Matthew Rozsa discusses the term “friend zone” – and why we should get rid of it.
Since this article was inspired by a personal experience, it seems only fair that I open it with a confession:
I have complained about being “friend zoned.”
Thankfully it’s been years since I’ve done this, but I can’t say it hasn’t happened at all. Like most men, I have found the term awfully convenient when dealing with the sting of romantic rejection. If we get along so well as friends, I’d think to myself, then why is she unwilling to see me as anything more? It seemed brutally unfair, as if I was being penalized for opening up my heart to someone and forming a connection that (at least in my opinion) had been meaningful. Because the expression is so prevalent in our popular culture anyway, it seemed like a valid way of expressing my frustration.
Then I got a taste of my own medicine: Someone recently accused me of putting her in the “friend zone.”
It’s pretty surprising that it took this long, since this is certainly not the first time I’ve told a woman (who I’ll call S in this article) her feelings for me weren’t reciprocated (more on that in a moment). Although this article draws heavily from my recent experience, its lessons are universal in nature. After all, one of the reasons men are so quick to accuse women of “friend zoning” them is that they have difficulty relating to how it feels to be on the other side of that dynamic. To rectify that, here is a quick list of guidelines men should bear in mind:
1. The so-called “friend zone” doesn’t actually exist.
When I say that the friend zone doesn’t exist, I don’t mean that there aren’t situations in which a person is attracted to a friend who doesn’t reciprocate his or her feelings – that’s a tale as old as time. That said, the notion that the friendship itself is precluding a romantic and sexual relationship is erroneous. The truth is much simpler:
If two people are friends and one of them doesn’t want to enter a relationship with the other, it’s because he or she doesn’t find that person attractive.
That said, the notion that the friendship itself is precluding a romantic and sexual relationship is erroneous. The truth is much simpler: If two people are friends and one of them doesn’t want to enter a relationship with the other, it’s because he or she doesn’t find that person attractive.
This lack of attraction can be due to any number of things: Physical appearance, specific personality traits, lack of social status vis-a-vis one’s career, lack of income, lack of common interests, and virtually anything else imaginable. It is not because the connection you forged as friends somehow precluded the possibility of the relationship developing into something more. If two people share a deep bond and are mutually attracted to each other, there will always be the possibility for that platonic relationship to become romantic and sexual. They may be stymied by concerns about losing their friendship or other practical considerations, but there is no such thing as two genuine friends failing to enter a relationship because the friendship itself has blocked that out. If one friend isn’t interested, it’s because there is something about the other that they don’t find attractive.
2. There is nothing wrong with not being attracted to a friend.
For the girl in question for me (who I’ll refer to here as S), the issue was twofold: (1) She was very flaky and (2) She was a conspiracy theorist.
As I’ve discussed before, flakiness is a huge pet peeve of mine. In addition to finding it incredibly annoying, it also goes against the grain of my Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s not unusual for people on the autism spectrum to require a certain amount of structure in their day-to-day routine in order to feel comfortable. I’m the kind of person who likes to schedule everything – work projects, social engagements, even phone calls – down to the ‘t,’ and am always punctual unless extenuating circumstances make that absolutely impossible. While I understand that the rest of the world can’t always accommodate me on this, it is a sine qua non for a relationship because I can’t feel fully comfortable around a significant other if she isn’t going to be as reliable as me.
The second problem may sound petty, but it actually strikes to the core of who I am. As a history PhD, I believe very strongly in using empirical methodologies when understanding the world around us. Conspiracy theories (such as the idea that civilization was founded by aliens or that 9/11 was orchestrated by the United States government) are anathema to the rational and detached approach that respectable scholars adopt in all fields. Consequently a conspiracy theorist is as offensive to a PhD in history as a creationist would be to an evolutionary biologist, or as a global warming denier would be to a climatologist, or as atheism would be to someone who is devoutly religious.
Is this petty? Not even remotely. Remember, I’m not passing moral judgment on people who believe in conspiracy theories, but ascertaining what will work for me in a relationship. There is no “right” or “wrong” when determining what you want in a relationship, any more than you can be “right” or “wrong” for preferring one flavor of ice cream over another. It’s a matter of taste.
