Q. I’ve been listening to the “Love Letters” podcast, and it inspired me to write to you for advice. Two years ago, I moved to my current apartment. I became friends with one of my neighbors. A few months in, we developed feelings for each other and started to date. We were together for about nine months before he broke up with me (over text, three days before Valentine’s Day — not that I’m still salty about it or anything). We’ve since gone back to being friends and still spend a lot of time together. In fact, I see him more than any of my other friends, partly because we’re still neighbors, and partly because all my other friends live at least an hour away.
We have drinks, we talk, we go to dinner, we text, we hug, we make plans. He’s still the primary relationship in my life — and I can’t say I feel 100 percent platonically for him all the time. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about trying to date, but there are a lot of complications holding me back. Even though I’m in my early 30s, this was my first relationship, and I feel like I missed out on everything you’re supposed to learn when you first start dating in your teens and 20s. I don’t know how or where to meet people who aren’t creepy … without being creepy. I feel like I’ve missed out on sex — having it, and learning how to have it. I don’t even know if I like dating, or if I want a casual relationship or a long-term relationship, or just sex.
I don’t even know if I like men or women or both or neither. I think most of those questions could be answered through (careful) trial and error; the bigger problem, though, is that I don’t want to lose my ex all over again. I think our friendship has really only worked because neither of us has found someone else to be the primary relationship, and if I started to date, our friendship would have to change or end. I know I would be (re)heartbroken if he started to date. Does that mean I shouldn’t date either, or would dating help me move on first? (My other thought was that I should literally move on first, and find somewhere else to live. It would be difficult to date someone new when my ex is a 20-second walk from my front door, but housing is tough in my state.)
I know there’s no romantic future for me with my ex, but his friendship means a lot to me. I don’t even really know that I want a romantic relationship, so does it make sense to throw away a close friend in the pursuit of a stranger — who, for that matter, may also walk away? How do I figure out what I want without losing things I value?
FLOUNDERING IN THE FRIEND ZONE
A. Please meet other people.
Go on dates. Join activities. Call other friends with dating experience so you can share, talk, and learn by listening.
Your ex is a wonderful companion, but he’s not your future life partner. You need to make space so other people can enjoy your company.
You might want to tell him this — that you’re making an effort to branch out because you feel like life needs to change after the breakup. I assume he’ll understand and will follow your lead. Maybe you can set aside five nights a week, at the very least, for time alone or with others.
Honestly, saying this out loud might help both of you. If you admit that proximity is making it difficult to see anyone else, you both might become more intentional about when you spend time together. This has to be affecting him too, right?
I do think you should hop on an app (or two) and see how it feels. Go on some dates. Do not assume people have years of experience you don’t, or that you’re bad at anything. Consider how many letters we’ve received from people who assume they don’t have enough experience with dating and sex. You’re not alone!
It doesn’t sound like moving is feasible, so for now, boundaries make more sense. If you’re writing the same letter in six months, we can reopen the conversation about real estate.
One last thing: Three days before Valentine’s Day is not Valentine’s Day. There is no good day to be dumped. One time I was broken up with in the fall and I thought, “But … it’s a beautiful season in New England! Now it’s ruined!” Breakups happen when they need to. If only we could script life so heartache only happened on … Leap Day. Then we wouldn’t even have anniversaries every year.
You can’t stand here hesitating because the hypothetical doesn’t feel worth the risk. Meet people until the people you are considering aren’t hypothetical. Then maybe you’ll find someone new.
What you’re describing isn’t healthy — it’s co-dependency. You admit that you both hang out because neither of you has met anyone. And you’re afraid to explore other relationships because it would mean less time for your ex?
You call your ex your ex, but he’s actually not. You wrote that you broke up, but no, you actually didn’t. You’re still seeing each other, going out to do things, hugging, and neither of you are trying to find anyone else. You’re both confused about what you should be, what you want, everything really, and that’s never going to change, but that’s fine. It’s fun to ask for advice, but really just pick out another nice restaurant and enjoy dinner and the hugs.
You’re hiding behind this person. Yes, you will miss him, but more problematic is that he’s keeping you from facing what you need to face to lead a sustainable, happy life. It sounds like you’ve let him keep you from meeting almost anyone else. Short-term, that prevented loneliness; long-term, it’s creating it.
Send your own relationship and dating questions to email@example.com or fill out this form. Catch new episodes of Meredith Goldstein’s “Love Letters” podcast at loveletters.show or wherever you listen to podcasts. Column and comments are edited and reprinted from boston.com/loveletters.