Unrequited love is especially difficult when it applies to a friend

Kelli was perfectly content in her friendship with Treven, until one night after choir rehearsal he courageously shared his romantic feelings for her and wondered if she felt the same. Kelli’s first thought was: “Treven, you idiot! Why did you have to go and ruin our friendship?!”

When one friend admits they are “into” the other but the feeling isn’t mutual – in other words a clear case of unrequited love, the relationship can indeed be in jeopardy. Friendships often dissolve under these circumstances, but not always.

Our research team wanted to understand what differentiates the friendships that dissolve from the friendships that make it? If we could answer this question, we could give solid advice to people like Kelli and Treven, and save a few friendships.

We asked both lovers and lovees about a time a friendship either lasted or dissolved after full disclosure. We compared the factors that were present in friends who made it to the factors that were present for friends who signed off. Statistically, there were clear differences, allowing us to make some recommendations for dealing with this delicate situation.

In friendships that lasted:

1. The friends actively pursued the friendship. This might seem self-evident, but some people’s inclination is to shut down. You have to consciously do things that keep the friendship going, especially when it’s vulnerable. Verbally affirm the importance of the friendship and continue doing the same behaviors and activities you did before.

2. The friends honestly wanted to remain friends. Whether you truly want to keep the friendship, even if it can’t be romantic, is a question only you can answer. If the friendship isn’t that meaningful, it probably won’t survive this rock in the road, and maybe that’s okay.

3. The friends accepted that the feelings were not mutual. A great attitude to have, whether you are the lover or the lovee is: “Whoops, yep, our feelings aren’t the same, oh well, want to get lunch?”

4. The friends saw the friendship as “solid” before the disclosure. A good question to ask before making this kind of disclosure: “Is this a strong friendship?” Concrete and longer-lasting friendships are more likely to weather the storm, while new friendships may be more vulnerable.5. The friends saw the friendship as “open” before the disclosure. Have you already talked honestly about things like insecurities, other relationships, goals and dreams? You’ll do better than the folks without these previous intimate conversations.

So, what about in friendship that fell apart? Here’s what not to do. In friendships that dissolved:

1. The friends became awkward, embarrassed, or uncomfortable. Whether you are the lover or lovee, avoid the awkward silence, lack of eye contact, and endless apologies-these only make it harder.

2. The lover continued to hope that the other would ultimately reciprocate. Would-be lovers, please avoid the doe eyes, the “What’s wrong with me, that you don’t love me?”, and the offers for a back massage.

3. The lovee admitted past romantic feelings for the friend or suggested such feelings might develop in the future. No, no, no, no, no! This is not the time to be sweet, at least not in this way. This will only lead him on, and take you back to problem number two on this list.

It is absolutely okay to be in this situation. Try not to blame yourself, and try not to blame the other person. You can keep this friendship if you remember these tips, and do as the British say- “Keep Calm and Carry On!”

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© Copyright 2014 Heidi Reeder, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Heidi Reeder, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Boise State University, and a Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year. She's the author of COMMIT TO WIN (2014, Hudson Street Press) and has authored and co-authored journal articles for leading communication journals such as Communication Monographs, Sex Roles, and The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. She regularly provides workshops on communication, commitment, language, and gender.