3. Because everyone gets rejected, it’s infuriating to be cast as the bad guy simply for not feeling a certain way about someone.
There are two kinds of people in the dating world – those who will admit that they’ve been rejected, and those who lie through their teeth. It doesn’t matter how attractive, wealthy, intelligent, funny, or otherwise desirable you might be; unless you’re lucky enough to find your true love on the very first occasion that you ask them on a date, it is absolutely inevitable that you will be shot down. For the vast majority of us, this will happen over and over again.
There is no “right” or “wrong” when determining what you want in a relationship, any more than you can be “right” or “wrong” for preferring one flavor of ice cream over another. It’s a matter of taste.
And it sucks. A lot. Which means that, unless you’re sadistic or a sociopath, you probably don’t enjoy having to reject other people.
This may hard to admit if you’re the one being turned down, but the truth is that the person rejecting you almost certainly feels terrible about having to do so. Because they’ve felt worthless and heartbroken when spurned, they can empathize all too well with what you’re experiencing, and the fact that they are personally responsible for causing you that pain adds an enormous burden of guilt.
At the same time, they’re only acting based on their honest emotions; they are no more in control of how they feel, and what they need to do as a result of those feelings, than you are. That’s why it’s so positively infuriating when the other person decided to guilt-trip them. It is, in a sense, a below-the-belt move; you’re hitting someone at their most vulnerable spot (their conscience) even though you know perfectly well that the blow isn’t really deserved.
4. It’s okay to express disappointment at rejection… so long as you don’t become angry, bitter, or manipulative.
Back to S for a moment: When I told her that I only wanted to be friends, she was openly upset but ultimately understood where I came from. This was totally fine – if you’ve been rejected, you have every right to feel hurt, and a true friend (even one who isn’t romantically attracted to you) will be sympathetic and supportive. Because I’ve turned down plenty of girls before S, I knew to expect this, and bore her no ill will for behaving in the same way that I’d seen other women react before her.
The difference was that S was unwilling to permanently accept “No” for an answer… and she was the first to use the term “friend zone” as a way of shifting the “blame” to me for us not being in a relationship. In the past I’ve had girls I rejected respond with anger or bitterness; one accused me of being a hypocrite by citing my weight (even though I never mentioned her weight, or physical appearance at all, as a reason for not being interested), while another threatened to post my phone number and home address on a white supremacist forum that had recently been created to attack my writing (this certainly qualifies as the most psychotic reaction I’ve ever received).
S, on the other hand, kept trying to subtly nudge me into relationship mode: She’d make a point of holding my hand while we were hanging out in public, putting me in the awkward position of either extricating my hand and being judged by strangers as she adopted a hurt tone and said, “Oh, Matt”; she’d bombard me with text messages even after I’d told her that I felt like being alone; she followed up with my friends about what I was doing and how I felt about her; and she even kept urging me to meet her extended family and “develop a bond with her kids,” despite my repeatedly saying that I wasn’t comfortable doing so. None of this was as bad as the outright hostility I faced on previous occasions, but it was so transparently manipulative that I eventually developed an acute dislike of her.
Needless to say, when I called off the friendship altogether, she heavily implied that I was a bad person. This brings me to the final point…
5. There are only four ways in which someone “friend zoning” you is actually a bad person.
There are four ways in which someone who has “friend zoned” you is a bad person for doing so:
A. If they break the news in an insensitive or hurtful manner;
B. If they freeze you out to avoid doing the right thing;
C. If they string you along instead of bluntly telling you how they feel;
D. If they have established an emotional wall in which they refuse to allow their feelings for you to evolve beyond a certain point.
