Just Friends

Hara Estroff Marano advises a woman whose friend has fallen in love with her. She wants to stay friends, but he also has multiple sclerosis and feels a desparate need to settle down. How can she help him without hurting him?

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Three years ago I met and casually dated a man with whom I chose not to pursue a relationship, due to our differing objectives in life. He lacks ambition, is not well educated and does not know how to treat a lady. For eight months we stopped talking. In that time he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As his condition worsened, he contacted me with the intention of establishing a relationship. I've offered my friendship, support, suggestions and caring, not feeling the same is being returned. This man, however, feels he is falling in love with me. I don't know how to draw the boundary for friendship; I feel he is desperate to settle down before his disease progresses further. Is my best option to cut ties altogether? I feel as if I'm becoming co-dependent, while I feel he disregards any events occurring in my life.

I am not at all sure what you mean by "co-dependent." It is a term that should be stricken from the relationship lexicon, because all close friendships and partnerships involve co-dependency in the descriptive sense; there's nothing pathological about it. I applaud your empathy for Mr. Bad News and your attempt to maintain a friendship. You didn't deem him good mate material before his diagnosis, nor should you now. I'm not even sure why you feel compelled to maintain a friendship with a person who doesn't know that friendship, like all relationships, involves reciprocity.

Please recognize that you are under no psychological or ethical obligation to get involved with anyone, whether or not he has multiple sclerosis, halitosis or an array of endearing personality traits, although you are obligated to act kindly. Each of us alone is responsible for our own feelings, including the love we develop. Choosing as a love object someone who does not reciprocate one's feelings, as Mr. Bad News has done, suggests either that he doesn't know how to read social signals or that he is a bit out of touch with reality. Or perhaps your messages to him are ambiguous.

Your friend definitely has a lot of psychological repair work to do, made all the more urgent by serious illness. Neither guilt nor pity on your part will help either of you. If you choose to maintain a friendship with Mr. Bad News, or anyone else, for that matter, then you must make the rules clear. Since he seems to have some trouble deciphering them correctly, you need to be quite explicit with him.

You might say something like this: "I know you didn't ask to get multiple sclerosis and it must be very distressing to have such a progressive condition. But it doesn't change my wish to maintain a friendship-only relationship with you. I feel uncomfortable when you interpret my caring as something more than friendship. If my presence in your life misleads you as to my intentions, then for your sake I will have to step out of your life. Either way, it would be wise for you to get some relief from the emotional pressures you are under. Perhaps you might consider joining a support group of people in the same boat. You can begin immediately by searching online."

I don't believe in cutting people off, but if Mr. Bad News can't accept friendship as friendship, then you can exit knowing you will have done more than your share in helping him.