A friend on Facebook recently asked about whether or not I think “The Friend Zone” exists. I gave a short (for me) response, but I wanted to flesh out where I am in this debate more fully. For some personal history on where I once was on this topic, I encourage you to read my post: I Was a Nice Guy™.
Also, the subject matter of this post requires me to be far more cisnormative and heteronormative than I usually try to be – I hope the reason for this writing choice is clear from the context of the post (but I will gratefully receive any offered criticisms if I overstep that justification).
What is “The Friend Zone”
The highest-rated entry on Urban Dictionary is somewhat revelatory of a central dichotomy within the very concept of the Friend Zone:
What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to. Usually initiated by the woman saying, “You’re such a good friend”. Usually associated with long days of suffering and watching your love interest hop from one bad relationship to another. Verb tense is “Friend-ed”.
One should not fail to note, by the way, the gendered language in the definition. We will return to this later in the discussion.
The more generous definition of the Friend Zone describes a situation in which one person (‘the friender’) maintains a non-romantic relationship with a person who would prefer to have a romantic one (‘the friended’). Reasons for this situation vary. In some cases, the friender is simply unaware of the friended’s interest, perhaps wilfully so. In other, more nefarious cases, the friender is aware of the non-reciprocated interest but keeps the friended person around for reasons of psychological self-gratification or because the friended provides some sort of benefit (companionship, emotional support, sometimes even material support). In the latter case, the friender is exploiting the romantic feelings of the friended in order to maintain a relationship that, in the absence of the romantic interest (and tantalizingly possible romantic involvement), would not persist. The key is that the friended does not derive the desired benefit from the relationship, and has either decided to ‘settle’ or is hoping that some day romantic reciprocation will occur.
The least generous definition of the Friend Zone is one in which the friended party is a predator, waiting for a lapse in judgement or self-restraint in order to foist a romantic relationship on the friender. Friended people are misrepresenting themselves as genuine friends as part of a ploy to gain the confidence of the friender. The friender believes that the relationship is organic and free of sexual potential, and that both parties spend time together simply because they enjoy each other’s company – as friends do. Under this definition, it is the friended who is misrepresenting the relationship, and the friender who is the wronged party.
It is my position that, at some point in time, both of these definitions have accurately described a situation between two people. There are a broad variety of possible relationships between human beings, and some of those are not constructive or healthy. There are, almost certainly, people who have exploited someone’s romantic interest for their own selfish purposes. There are, almost certainly, people who have dissembled platonic interest solely as part of a gambit to propagate a sexual encounter.
However, it is also my position that there are countless other examples of unrequited romantic interest within friendships that are poorly described by both of the above definitions. Friendships develop for a number of reasons, and it does not seem particularly controversial to me to entertain the possibility that unrequited sexual interest is among them. Indeed, I have had romantic feelings about many of my close friends over the years. I’ve had friends confess similar (past) feelings about me on occasion. That awkward beginning (or, in rarer cases, awkward middle phase) eventually yielded to a genuine rapport and mutually non-sexual interest in each other’s happiness and well-being – as friends do.
This brings me to the dichotomy I mentioned at the beginning of the previous section: there is not a single Friend Zone. There are at least two: a legitimate one and a popular one. For the sake of convenience, I will refer to my understanding of the legitimate Friend Zone as “the Zebra Zone” and the popular one as the “Unicorn Zone”
The Zebra Zone
The Zebra Zone gets its name from medical slang. A “zebra” is a diagnosis of an incredibly rare or unlikely disease when there is a much more likely explanation. The aphorism attributed to Dr. Theodore Woodward advises physicians: “when you hear hoofbeats, think horse, not zebra”. Diagnosing physicians are thereby advised to assume that symptoms are caused by ordinary factors and gradually ‘rule out’ common causes, rather than assuming that every unusual presentation is due to an exotic (and more exiting) condition.
The Zebra Zone describes the first definition provided in the previous section: where the friender is aware (or could at least reasonably be expected to be aware) of the romantic interest of the friended, and chooses to keep that person around for selfish reasons under the guise of ‘friendship’. This is, to me, a legitimate complaint. It is emotionally exploitative to use someone else’s feelings to gain some benefit for yourself. It is not an honest way to deal with people, and it certainly isn’t friendship. Whether done nefariously or out of cowardice, it is not a good way to treat someone.