A and B are closely related, so they can be addressed in one paragraph. Obviously it behooves someone who is turning down a friend to do so with the same compassion and sensitivity that they would expect in the same situation (which they have undoubtedly been in); that has nothing to do with dating etiquette and everything to do with acting like a decent human being. Similarly, although it is unpleasant to have to tell someone that you aren’t interested (see Point #3), you have a moral responsibility to directly inform them of how you feel. This may seem obvious, but a lot of people come up with rationalizations to avoid doing so; I recall one friend complaining that she “shouldn’t have to feel badly” by telling a man she didn’t like him if freezing him out could accomplish the same thing. The problem with that reasoning is (a) people often don’t know that you aren’t responding due to lack of interest and (b) having that news broken to you through a freeze-out is incredibly demeaning. Again: You don’t owe the other person a relationship, sex, or even a friendship, but you do owe them basic human decency. Barring a situation in which you feel unsafe or harassed, there is no excuse for not directly informing the other person of how you feel and doing so as tactfully and compassionately as possible. If you can’t handle the discomfort of having to do this – a discomfort that millions of other people slog through because they realize it’s the right thing to do – then you shouldn’t be dating at all.
You don’t owe the other person a relationship, sex, or even a friendship, but you do owe them basic human decency. Barring a situation in which you feel unsafe or harassed, there is no excuse for not directly informing the other person of how you feel and doing so as tactfully and compassionately as possible.
Of all the complaints I hear from men who say they’ve been “friend zoned” (and if you have male friends, you’ve almost certainly heard them), C is the most valid. While it may feel enormously gratifying to string someone along because you know they’re secretly attracted to you, it is not only cruel to do so – it’s downright self-entitled. When someone has amorous feelings for you and you haven’t made it clear that you don’t reciprocate, they are naturally going to try to woo you in a number of ways. This wooing may be enjoyable (particularly if you’re narcissistic or insecure), but it is also exploitative. You have every right to not be interested in someone, but you don’t have the right to take advantage of their vulnerability so you can feel better about yourself. If you enjoy the benefits of someone’s company but don’t want to be in a relationship, you need to have the courage to tell your friend how they feel and hope they’ll choose to stay in your life despite their disappointment. If they choose to leave, that is their right; if they choose to stay but not dote on you as much as they used to, that is also their right. If the thought of losing their courtship is too much to bear, than perhaps you should reevaluate whether your relationship should remain strictly platonic. No matter what you do, however, stringing someone along makes you the bad guy.
D is a bit tricky to explain. On the one hand, it’s important to establish that if you only view someone as a friend, they should proceed from the assumption that those feelings will not change – after all, they very well might not, so if the friendship is going to be preserved, both parties need to proceed from the understanding that it will be mutually platonic unless the rejector one day decides it should be otherwise (and that burden logically falls on the rejector, never the rejectee). At the same time, if your friend is someone with whom you are theoretically compatible (i.e., your sexual orientation designates you could find them attractive), there is something profoundly insulting about deciding that you will never allow your emotions to move beyond a certain point. People’s attraction to each other changes all the time, so by deciding that there is no situation in which you will view another person as a potential romantic partner, you are making a qualitative judgment about their intrinsic value. While it is popular to say that “I can’t choose how I feel,” this is a myth propagated by those who don’t want to be responsible for their own choices. Everyone chooses how they feel, whether it’s toward friends, family members, or potential romantic partners. Even the aspects of physical attraction, which in theory are based purely on intangible “chemistry,” frequently begin to arise between two people of the same sexual orientation who may not have been otherwise inclined toward each other… if, of course, a genuine friendship first arises between them. In short, you have the right to make certain choices, of course, but if you choose to refuse to view someone as more than a friend, you are limiting your ability to truly get to know them on the deepest and most meaningful possible level. That in its own right does’t make you a bad person… but if the other person is really important to you, you should make sure that you aren’t making that decision for the wrong reasons.
There is a great quote from Ann Landers that sums up my thoughts on this subject:
“Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.”
In an ideal world, every romantic relationship would be held together by a bond of friendship that is strengthened by layers of physical and personal attraction. Anyone who has thought they shared that type of connection, only to discover that their feelings weren’t reciprocated, knows that that type of rejection is terribly painful. It is the greatest risk that anyone takes when entering the dating game – that you’ll fall in unrequited love.
It is also a part of life. And if there is one bit of good that comes from the existence of terms like “friend zone,” it’s the knowledge that you’re not alone.