The “Friend Zone” Is Real, but Not What You Think

It’s a classic trope of dating — when you’re madly in love someone who only views you as an Option B bestie… or you’re sending the millionth signal that you’re just not that into him or her, but they keep hanging around, hopeful for more. Figuring out how to move from Friend to Love Interest is challenging enough, and the so-called “friend zone” sometimes serves to categorize for what’s in-between. But we all know love is complicated, so here are six things you need to know about the “friend zone” — why it happens, what to do with it, and how to cope.

 

1. Friendship is different than the “friend zone.”

The “friend zone” happens when two people are friends, and one person wants more while the other doesn’t. This can naturally lead to disappointment or frustration on both sides, and the mismatch of feelings occurs for people of all genders and orientations.

However, there’s a big difference between the friend zone and actual friendship. Let’s say you like someone, who is your friend, as more than a friend, and you communicate that fact. Your friend feels the same way? Awesome. Your friend doesn’t? Bummer, but it can still be a situation where you both are clear about feelings and expectations. Sure, you may not be as close as you were before, but you move on and it’s cool, eventually. Or maybe you actually stay friends, and both find new love interests. There’s no manipulation; it is handled with respect and honesty.

Now, let’s take that exact same scenario, only this time, you’re really upset because the other person doesn’t feel the same way. You may or may not have communicated how you feel, so either you expect they’ll return your feelings, or you’re waiting around to see if they’ll all of a sudden be into you. You maybe feel like they wronged you or led you on. This is normally where people start using the “friend zone” language, as in: “We went on five dates, and then she friend-zoned me,” or “I put him in the friend zone because there was no spark for me.”

When there’s a sense of being slighted, you’re not in the “friend zone,” you’re probably just not friends. When you’re legitimately friends with someone, it’s not a “zone” you move in and out of. You’re truly present for the other person; you want what is best for them, and you want them to be happy… even if those things don’t align with what you want. You also want those same things for yourself, which means you support healthy boundaries for the friendship as a whole. This means you can have friends you’re attracted to, or interested in, and respect the fact that it may never turn romantic. You can also be clear about the fact that you’re not attracted to someone, and only want to be friends, without the friendship self-imploding.

 

2. The term itself is sexist to women.

Too often, this term is used by men who are bummed when the object of their desire doesn’t reciprocate. (Yes, #NotAllMen, but A LOT OF THEM). And when men use the phrase “friend zone,” it’s usually an attempt to shame a woman for hurting their feelings or saying no to the prospect of a relationship. Which is bullshit.

I asked a few women about their experience with the whole “friend zone” thing, and sadly, the majority faced an aggressively negative dynamic. Here’s what they had to say:

“A guy that liked me set me up with one of his friends I liked, because he thought that guy would break my heart and I’d go running back to him and fall in love. It backfired, and a year later he was still professing his love for me. He would say he ‘wasn’t like other guys,’ but he was also so angry he walked around at a local football game and talked about my sex life. It was ridiculous how much he thought I owed him for being kind, when I thought being his friend was enough. I was grateful I never did pursue a relationship with him, and later I found out he sexually assaulted a friend of mine. Guys who think they deserve a relationship or sex because they’re ‘nice’ are entitled and dangerous.”

“I’m a woman with a lot of stereotypically ‘male’ interests (video games, sci-fi, comic books, D&D, etc.) so I’ve always had a lot of dude friends. Mostly geeks, and mostly totally lovely human beings! But several times, I’ve had to cut someone out of my life because it became clear they thought our relationship was heading in a different direction than it was, and they became bitter/angry about it. The most memorable one — we spent tons of time at each other’s houses in our late teens, playing D&D and Final Fantasy and just generally hanging out (often with others present). We’d been friends for probably 4 years at this point. When I had trouble with a guy I was interested in, I confided in him, he comforted me, and then tried to kiss me. When I pulled away and stammered that I just liked him as a friend, he screamed at me for wasting so much of his time and called me a slut.”

“It’s happened to me lots of times, where someone felt that they were entitled to a relationship that I did not want.”

Listen, this doesn’t mean every single “friend zone” situation is negative (and we’ll get to those, I promise!) But someone who does not return your romantic feelings is not “friend-zoning” you; they are being human. It happens. Plus, living your life as a kind, decent, nice person does not equate to someone else wanting to be in a relationship with you. You don’t “owe” anyone your body or heart; likewise, you should never enter a friendship feeling like the other person is obligated to return romantic feelings on the basis of how much work you put into it.

