Lauren Gatta

Question: I’m attracted to one of my best friends, and we’ve come close to hooking up a few times. We both want to, but I’m afraid it’ll ruin the friendship. What should I do?

Question: I started hooking up with one my best friends, and it didn’t work out. Now we’re trying to be friends again. How do we maintain the intimacy of friendship? Or are we doomed to enter a cycle of drunken hookups and heartbreaks?

In “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry famously claims that: “Men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way” (later in the movie, he sleeps with his best friend and it — however briefly — ruins their friendship). In a “How I Met Your Mother” episode, Barney says that two people are only platonic if there’s no chance of them hooking up within the next twenty minutes; otherwise, you’re “platonish.”

It’s normal — inevitable, even — to be attracted to your friends. Acting on that attraction is where things get unfailingly messy. Once the seal is broken — once sexual intimacy has entered into the friendship — it’s hard to return to your platonic state. Hard, but not impossible. Let’s explore this.

Why is hooking up with friends so pervasive? Friendship is already an intimate act. You care about that person. You spend more than just drunken nights out with them. They’re someone with whom you have hungover brunches, someone to study and vent with, someone who comforts you amidst the latest failed midterm or relationship. They’re someone who knows you, intimately — knows your ticks and triggers, the things you hate and the things you love, the things that have disappointed you and made you feel small and the things that fill you with boundless joy. Friends are relentlessly loyal and kind; they choose to spend their best, worst and messiest moments with you. So, it’s not shocking that sometimes the emotional intimacy of friendship stumbles into the physical intimacy of hooking up.

There’s also safety to the friend-hookup, as opposed to the uncertainty (and danger) of that-person-at-that-frat-party. You know them, and you’ve probably talked enough about sex with them that they know what you like, so friend-sex may be better than one-night-stand sex anyway. You can joke about it, laugh about it, maybe even bond over it. Plus, they have to say hi to you in the dining hall the next day; hell, you’ll probably go together to the dining hall the next day. But therein lies the complication of what happens after the lights have gone down and the friendship trips into new territory. You’re already emotionally intimate, so what do you do when the sun comes up? Are you doomed to “enter a cycle of drunken hookups and heartbreaks?” Potentially. But you don’t have to be.

I, as well as others I know, have hooked up with friends and had the friendship grow stronger afterwards. Rarely has hooking up with a friend ever ruined everything completely, but it has made things hard or weird. It always made things confusing. And, sometimes, people get hurt. The very thing that makes a friend-hookup so appealing — that you know the person, and care for them — is the thing that makes it so challenging. How do you separate platonic love from physical intimacy from romantic interest? Can you?

You’ve got something going for you, though: friendship relies on communication and respect. If your hookup was a one-time drunken encounter, establish it as that immediately and promise each other not to let it happen again. Hopefully, the friendship is built on enough respect that you can hold each other to that promise. If you agree not to be awkward, don’t be. Sex can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be, and college is forgiving enough that if you have a prayer of successfully navigating a friend-hookup, it’s here.

If they want something more and you don’t, tell them. Don’t be an ass about it; if you’ve been friends, you probably know the ways in which other college hookups have hurt them or been dishonest; don’t join the list of those people. They may need to take some time away from you, but things have a way of healing with time, and you may come back stronger. If the opposite is true — that you have feelings for them, which aren’t reciprocated — also take your time. Decide if your feelings can subside and return to a comfortable friendship, and if they can’t right away, allow yourself distance. Feeling separated from a friend is tough, but it’s better than feeling constantly confused or heartbroken by their presence. Hopefully, they’ll respect that space and your subsequent needs (for example, it’ll probably be awhile before you’re comfortable discussing their crushes again).

Maybe you’re okay with occasional hookups, in which case make sure you two are on the same page about what it means when the sun comes up. Navigating the friends-with-benefits situation with grace is a rare thing, but it can be done. It can even be done well, but I wouldn’t hedge your bets on that being the case; my inclination is that, when two friends start hooking up, someone’s bound to get hurt.

It’s also worth mentioning that as soon as your wider friend group finds out about your hooking up, it’s going to get more complicated. Because of social dynamics, it’s already possible that people think you and your friend are into each other, so if you hook up, people get especially crazy. At the very least, you’ll endure some merciless teasing, but at most you might deal with a mind-numbing set of opinions influencing what you actually think. Should you have feelings for the other person? Do they have feelings for you? Ignore the voices. While they may be well-meaning in helping you and a friend realize unrequited feelings, they’re inevitably going to further complicate an already complicated situation, so don’t let them (easier said than done, I know).

Friendship is fundamentally important during these crazy college years. Your friends are there for every difficult class, existential crisis, messy hookup and moment of insecurity. They are your better angels when the only voice you’re hearing is one of doubt and uncertainty. I’d be a mess without my friends, even the ones with whom I’ve had DFMOs or hookups or feelings. The friendships that are sincerely worthwhile — the lifetime ones — can’t be broken by a moment of collegiate curiosity or recklessness, so fight through the complexities of hooking up to find the ways in which you work best, or exercise self-restraint and don’t do it to avoid the mess altogether.

Ayla Besemer | ayla.besemer@yale.edu