A philosophical perspective on Friend zone

One of the major dating myths around these days is the concept of the friend zone. The myth isn’t that it doesn’t exist – but that it’s imposed on you. That is completely wrong and holding this belief will set you back tremendously in your search for viable romantic partners.

Let’s discuss what we mean by this term. To almost everyone familiar with the term, the concept of the friend zone refers to being in a situation where one person desires to be “more” than a friend with another person who is unwilling to reciprocate. One person is happy with a friendly, platonic relationship; the other wants sexual intimacy. This, however, is described better by the expression “unrequited love:” being in love, or being infatuated, with someone who doesn’t return it. There are probably dozens of people to which each of us are attracted that do not return it: classmates, coworkers, friends of friends, workers in places you visit – but we wouldn’t suggest that we are in dozens of different friend zones.

Being in the friend zone is a little different because it carries extra connotations. One of these connotations is that the one “in” the friend zone is engaging in some covert method or strategy to advance the relationship to the romantic level he wants. It’s not simply that there is a disconnect in what each party desires, but that the one who desires more is actively trying to engineer a change in that disconnect, to “get” his target to return his affection, to raise his target’s interest level to match his/her own.

People, usually men, who are in this unrequited situation want to have their desires reciprocated. And who doesn’t? If one could wish, at the blink of an eye, to have each person they find sexually desirable find them sexually desirable, who wouldn’t jump at the chance? But simply having the wish isn’t enough. The one “in the friend zone” has the wish, but also has the motivation to manifest it – to make it true. This entails effort, struggle, stress. In an attempt to raise the target’s interest to the sexual domain, the desiring person engages in all sorts of methods to produce this. Many of you probably have your own ideas about strategies: becoming distant/playing hard to get, being a sarcastic jerk, being overly magnanimous, being overly complimentary, caretaking/going out of one’s way to be helpful (helping him/her study for a test, get a job, find a roommate, etc.), becoming more physically attractive for them, becoming very emotionally available to them, being “nice.” I’m sure there are more.

Because there is effort involved, it implies that you are acting differently than your normal self. Your normal self, after all, is the one that he/she does not desire sexually. So, there begins a sort of acting career, where the desiring person starts to adopt different patterns of behavior in accordance with some theory about how that changed behavior will translate into a different perception on the part of the one that is desired. If she doesn’t like me for me, then I’ll be someone else. Because one is willing to engage in effort, in struggle, in stress to achieve the state of being sexually desired, the desiring person becomes outcome-dependent. Their whole relationship with the desirable person becomes structured on this type of engagement; they are committed to achieving this goal. The friendship becomes goal-oriented, they approach each interaction as a chance to impress and to score higher “interest points” with the other person (by the same token, meetings with the desirable person that entail you looking silly or foolish or weak are interpreted as “setbacks”).

However, the very idea of a goal-oriented friendship is a contradiction. Friendship is not a means to something; it is an end in itself. You are close with your friends because you enjoy their company as it is, not because you expect something out of it. If you do want something out of it, then you are not friends, you are acquaintances and you are tolerating their presence for the sake of some prize. Certainly, some friends are better friends than others. Not many of us have friends with whom we would enjoy spending 10+ hours in a row. If I have a friend, let us say, who is in my “outer circles” (as opposed to best friends in my inner circle), and I discover that he is a millionaire – I may have a desire to “improve” our friendship so that he will grace me with his generosity or luxury. But in this case (unless there were unknown friendship-generating connections that were discovered), my evolving connection with him will not be as true friends, but as pseudo-friends. We are close friends only to the extent that he gives me what I want, and if he doesn’t, he returns to the outer circles where he belongs.

This is not dissimilar with being in a friend zone. I am friends with a woman, for instance, and I desire more. Not only do I desire more, but I am willing to advance the status of our friendship closer and closer (I will put her in a place she doesn’t belong), so that she may feel comfortable enough/feel I am attractive enough to offer a sexual connection: the prize. If she doesn’t offer this, either because the increased level of friendship doesn’t translate into romance or she sees through the covert strategy at play, then I am frustrated and disappointed. I went through all this effort, all this time spent getting close and flirty and “trying to be what she wanted” – all for naught. She either misunderstands what I am doing, and truly believes we are as close friends as I have intimated and will get a broken heart from being lied to (because what I really wanted was sex, not her friendship), or she will resent me for trying to wangle a romance out of her through dishonest means. I’m hurt, and she’s hurt.

Why am I hurt? Because I have established a goal with this person, and I expended effort in trying to attain this goal, and – here’s the critical part – I expected I would be successful, and I failed. I set myself up for failure by buying into the notion that I can actively do something about her level of attraction to me, and I approached a friendship, which is process-oriented, as something goal-oriented. I wasn’t willing to honor the process of establishing a genuine connection, which is a process of two people enjoying each other’s naturally effortless company.

Think of your best friends, the one’s you’ve known for years. How much do you have to “act” around them? How much of yourself do you have to hide? What parts of you are you ashamed to let them see? The deeper the friendship you have, the less these will exist. With very close friends, I have no desire to impress them, to excite them; I have no desire to be anything other than exactly what I am. Because being “exactly who you are” is the easiest, most natural state in which to be, the relationships that form on that basis will be the most fun and easiest to maintain. Compare this with how you have to act at work or school, and sometimes how relationships with peers or bosses can be strained. You have to “get along,” to tolerate them, and they you, and this is accomplished by adopting a sort of fake, but easygoing personality.

When it comes to friends, however, adopting a fake personality is simply a key to frustration and fake friendships. By treating people you find sexually desirable in this fake, contrived way, you are literally sabotaging your opportunity to develop the genuine friendship you need to happily be with them. You are wearing a mask that stifles your breath. By engaging in these contrived strategies mentioned above, you are perpetuating your own distance from the ones you desire. Your very attempts separate you.

This is the myth of the friend zone: it is not imposed upon you, by heartless female friends who want to keep you at arms distance, but by you yourself. You put yourself in the friend zone, because you are preventing yourself from developing the genuine connection you need that produces feelings of attraction and comfort. By striving for it you miss it completely. This is the long-winded explanation of why people say “be yourself.” It’s not that “you yourself” will attract everyone or anyone you want, but if you’re not yourself, you won’t attract anyone, because the very nature of struggling for a prize from friends defeats itself.

Therefore, complain no longer about being “in” the friend zone and scheme no longer about “escaping” the friend zone. You do it completely to yourself. Instead, if you find yourself in an unrequited love situation, simply accept that as the case and cease trying to control and change it. If you are yourself, things may change for the better; if you are not yourself, they will not. Being in the friend zone is completely up to you; it is not a prison to which you are taken against your will. This is not to say there aren’t ways that you can become more attractive to your friends and peers, but it must come from a place other than trying to score with a particular person. Get over your own resentment about not being desired by a person, enjoy the friendship they are giving you, work on becoming more physically and emotionally attractive, and pursue the avenues that open to you during this process. Your friend may be one of those avenues; they may not – but you cannot approach this process from the goal-oriented, outcome-dependent mindset. Romance and chemistry is not a meritocracy; you can’t ever “earn” it. You can only create the most genuine friendships you can and engage with those who also want more from it.

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