The reason it’s called the Zebra Zone, however, is that this level of Machiavellian sexual exploitation is pretty unlikely. You’d have to be an incredibly callous person to do something like this and call it ‘friendship’. And while it might be psychologically satisfying to paint a person who does not return your romantic feelings as horribly cruel, when you hear hoofprints it’s probably a much better idea to think ‘horse’, not ‘zebra’.
The Unicorn Zone
The Unicorn Zone gets its name in a similar way. In a superficial way, it describes the same type of relationship spelled out in the Zebra Zone, but with one important difference: the element of mythology. Zebras, although rare, are real. Unicorns, by way of contrast, are not real (although we tend to see a lot of them on the internet). The Unicorn Zone is a phenomenon that occurs when friended people leap to the (erroneous) conclusion that every instance of an unrequited romantic interest, or at least the one they happen to find themselves in, is a zebra. They have no evidence that it is a zebra, they have completely failed to rule out other explanations, but they have adopted wholesale the idea that they have been wronged in some way by an exploitative friender.
I wish I had a joke here about unicorns and ‘horny’, but I’ll let you create your own.
It is my experience that, far more often than not, people who complain about being in the Friend Zone are actually firmly lodged in the Unicorn Zone. They believe themselves to be on the receiving end of some intentional (or wilfully ignorant) mistreatment – see the “long days of suffering” in the Urban Dictionary definition. In the myth, the friender is exploiting their ‘friend’ for all the benefits they want from the relationship, without giving the friended the benefits that they want. The friended is then forced to watch in horror as the friender fails to find happiness with a bunch of other people when the friended is clearly the kind of person who is better suited for a romantic partnership.
The key to all of this is that the strength of this belief is buoyed entirely by the strength of belief, rather than anything substantial. The friended person believes it is so, and therefore it is so.
Gender and the Unicorn Zone
I have intentionally tried to avoid gendered language in describing the Zebra and Unicorn, because I think it’s entirely possible that these kinds of dynamics can be observed in a way that does not respect gender. I am sure, for example, that there are lesbians who are in a Friend Zone of some kind. I am sure that there are women who hang around a guy they’re attracted to, hoping that he’ll notice them. However, as the top-rated definition on Urban Dictionary makes clear, the Friend Zone is widely understood as a place that cishet women put cishet men. One simply cannot discuss the Friend Zone fairly without acknowledging that the popular conception of the Friend Zone is about women mistreating men.
There are a number of reasons that this popular perception may persist, and I will briefly describe a handful of them.
Women as sexual economists
The first is the misogynistic reason: that women are tricksy creatures who exploit the uncontrollable sexual urges of gullible beta males in order to obtain power and status. More gently, it is the belief that women are especially likely/willing to deceive men in sexual matters. Women, as the ‘gatekeepers’ of cishet men’s sexual activity, can leverage sexual access to gain things like platonic companionship or even more tangible benefits. Men, on the other hand, cannot utilize the same leverage for reasons of simple economics – women have virtually unlimited access to willing sexual partners. If a particular man won’t have sex with them, they can simply move on to one of the other 3.5 billion out there.
I find this explanation unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that it rests quite firmly on the belief that women are inherently likely to lie and manipulate when given an opportunity. As mentioned in the Zebra Zone section, such a belief requires women to be cruel. One might say that it only requires people to be cruel, but if that were the case then the meme would not be nearly so gendered. We’d talk about how attractive people put others in the Friend Zone, not about how women do it. Except in relatively rare circumstances, adopting this explanation is evidence of the acceptance of the believe that women are morally inferior.
This explanation also requires a pretty profound perversion of reality in which women can have all the sex they want. Ask around, fellas: there are a lot of perfectly attractive women out there who aren’t getting laid. This explanation essentially requires women to think of men as little more than life support systems for penises, and betrays the author’s belief that having sex with one mass of meat is just as good as another. Women want to sleep with the men they want to sleep with, not just any dude who is “nice” enough. You too, MGTOW, can have a lot more sex if you remove “person I am attracted to enough to want to have sex with” from your list of criteria.
