(Rachel Orr/The Washington Post; iStock)

“So tell me about this girl,” I say to my guy friend, casually. My eyes are bright, my body language relaxed, but I’m feeling slightly sick to my stomach. I’m praying he’ll shrug and say “what girl?” or “there’s nothing to tell” and mean it.

Rather than telling him that I feel most like myself in his presence or make a play for his heart, I play the best friend. The confidante. I nod when he tells me where she works. I suggest great dinner spots and sweet gestures she might find charming. I help him decipher her “inexplicable behavior.” And the entire time, I’m hoping this will be another casual relationship for him that will soon fade and leave room for me to make an opening.

In the five years I’ve known this guy, every few months there’s been a different woman. Each time, with each new lady, I would feel the familiar wave of terror that this might be The One for him, coupled with the relief that the last one wasn’t.

I think about how engaging he is upon first impression. Like the night a mutual friend introduced us, and the evening was charged with that excitement of instantaneous connection. Nonstop chatter, bursts of laughter and eye contact that more than once made each of us break away and smile to ourselves.

“He likes you,” my friend whispered to me when we left the bar that night. I shrugged. He hadn’t asked for my phone number. But I genuinely liked him. He was interesting and funny, and I completely lost track of time while talking to him. The next morning, I sent a “I really enjoyed meeting you” message to one of my social accounts, phone number attached.

But we never recaptured that first-night chemistry. I was excited for our next hangout, but it became disappointingly clear that he was interested in me only as a friend. For a while, I pretended that was fine. But I secretly hoped it would change over time, reasoning to myself that we didn’t know each other well enough yet.

Six months into our tête-ā-tête, I had a few cocktails and blurted out: “I think I’m at my best when I’m with you.” He smiled, said “you know, I think it’s great that we’re friends” and changed the subject. I sat there hurt, wondering what to do next.

I chose to remain friends, telling myself it was the mature reaction, even though it pained me to do so.

There was that hope long ago that, one day, it might happen with him. But clinging to a dream won’t make it come true. All of our talks — on the phone, at his apartment, in dive bars with football games blaring in the background — convinced me that I was important to him. It created a false sense of superiority; after all, the Lisa’s from Starbucks and Hannah’s from Tinder were long gone, while I was still here. 

As years passed, I knew I was waiting around in vain. Even if he did change his mind about me some day, by now it would feel like too much of a consolation prize to be real.

All that time and energy spent with him could have been better expended boldly proclaiming my feelings, being rebuffed and moving on to find someone who does want to be with me.

Instead, I found a strange relief in my unrequited love, in the friend zone. There’s a sense of control in knowing the outcome; there are no surprises like those that can come with expressing your feelings.

For years, unrequited love kept me safe. Somewhere in the confusing mix of how I felt about him, I even dated other people. But when a relationship of mine soured, he texted me a couple days after, as if he sensed it.

“How’s your dopey boyfriend?” he wrote.

“I ended it,” I texted back.

“You’re better off,” he replied.

I wished we could go back to the beginning, when we’d just met. To that spark, that attraction — just older, wiser and closer. Why couldn’t I say: “I’M STILL HERE. WE ARE STILL HERE. DO YOU THINK THAT MEANS SOMETHING?”

Instead, I said nothing. I was afraid of the answer being the same as it was last time. We continued on as we always had — laughter, good conversation, comforting hugs — my feelings running far deeper beneath our bantering surface.

The friend zone wasn’t ideal, but it was better than nothing. Even if I couldn’t be with him, at least I couldn’t lose him.

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