Making mistakes about a relationships

I once thought I was dating this friend of mine while he thought we were really close friends who went to the movies and hung out all the time. He was fantastic and sent me a very nice email saying he heard rumors that we were dating and he just wanted us to be and remain friends. Incredibly embarrassing, and completely unintentional on both of our parts!
Yes, that’s a kind of thing that can happen. People misunderstand each other in all kinds of embarrassing ways, especially since our culture makes it hard to talk about these things explicitly.
Everyone honestly misreads things sometimes. Imaginary friending is different. Imaginary friending is when you are unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that someone doesn’t want the kind of friendship you want. (Even if they’ve said so explicitly).

When you are someone’s imaginary friend

Friendships require two consenting people. Someone can’t be your friend unless you also want to be their friend. Friendship is a relationship and it has to be mutual.

Some people do not understand this. Some people want to think of themselves as your friends, and don’t care what you want.

In effect, people who do this are treating you as an imaginary friend. They don’t want *you*. They want an imaginary different person who wants to be their close friend. (And, they probably want a number of other differences, too.)

If they wanted you, if they were interested in friendship with the person you actually are, they’d respect it when you said no.

You can’t usually stop someone from perceiving you as an imaginary friend, but you don’t owe them your cooperation, either. It’s ok to ignore them. It’s ok to refuse to listen to lectures on why you’re being a bad friend. You don’t have to give them a chance and you don’t have to convince them that you’re right to distance yourself. You don’t owe it to anyone to help them pretend you’re their friend.

You can’t stop them from thinking whatever they want to think about you. If they send you lots of email. Or letters. Just don’t read them. Because they’re interacting with an imaginary person. Not you. And the real you doesn’t have to play along.

A starting assumption


  • People who can communicate clearly generally say they don’t like something, and/or
  • People who are allowed to say no and have that respected generally refuse to do something…


  • You should assume that people who aren’t allowed to say no don’t like it either, and:
  • You should assume that people who can’t communicate clearly don’t like it either


  • You shouldn’t do that thing to someone who can’t say no without a *really* compelling reason. 

None of these things are compelling reasons:

  • They’re low-functioning, r-worded, have special needs, or are difficult to manage
  • They’re not actually screaming when you do the thing to them
  • They’re a compliant audience
  • You enjoy doing the thing
  • You feel that it is good for them
  • It makes them look more normal
  • It makes them easier to manage
  • It keeps them busy
  • It’s therapy
  • An experienced expert told you to
  • It might conceivably offer some health benefits
  • Your religion says it is important

When people can’t say no easily, it’s of the utmost important to make good guesses about what they’re consenting to and what they aren’t. If you start from the assumption that they don’t consent to things most other people don’t consent to, you’ll do a lot less harm.

Liking something vs wanting it from everyone

These are all things:

  • Liking an activity or kind of interaction
  • Wanting to do that activity or interaction with everyone or most people who want it from you
  • Wanting to do that thing with every nice person you like who wants it from you.

These are often conflated, but they shouldn’t be. They are different. It is possible, and ok, to like something but not want it from everyone.

Here is a common example; the next couple of posts will be different common examples


  • Some people like to be touched; some people don’t
  • Some people are ok with being touched by strangers; some people aren’t
  • Some people like to be touched by friends, but not people they aren’t close with
  • Some people who like being touched by friends like being touched by everyone they like; some people only like being touched by some people
  • Some people only like affectionate touch from sexual or romantic partners
  • Some people only like affectionate touch from close relatives
  • All of these things are ok, and liking some forms of touch doesn’t mean you have to like or accept touch from everyone