Finally, although (in my mind) least convincingly, it frames sex as a transactional good. Sex under this definition is something that women “give to” or “withhold from” men. It is a ‘thing’ that you can earn, rather than an experience that two or more people choose to do with each other. The reason I say that this reason is not terribly convincing to me is that, while I personally find it crass, sex absolutely can be thought of as a transactional good. It is something that a person can buy, for example. I would imagine that most guys in the Unicorn Zone don’t just want sex, but affection and devotion as well – those are much more difficult to purchase.
Despite the lack of rigour in this explanation, it still goes a long way in explaining the mindset of men who are riding this particular hobbyhorse (hobbynicorn?).
Entitlement and “niceness”
The second reason for the gender imbalance in the Unicorn Zone is one often proffered by feminists: that men feel entitled to sex and affection from women, and when they (we) don’t get it, we respond the way that people do when they are denied something they deserve. Men in the Unicorn Zone feel that they can ‘purchase’ affection and attention from women by being “nice” enough – put enough “kindness tokens” into the woman vending machine and they are obligated to dispense love and affection. When women fail to obey this ‘rule’, they are the ones misbehaving.
This one has a lot more explanatory power than the first one. This kind of behaviour is entirely consistent with male entitlement to female attention (and bodies) in other ways – street harassment being the most obvious example. There are certainly many men who behave as though “being nice” is a necessary and sufficient criterion for being adored, as opposed to being the bare minimum condition for not being hated. Addressing my own feelings of entitlement certainly moved me far away from my previous acceptance of the Friend Zone as an explanation for my own lack of romantic success.
However, it’s important to realize that the “I’m a nice guy” complaint does not exist in a vacuum. It is often a response to a claim – “why can’t I find a nice, normal guy?” Whether it is spoken by an individual or intimated by general culture, many men sincerely believe that “nice” is the beginning and end of the list of appealing features for women. Indeed, many women say as much. If you understand someone to be saying “niceness is my sole criterion”, and you believe yourself to be nice, then it is in fact a baffling and irrational behaviour to reject a perfectly nice guy (nice enough to be friends with, at least). The asymmetry between what is said (“I want a nice guy”) and what is meant (“I want a guy that I am attracted to that is also nice”) is an issue of miscommunication. The selective hearing borne by male privilege definitely plays its role in this miscommunication, but chalking the entire thing up to male entitlement is facile (and, I think, is tangential to the complaint that Nice Guys™ are actually making).
Of course, there is a need to examine how “nice” you actually are if you are only acting like a friend because you’re hoping that you’ll eventually be able to foster a romantic relationship at a later date. That might be “nice”, but it doesn’t seem particularly honest. And I would imagine that, if the object of your affection is aware of your interest masquerading as friendship, if “honest” is anywhere on her list of criteria for a romantic partner, you just might be crossing yourself further off her list with every offered “just friends” backrub. Just a thought.
Fear of male anger
One of the questions I used to ask, when I was lodged in the Unicorn Zone, was “why can’t she just be honest with me and tell me she’s not interested?” The fact that I was less than fully honest with her was usually left out of the complaint, but let’s just pretend that we’re dealing with a friended person who is perfectly plain about his interest and a friender who is ambivalent about hers. There is a perfectly cromulent explanation for why a woman might not feel comfortable outright rejecting someone, rather than gently leading him to arrive at his own conclusions based on her not stripping for him.
I turn once again to the conversations around street harassment to point out that women are often forced to play lion tamer to male anger and frustration. At the most extreme end of this phenomenon is a guy like Eliot Rodger who responded to perceived rejection with murderous anger. At a slightly (but not much) less extreme level is what happened with Jon Koppenhaver (a.k.a. “War Machine”), a mixed martial artist who repeatedly and brutally assaulted his ex-girlfriend out of what appears to be jealousy (among several other things). We can move incrementally down the ladder of the consequences of male anger at being rejected, but the conclusion we must arrive at is that there are completely legitimate reasons for women to particularly fear rejecting men directly rather than obliquely. Not only is there the risk of violence, but a wave of blame directed at them for rejecting a man, rather than unequivocally at the man for responding with violence.
