feels like magic. It starts raining suddenly and you kiss. This is the start of something epic. End scene.
Unfortunately, we’re not always starring in our own rom-coms. More often than not, your “date” may have a different interpretation of the events transpiring than you do. You think she’s your leading lady, she thinks you’re the Shakespearean fool, a supporting actor at best. Recently, a good friend of mine – we’ll call him Matt, has fallen victim to this plotline. And how could you blame him. One night Matt was hanging out with his crush Caroline. They danced and had drinks at a nightclub. Then they went to an arcade for car racing, zombie shooting, and air hockey. It sounded like a great night, and Matt was on cloud nine. What could be better? The next day! Matt and Caroline headed to the beach with a bunch of friends. While there, Matt managed to sneak Caroline away from the group for a bit – they found a private cove and embarked on a little rock climbing adventure. Pink sand. Blue water. Mountains on one side of them, the ocean on the other. Matt knew – this was the start of something epic…
Or at least he hoped. But what you haven’t heard is the back story – Matt had actually developed feelings for Caroline a while back. Matt eventually gained the courage to tell Caroline how he felt, and she politely told him that she just wanted to be friends. Matt was disappointed, but when Caroline moved away, it made things easier on him. Six months later, Caroline moved back to town, and she was anxious to hang out with her good friend. While she was away, Caroline had started seeing someone else. Matt knew that she was in a relationship, and wanted to just be friends. But when they started hanging out again, that familiar spark reappeared. Finally, after these movie-esque pseudo-dates, Caroline asked Matt to catch a movie with her one night. Matt, aware of his escalating feelings and the fact that Caroline had a boyfriend, decided that this was the perfect opportunity to find out once and for all if Caroline could ever see him as more than a friend. Unbeknownst to Matt, and to his great dismay, Caroline decided to invite several other friends to join them at the movies that night. It was the last straw for Matt – he confronted her about his feelings, and again, Caroline told him she just wanted to be friends. Matt was angry, he felt that Caroline had led him on.
I feel bad for my friend Matt; I can definitely sympathize with his feelings of rejection and disappointment. But I’m not sure if his anger is justified. Caroline told him once that she only viewed him as a friend. He partook in those outings with her knowing that she had a long distance boyfriend – a good indication that her heart was with another. And is it so crazy for two friends to go to a bar? An arcade? Or the beach with additional friends? If Matt didn’t have feelings for her, his perception of those days would have been very different. If it had been me making plans to go to the movies with Matt instead of Caroline, and I had ended up bringing more friends along, I’m confident he would have said “the more the merrier.”
So is Caroline at fault for leading Matt on? Should she have behaved differently – anticipated that he still had feelings for her and reaffirmed the fact that her feelings were purely platonic? Maybe – I wasn’t there, and I don’t know her. Maybe there were giggles, winks and hair twirls that gave Matt the wrong idea. But sometimes bubbly personalities can be interpreted as flirty. Who knows what her story was. But I can say that I’ve been in a similar situation before – and it’s not easy to be on the other side of the fence either.
When I was a freshman in college, a good friend of mine, Zack, had a crush on me. Two weeks before classes let out for the summer, Zack asked if I would go on a date with him. I was a bit blindsided, but I told him truthfully that I just wanted to be friends. When we returned from summer break, I found myself putting on the kiddy gloves around him. No more friendly hello hugs. No more asking for special favors. I liked spending time with him, but I was sensitive to the fact that his feelings were different than mine, and I didn’t want to give him any false hope or encouragement.
The following spring I went abroad, and when I returned campus the following summer, the university was pretty deserted. Most underclassmen didn’t stay on campus, but being out-of-state students, Zack and I both wound up subletting on-campus apartments. With no car to visit my non-metro accessible friends on a regular basis, Zack and I naturally hung out a lot during the summer. We spent a day at the zoo and we went out for Indian food in Adam’s Morgan. I had a lot of fun at these outings; they made my summer much more pleasant.
And then one day in August my roommate and I were preparing to move out of our sublet and into our assigned apartment for the school year. Zack sent me an email wishing me good luck on the move. My roommate commented on how her boyfriend had completely forgotten it was our moving day and we simultaneously realized – that whole summer, all of those times I spent with Zack… I was enjoying the company of a friend, and he, like Matt, was living in a fairy tale. It had been over a year since I had told him I wasn’t interested in seeing him and I had hoped (and naively assumed) that those feelings were behind him. I felt terrible – I don’t think I ever “led him on,” but at the same time, I definitely saw how he could have misinterpreted or reframed the time we spent together. I would have hesitated to invite him out for some of those activities if I knew he would have viewed them that way. But what now? It’s not like I could just call him up, “Hey Zack, I know it’s been a while since we talked about this last. But just to be clear, I’m still not interested in being anything more than your friend. Ever.” Harsh.
In the end, I didn’t say anything to him. And a few weeks later the situation blew up when I started talking to a new guy at a party. Zack took my interest in someone else as an invitation for him to stick by my side the whole night. After that, I pulled away from him knowing that he couldn’t “just be friends.” At least not then. I always feel that I could have done more, said something to him, but I still don’t know what would have helped. So “Zack,” if you ever read this, please know – I tried my best. And one of these days both you and Matt both find lovely leading ladies. And it will be the start of something epic…