Also, those of you still shouting #NotAllMen? The “friend zone” is sexist to men, too, because it suggests guys should always get a physical return on emotional investment (um, wrong), and it reinforces the stereotype that men can’t be friends with women without wanting to sleep with them (not fair either).

 

3. Speak up about how you feel, and be honest.

People tend to correlate the “friend zone” with the Twilight Zone: stuck forever, with no way out. Newsflash: there is a way “out,” and it involves communication! Here’s how it works.

  1. If you know you’re not into someone romantically, say so.
  2. If you feel like you want more than friendship, say so.

Seriously. I’m by no means suggesting these discussions are easy — they’re not — but having them frees you up from the very “friend zone” you want to avoid. Being honest might hurt someone’s feelings or your own, but it also clears the air, puts everyone on the same page, and reduces the sense of wasted time. Telling the truth about how you feel and where your heart’s at is the very best thing you can do.

Will someone be disappointed? Probably. Life is not usually a movie dreamland where the other person you’re crazy about *just knows* how you feel; you generally have to speak up. “One of my neighbors, my second year of college, had a crush on me for years,” says Sarah K. “I didn’t know, even though looking back, I can see it. He was really sweet and had been through some rough stuff. He never made me feel uncomfortable or alluded to the fact that he wanted to be more than friends. In fact, I would have went on a date with him if he’d asked.”

Communicating, and remembering you have agency in any relationship (friendship or not), allows you to move on when necessary . . . or it’ll open up the possibility for something even better. “I put my husband in the friend zone for several months,” says Shelly D. “We discussed it, and I told him I worried that by moving him from friend to romantic, I’d lose a friend I really valued and trusted if it didn’t work out. He told me he would accept that versus having nothing, if it was what I wanted. We’ve been married going on 10 years now.”

 

4. Don’t use guilt, shame, or hope as tools.

On the other hand, if you’re just not into someone, but you’re holding on anyway for a myriad of reasons, you likely already know deep down that isn’t a compassionate approach. Because, well, it’s not cool to use people. You might not be trying to hurt anyone, but chances are high you know if there’s a spark or a chance — so be straightforward about it. It’s better for everybody in the long run.

If you’re the lovelorn person in this equation, do yourself a favor and accept it. Don’t assume that if you wait it out — you just send her one more “hi” text in the morning, or double-tap all his Instagram posts, or remain constantly available “just in case” for a last-minute date, or even plan a grand romantic gesture — it is going to magically change the situation. Trust me, people tend to leap from friends to more than friends if it’s really going to happen, and if the timing is right. Don’t force it.

Also, the whole thing is not necessarily anyone’s fault. It’s just how life goes sometimes. There’s no reason to feel guilty for not liking someone back, and there’s no excuse for guilt-tripping someone into being with you.

 

5. Settle for what you deserve.

At its core, claiming “friend zone” territory is kind of a cop-out, because it relieves you of any responsibility for being honest about your feelings. You also then put all the power in the other person’s hands. The heart-eyed person pining for your friend, take a moment: does this dynamic feel good? Healthy? Pay attention if the answer is no, because you deserve more than that.

Likewise, if you’re stringing your friend along even though you’re positive nothing clicks for you, take a moment: how would it feel if someone treated you this way? Terrible? Unfair? Pay attention if the answer is yes, because you might be using your friend as a band-aid for some other emotion or need, as well as just trying to avoid being alone. Everyone deserves love. Don’t settle for a “meh” companion as you wait for “the one,” and don’t put your life on pause for someone who isn’t sure about you.

 

6. Move on.

Did you know attraction forms in the first couple of seconds after you meet someone? Chemistry is an undeniable little pull toward another person, for whatever reason, and it’s either there or it’s not. And if you think you’re in the friend zone, or supposedly put someone else in the zone, you’re missing that “it” factor that turns a friend into a lover.

“To me, the friend zone is a term people use when they want to feel like they had a chance and then they were too nice or too available so the other person lost interest,” says Becky Leu. “In my experience, there was never a chance. The friend zone they’re referring to just means the other person isn’t into them. Never was, never will be, they’re just friends. And that’s okay!”

 

Instead of stressing about the friend zone as a whole, be honest, listen to your gut, and then move on. Relationships can be platonic and lifelong, short-lived and hot, promising and mysterious, romantic and fulfilling — so trust this won’t be your last connection to possible love.

 

Do you believe in the “friend zone”? If it has happened to you, what did you learn from the experience?

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