It’s been over a decade, but I still remember the heart-in-my-throat, forgetting-to-breathe moment of agony all too well. I had just confessed to my friend that I “liked liked him” and was waiting, almost dreading, to hear his response. Did my crush like me back? A lot was at risk; admitting my romantic feelings would probably change things between us, no matter his answer. My situation was not especially unusual. In one research study, 10-20% of the participants said they were in asymmetrical friendships where only one friend wanted to be more than just friends,1 and in another study, over 90% of the participants had experienced some type of unrequited love (not necessarily with a friend) within the last five years.2 Clearly, plenty of us know that feeling of simultaneous terror and hope, the suspense of a relationship teetering between relationship potential and rejection.
We have more to lose when a friend does not reciprocate our romantic feelings versus when we are rejected by a stranger or acquaintance. Aside from the possibility of losing a good friendship, the sting of rejection may be more acute when coming from someone close to us.3 (Even if I hadn’t been a teenager, a rejection from my good friend would have been a bitter pill to swallow.) So let’s say your friend would rather kiss a scorpion than kiss you (ouch!), or your friend, who always seemed more like a sibling, admitted to wanting more than just friendship (awkward!). Can you at least save your friendship?
Researchers decided to address this question by asking students who had either rejected a friend romantically (rejectors) or who had been rejected by a friend (confessors) to list conditions in their relationships that they thought either saved or ended their friendships.4 The researchers sorted these conditions into categories (e.g., characteristics related to the friendship, emotions and expectations after the confession). A separate study of people in asymmetrical friendships answered a survey about whether these types of conditions existed in their friendship, how much each condition impacted the fate of the friendship, and which specific behaviors might have contributed to their friendship continuing or ending. The researchers learned that there were significant differences between friendships that ended and those that continued. The conditions below were linked strongly to friendship outcomes.
Friends who continued their friendship after an unrequited confession were more likely to:
- Have been friends for a long time before the confessor admitted romantic feelings to the rejector.
- Have spent a lot of time together as friends before the confession.
- Have a genuine desire to continue the friendship (either the rejector, confessor, or both).
- Have a history of honesty and openness in the friendship previously.
In addition, friends who ended their friendship after an unrequited confession were more likely to:
- Feel awkward or embarrassed around the other person (either the rejector, confessor, or both).
- Feel hurt over the refusal of romantic affection (the confessor).
- Feel pressured to act differently around the interested friend (the rejector).
Looking at the above conditions, we can speculate that perhaps shorter, more superficial friendships were easier to give up than long-term close friendships, or maybe the more casual friendships did not have a strong enough foundation to weather the uncomfortable feelings resulting from a confession of love.3 If Trevor feels guilty for turning down Diana, or if Diana is wondering, “What does Trevor’s new girlfriend have that I don’t?” the two of them may stop spending time with each other to avoid experiencing bad feelings. Maybe they weren’t close friends originally, so losing the friendship isn’t much to worry about. Sometimes the easy way out is, well, the easiest.
In Part 2, Stuck Between Friend and Friendlier, we describe the verbal and nonverbal behaviors that characterized the friendships that lasted or that ended.
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1 Monsour, M., Beard, C., Harris, B., & Kurzweil, N. (1994). Challenges confronting cross-sex friendships: Much ado about nothing? Sex Roles, 31, 55-77.
2 Baumeister, R.F., Wotman, S.R., & Stillwell, A.M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 377- 394.
3 Bratslavsky, E., Baumeister, R.F., & Sommer, K.L. (1998). To love or be loved in vain: The trials and tribulations of unrequited love. In B. H. Spitzberg & W. R. Cupach (Eds.), The Dark Side of Close Relationships (pp. 307-326). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
4 Motley, M.T., Faulkner, L.J., & Reeder, H. (2008). Conditions that determine the fate of friendships after unrequited romantic disclosures. In M.T. Motley (Ed.), Studies in Applied Interpersonal Communication (pp. 27-50). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Dr. Helen Lee Lin – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen’s past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.