How to move past the ‘just friends’ stage

How to move past the 'just friends' stage

Consider this five-step plan if you’re looking to take a relationship to the next level.

Pretty much everyone has had a close friend who’s fantastic, funny, always there when you need a sympathetic ear… and who also makes our heart do little flips and wonder “What if…?” True, anyone who’s watched a Hollywood rom-com knows that getting passionate with a pal is a tricky endeavor. But if it works, it’s also totally romantic. So if your buddy’s been on your mind all too often of late and you want to see if you can be more than just friends, read on for some step-by-step advice from relationship experts and real people on how to proceed without losing your dignity — or the friendship.

Step 1: Look before you leap

The most important thing you should do before you act is this: think! You absolutely might be on the verge of something wonderful, but then again, it could be a fleeting moment of loneliness or lust that leads you astray. “I have had a few friendships that could have been something more at one time, but I always try to let that first impulse pass,” says Jennifer of Brooklyn, NY. “If it is meant to be, that feeling will happen again. If it was a passing fancy, then there will be no awkward conversation over what happened ‘that night.’”

While waiting for repeated waves of more-than-friendly feelings is a wise idea, you should also ask yourself this: Why haven’t you dated this person before? “Sometimes it’s simply because you met when one of you was involved in a relationship or something else equally distracting, like writing a doctoral dissertation, caring for an older parent or whatever life puts on your plate,” says Joni Mantell, a psychotherapist and relationship coach in New York City. If that was the case and the hurdle has since disappeared, then it might be the right time to redefine your relationship. If, on the other hand, you two have had windows of opportunity to get closer in the past and passed them up, then maybe it was for good reason.

The bottom line is, figuring out what’s triggered your change of heart is crucial. “It might be because your friend comes through for you in a crisis like no one in your life ever has, and this makes you realize how special this person is to you,” says Mantell. If that’s the case, does that necessarily mean a romantic relationship is in the cards? Another possibility is that you have given some thought to your patterns in relationships (in therapy, or by yourself), and you realize you would rather date a “nice” man or woman instead of the more exciting, dangerous prospects you were pursuing before. “In other words, you are growing up and letting go of old baggage,” says Mantell. That’s a good reason to seriously consider giving this a shot.

Step 2: Test the waters

So you’ve decided that your emotions are the real deal… but what about your friend’s feelings? Are you two on the same page, or is the object of your affection blissfully unaware that you two could click romantically? To determine the answer, ask yourself these questions: Are you the first person he or she shares good (or bad) news with, and vice versa? Is this person jealous or critical of your dates and previous partners? Is your friend possessive about spending time with you alone rather than while along with others? Does he or she compliment you as a date would (i.e., “You look beautiful in that dress” or “Man, you’re looking handsome today”)? Is the amount of time you spend together increasing? A “yes” response to several of these questions could mean the attraction is indeed mutual.

You can also try dropping hints, which can not only help you gauge the person’s reaction — it also plants a mental seed in case he or she hasn’t yet entertained the thought of coupledom with you for a partner. Laurie Puhn, J.D., author of Instant Persuasion: How To Change Your Words And Change Your Life, suggests trying something like: “You know, I date… but none of the people I go out with really compare to you,” or “I was talking to Jane the other night and when she bumped into us she thought we were on a date. Isn’t that funny?” “If the other person says something like ‘Yeah, I was thinking that, too. It does seem like we’re dating,’ or if he or she smiles, it’s a good reaction,” says Puhn. If the person looks uncomfortable or changes the topic, that’s not a good sign — but since your comment was so innocuous, it should easily blow over quickly.

Step 3: Make your move

You’re pretty sure the sparks are there on both sides… now what? Should you lunge in for a lip-lock the next time you’re together and pray your pal doesn’t recoil in horror? Understandably, that prospect can be terrifying — so consider a more subtle move, like taking his or her arm or reaching for a hand during a movie or while walking around together. It’s so innocent that the person won’t likely pull away, and it’ll help your pal get more comfortable with getting closer. “You may have been thinking about this for a year, but your friend may have only been trying to process the idea for 30 minutes,” says Puhn. “Remember that everything in this transition can’t happen in one evening!”

Bashful types might also consider this stealthy move: “Say, ‘I wonder what it would be like if we were dating,’” suggests Mantell. “This style of musing and imagining is good for a safe but playful start, which could lead to a kiss or a conversation about you two dating at the very least.” If he or she does say “Let’s just be friends,” Mantell suggests that you be ready to provide reassurance that it’s OK with you. But recognize that there is always the possibility things may be weird after that. If you decide you can still hang out together, you can alleviate your buddy’s discomfort (and your own) by talking about other people you’re interested in, whether that’s some new coworker or a cutie you saw online.

Step 4: Steam things up

It happened; you two are kissing! While it might be nice to think that you’ll click instantly since you know each other so well, familiarity also can work against you. “The first contact might be awkward,” says Mantell. “Our society is more accustomed to romances built on pure fantasy, and that is harder to do with a friend.” Mantell urges that transitioning couples shouldn’t give up right away if the chemistry is off. “Acknowledge the uneasiness, make a joke by saying something like, ‘Well, we know each other too well to be relaxed.’” Another option is to promise each other you’ll go really slowly until you get used to this new way of interacting.

One major caveat: while sharing a kiss doesn’t have to mean you two are officially an item, the fact that you’re already so close as friends can raise your romantic expectations. So whether you’re interested in pursuing a serious relationship with this person or just out to satisfy your curiosity and keep things casual, it’s crucial that you communicate your expectations and hopes — and have a handle on the other person’s — before getting too hot and heavy. Just say, “I’m really attracted to you, but want to make sure we’re on the same page so nobody’s feelings get hurt…” and explain your stance from there. You two may forge ahead even if you don’t see eye-to-eye, but at least it’s on the table. Everyone you start dating deserves that much, but friends especially do, don’t you think?

Step 5: Announce your new status

If you two do seem to be hitting it off, you may wonder whether to make your budding relationship public — after all, you may be excited, worried, or otherwise dying to talk about it with someone other than the pal you have feelings for! But breaking the news also requires some caution. The rule of thumb here is to find out how your new amour feels about it and always defer to the wishes of the more private party. Keep in mind that as soon as you involve other friends and family, there will be more pressure on your evolving relationship — so it’s OK to give yourselves time to adjust.

Also keep in mind that there’s a difference between keeping your relationship private and keeping it a secret. In other words, you may want to let certain people in on the news — especially those who feel close to you both. Those are the people who might feel deceived or left out if they learn your coupled-up status later on. In those instances, one of you (both people doing the talking may feel like you’re ganging up on the person) should take that individual aside and say, “You know how John/Jane and I hang out all the time? We kind of both realized that we liked each other, and now we’re dating.” Answer hsi or her questions, but keep in mind that you shouldn’t spill all the details; when in doubt, ask yourself: “Would I talk about that if my new partner were in this room?” If the answer is no, keep your lip zipped.

Also recognize that while you may try to be discreet, people will probably start getting an inkling that something has shifted — and it can be damaging to deny it, says Joyce Catlett, coauthor of Fear of Intimacy. “Don’t try to hide the status of your new relationship by holding back physical expressions of your tenderness and affection when other people are around,” says Catlett. “Protecting yourself this way can have negative consequences and can make you feel more self-conscious or awkward, even during those times when the two of you are alone.” The bottom line is, you and your pal-turned-partner should be ecstatic that you’ve found a soul mate so close to home. Who cares if you’re fodder for the gossip mill for awhile?

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