At a more subtle level, women are conditioned to be less direct from the time they are children. It is not unusual, therefore, to expect women to simply be less likely to tell a man, especially one that she views as a friend, that she does not return his implied (or even stated) romantic interest. Some element of this reluctance to be direct might very well within a woman’s ability to change, sure. But at an aggregate level, gendered expectations about women and ‘bitchiness’ go quite a way in explaining why men might be more likely to find themselves in the Unicorn Zone.
This is not an exhaustive list of reasons for the gender disparity in the Unicorn Zone, but it’s a reasonable place to start looking for explanations.
The Mundane (Horse) Zone
And then there are the straight-up no brainer reasons for treating someone like a friend when they’re interested in romance. You like them, you don’t want to hurt their feelings, so you don’t shoot them down. You simply don’t believe that the two of you are compatible as a couple. You’ve seen them do something that rules them out of relationship candidacy, but not friendship. You just don’t feel any ‘chemistry’ with them. You value their friendship more than you want to take the chance that they might be a good romantic partner (knowing, as one does, that most romantic relationships fail).
And there are shittier reasons too: you’re holding out for someone better. You’re confused and don’t know what you want. You think that you might be interested some day, but just not today. You’re a hopeless romantic who believes that relationships have to start ‘a certain way’. You’ve had or witnessed bad experiences in the past when people get romantically involved with friends. You simply have a ‘policy’ about getting involved with someone who is a friend first.
All of these reasons are entirely possible explanations for why a given relationship between two people lands one of them in the Friend Zone. People are complex, and do things for a variety of reasons. But when you ignore all of these possibilities and instead fixate on this myth that women are predisposed to “put men” in some sort of zone, then you’ve officially entered Unicorn territory.
Part of the problem I see in discussions of the Friend Zone is that defenders of the concept think they are riding a Zebra, while critics are trying to put a harness on a Unicorn. The reality is that saying “the Friend Zone does/doesn’t exist” can’t possibly succeed. The arguments are being given at cross purposes. People do befriend people with unrequited romantic interest – sometimes for really shitty and mean-spirited reasons. But there are a million more likely explanations out there, and until you’ve explored those, your chances of making a mistake are pretty high.
And I can’t stress this enough: you’re hurting yourself when you do that. Friendship is not a consolation prize when you can’t ‘get’ a girlfriend. Many of my closest, most important, most valuable and long-lasting relationships are with women who I’ve had a romantic interest in at one time. Conversely, I’ve had romantic relationships with entirely forgettable or downright uninteresting people. While it’s obviously best when they coincide, friendship is not on a lower stratum than romantic partnership – it should not be something you ‘settle’ for. And if that’s how you approach friendship, it might be time for you to take a close look at your own life and your beliefs about the value of being close with other human beings of any gender.
Also, for entirely mercenary reasons, having close female friends also gives you ready access to the personal perspectives/experiences of women, which is never a bad thing – a lot of the myths about ‘what women are like’ don’t really survive a close encounter with a female friend or two. Even more calculatingly, having women in your life who are close/comfortable enough to you to tell you when you’re fucking up makes it way more likely that you’ll become the kind of person you need to be to attract a romantic partner. Especially if you want to attract someone similar to them. Those aren’t the reasons for men to befriend women, but they can certainly be bonus features. Of course, such ‘bonuses’ require you to be genuinely close to your friend, not just hanging them around in the hope of gaining something.
As someone who absolutely used to believe in and complain about the Friend Zone, it took a lot of listening and self-examination to accept that it was entirely possible that not only was there nothing wrong with me, but that there was nothing wrong with her either (whoever ‘she’ happened to be at the time). People do things for reasons. Sometimes those reasons are malicious and exploitative and cruel. But at least as often (and I’d say far more often), they’re entirely reasonable and defensible. Part of this problem, to be sure, is that we have adopted a completely bizarre model of relationships that denies both men and women full agency – men as mindless sexual automatons, women as miserly guardians of sexual activity. A more mature understanding of relationships as two people who find ways to enhance each other’s lives allows for the possibility that people could have meaningful interaction that may or may not include sexual intimacy.
In other words, if we drop the misogynistic scaffolding that props up the “Zone”, we might just see it collapse to leave just the “Friend” part.