You’ve probably heard your favorite cool couples talk about how they were BFFs before they fell in love. It’s a pretty common “how we met story,” since in many cases it takes a while for sparks to fly between two people. In fact, maybe you’ve met your soulmate already, and they’ve been right under your nose for ages. But how do you make the transition to something more in the least awkward way possible, and what happens if things don’t work out? In some cases, would-be pairs are so concerned about ruining their friendship that they don’t want to give romance a try. According to Melody Li, licensed couples therapist and relationship specialist, even though you can’t perfectly predict a romantic relationship’s success, it’s completely possible to attempt the transition in a way that won’t put your existing friendship at risk — as long as you remember a few key things.
The Good News
If you’re starting to develop an attraction to one of your friends, here’s a major plus: It’s actually better to start out as friends. “Many solid, lasting romantic relationships are built upon the foundation of a fulfilling friendship,” shares Li. On the other hand, relationships based on an initial crush can be harder to sustain. “Infatuation surges the brain and body with feel-good chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin (causing warm, fuzzy feelings), and the body goes through withdrawal when you two are apart.” When you think about it, it’s actually pretty sweet. The only problem is that these feelings tend to taper off over time. So while infatuation is fun and can lead to a lasting relationship once a friendship is in place, those who start out as friends are much better equipped to make it through the long haul.
The Bad News
And now for the tough stuff. Once you introduce romance into the picture, it can be super hard to go back to being “just friends” with all those feelings out in the open. Sometimes this risk is enough to keep people from bringing it up altogether, but as Li points out, “All love is risky.” She’s right. “To love someone means you are inviting the person into your internal world. That can be scary, especially if you’re not sure if the other person will fully accept and embrace what they see,” she notes. But you do have a leg up on the situation, in the sense that you know your friend already likes you and accepts you as a person. Phew.
How to Preserve Your Friendship, No Matter What Happens
As for how to get the relationship conversation started, if things aren’t progressing toward romance on their own, you may have to just suck it up and say something. “There is no perfect way to bring it up, so embrace the discomfort,” advises Li. “Before starting the conversation, I encourage the ‘asker’ to do some personal reflection on their relationship with rejection.” Remember that even though being vulnerable opens you up to the potential of being hurt, it also makes it possible to access opportunities you never would have had before. Li reminds us to check in with the friend during the actual convo: “Empathize with the range of emotions that they may be going through, which could be shock, confusion, or joy.” It’s also important to give them space to process what you’ve said instead of requiring an answer from them right away.
If your friend isn’t sure how they feel, or if they’re not up for taking things to the next level, Li says you should keep in mind that declining a shift in the relationship isn’t a reflection on you as a person. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we want them to: Though it’s disappointing, it’s just a fact of life. If you want to make sure your friendship remains intact even when the answer is no, Li recommends listening well, being respectful, and resisting the urge to be pushy. “If things don’t work out, you will feel pain and sadness,” she admits. “It’s important to take ownership of those feelings and not blame or put the responsibility on the other person.” The best thing you can do is to be compassionate toward yourself and give yourself some time to get over what’s happened. “Let your friend know that this doesn’t change your friendship and that you will reach out once you recover,” Li adds. “Your friend may feel guilty if they don’t feel the same way, but let them know that it’s not their fault and that your love for them does not change.”
If you and your friend do decide to go for it, Li says you should “avoid moving too fast.” Remember that whole infatuation thing we mentioned earlier? “The rush of chemicals may contribute to making irrational decisions. Enjoy and honor those fuzzy, magical feelings — but set time apart to talk about boundaries, expectations, and important decisions. Slow it down, and enjoy the process.” Sounds like a plan to us.
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