I will try to make this succinct.
I am 28 years old. In the last year, I have admitted to myself both that I was an atheist and that my wife and I were no longer in love. We have been separated for about seven months now with a divorce in process. There have been many new things for me to get used to. We married young, so I’ve never really lived alone, and I’ve never been single as an adult. Any emotional issues I may have had were met with lots of prayer and scripture, and convincing myself that God was taking care of everything. Obviously I no longer have those options available to me, and in hindsight I realize that they only masked the problems and didn’t solve them.
So that’s the background, and here is my problem: Over the last three months or so, I have slowly come to realize that I am in love with a woman who has been my friend since 2006. We have more things in common than anyone else I know, and the things she doesn’t have in common with me absolutely fascinate me, and I want to learn everything I can about her. She is every bit as fascinating to me as nature, and even the thought of holding her hand makes me too happy to sleep at night. Unfortunately, she does not have any romantic feelings for me. We are very good friends. She is one of my best friends, and she loves me, just not in that way. She allows for the possibility that her feelings for me may change in the future, and we remain good friends. She does not want me to pursue her romantically, though, and we both agree that doing this would destroy our friendship.
But I can’t stop thinking about her and how much I want to be with her. I don’t think I ever felt this way about my ex-wife. I want her so much it hurts me, and knowing that she doesn’t reciprocate my feelings hurts even more. I am deeply concerned that I will do or say something to damage our friendship (which, sadly, may have already started to happen), and that is the last thing I want. I am hoping to be her friend for the rest of my life, and she hopes the same for me.
There are three possibilities that I can think of that would resolve this, ranked in order of what I want most (at the moment, anyway):
- She falls in love with me, and we live happily ever after, or for a few months or years, but at least we gave it a shot.
- She doesn’t fall in love with me right away, but my feelings become manageable and I’m able to concentrate on other things, like work and music, and she eventually realizes that I’m the guy for her.
- I stop having these feelings and things go on as they were before.
I really do not know how I should proceed. I don’t know how to stop feeling these things, or how to stop feeling them so strongly.
This is the short version. I hope you can help me.
Sad and A Little Pathetic in Seattle
I won’t call you “and A Little Pathetic” because you deserve more respect than that. You are in love. As painful or confusing as that can sometimes be, it is not something to be sneered at. Being in love is the beautiful, awful, tragic and splendid specialty of our species. It is the central part of what makes us human. We admire lovers, we feel sorry for them, we cheer them on to go forward, and we warn them to go back. They are the subject of comedies and tragedies. But we should never, ever look down our noses in scorn and contempt at those who are at the same moment lucky enough and unlucky enough to be in love.
You have never lived alone, you are new to your atheism, and up until recently, you have relied on prayer, scripture and God to deal with your emotional issues.
So inside, you are very young.
Not for all but for many people, living alone for an extended period, free from the distractions of an intimate relationship is necessary for them to come to understand themselves. I think this may be so in your case. You have only recently had the opportunity to begin to know yourself on levels deeper than those you reached while living with your parents and immediately later with your wife. In the months since separating from your wife you have begun to get glimpses of insight, such as seeing that your problems had only been masked and left unsolved. But now you have started another powerfully distracting love relationship, and your growing insight may once again be slowed.
Until recently, your main way of coping with emotional challenges was to rely on something intangible outside of yourself. Being convinced that God was taking care of everything hindered your developing self-reliance, self confidence and the skill of using friends for advice and support. Building these will take time, patience and work. If you don’t have friends with whom you can confide, find some. These must be friendships that you will not begin to romanticize or sexualize.
Your friend sounds like she is very level-headed, but even so, she may be experiencing a dilemma:
When a friend learns that their friend loves them romantically, but they don’t have that kind of love to return, they often feel a tension because of an odd quirk in our culture.
The healthiest response for the friend would be to feel sad about their love-struck friend, knowing that they are frustrated in their love. Unfortunately, in our culture people often take upon themselves the responsibility for other people’s feelings, thinking that they are supposed to somehow do something about or fix the other’s feelings. They confuse caring about someone’s feelings with taking care of someone’s feelings. So, being unable to return their friend’s romantic love, they might feel guilty. It is not rational or fair to themselves to take on that responsibility and the resultant guilt, but unfortunately it is all too common.
Also unfortunately, guilt is almost always accompanied by resentment. They don’t want this responsibility, but they don’t realize that it isn’t really theirs to take on. So they gradually begin to resent the source of their guilt. They think, “Oh why did my friend have to fall in love with me, making my life so complicated? Now I have to do something about it.” They cannot imagine themselves saying to their smitten friend, “I care about you, and I’m sad that you’re so frustrated, but there’s nothing I can do about it. My feelings are just not the same as yours. I hope that you can resolve your feelings.” They might consider such a response to be cold and uncaring, but it is not. It is the healthy, reasonable response of a caring friend who can only care, but who cannot be the manager of someone else’s emotions.
This is why your friend may at first have wished that your feelings would go away, and later may start wishing that you will go away. If she’s caught to any extent in that cultural false responsibility, the discomfort of guilt and resentment will take its toll on her friendship for you.
Sad, I suggest that you assume that possibility number three in your list is the correct one. That is the only one that is supported by any evidence. Your friend has told you that she doesn’t love you that way. That’s very strong evidence. The other two possibilities are merely wishful thinking on your part, perhaps similar to the kind of wishful thinking that propped up your belief in God. You have seen through that clearly, now see through this clearly.
If you jump right into another love relationship, you will continue to delay becoming familiar and comfortable with yourself, and will continue to impede your emotional maturing. Sometimes people use such relationships in a similar way to alcohol or drugs to avoid encountering uncomfortable things inside themselves. You need much more time by yourself to confront your insecurities, and to see through them to the confident, self-esteeming man you can become who can then offer a mature love to someone who can love you in return.