Avoiding The Friend Zone

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This week marks the one year anniversary of Paging Dr. NerdLove, which I’m finding absolutely astounding. And I can only say “thank you” to everybody who’s been with me so far and who’s just joined me. I can’t do it without you all.

Since it is the first anniversary of the blog, I thought that it might be a good time to devote a week to one of the topics I get the most requests to return to: the Friend Zone.

Now, as I’ve said before, The Friend Zone is a myth. As much as people like to make a fuss out of it and how horrible the Friend Zone is, the hard and fast truth is that ultimately it comes down to the fact that the person you’re interested in just doesn’t want to sleep with you.

And to be perfectly frank, 99.9999% of the time, that’s your fault. Women don’t put you in the Friend Zone. You put yourself in the Friend Zone.

Getting the Let’s Just Be Friends speech means that ultimately, you fucked up somewhere along the line. You don’t want to be relegated to the Friend Zone? You need to know how people get stuck in there in the first place… and how to avoid it.

Exile in the Friend Zone

Before we get started: yes, this is a topic I’ve covered before – but it’s one that, in my experience deserves to be refined and expanded upon. If you’ve been keeping up with the basics, but you’re still finding yourself stuck in the Friend Zone, then you need to take some time to reflect on how you ended up there; after all, there are many paths that lead to the friend zone… and different zones entirely.

Yup. There is, in fact, more than one Friend Zone.

…. but they all feel a lot like this!

Surprised?

Stick with me here.

The Different Friend Zones

Friend Zone v. 1: Let’s Just Be Friends

This version of the Friend Zone is, frankly, born out of generations of socialization that teaches women to always be concerned about a man’s feelings and take care to not cause offense. It can be difficult for women to tell a guy directly that she just isn’t interested in him romantically or sexually, especially to his face , when you don’t want to hurt his feelings. Giving him the Let’s Just Be Friends speech (LJBF) is a – theoretically – gentler way of saying”look, I don’t want to date you/sleep with you”.

An artist’s interpretation of the state of one’s ego following the LJBF speech.

Sometimes this happens because the recipient pushed too hard, too fast and ended up ruining the chance of a sexual attraction building naturally. Sometimes, this is intended as a brush-off – the one giving the LJBF speech is hoping that the person on the recieving end will take the hint and leave. Other times, they are being entirely honest: they really would prefer to be friends. They may think that sex ruins friendships or they may be interested in somebody else. The reasons may differ but the end result is the same: you’re not going to progress beyond “friend”. If that.

Friend Zone v.2 : The Big Lie From a Nice Guy

The second form of the Friend Zone involves being in a relationship under false pretenses. This is, surprisingly enough, the most common form; it’s the end result of the Platonic Friend Backdoor Gambit, wherein a person – almost always a man – pretends to only be interested in a platonic friendship with the hope that he can weasel his way into her heart and/or panties, given enough time. It’s the move by men who ultimately fear rejection and would rather submit themselves to the Friend Zone than risk losing the fantasy. This is fundementally dishonest and a complete dick move; the pretender is trading on somebody’s willingness to believe him when he insists that he doesn’t have ulterior motives in trying to be friends with her. Ironically, the men who find themselves in this form of the Friend Zone have the hardest time recognizing the harm they’re doing – both to themselves and to the women that they claim to care about.

Friend Zone v.3: The Mistaken Intentions

This form of the Friend Zone is similar to the Big Lie in that it is often the result of being too shy or afraid of rejection to come out and specifically state one’s intentions. However, while the Big Lie entails active deception on the part of the person who finds themselves stuck in the Friend Zone, The Mistaken Intentions is the result of someone making an approach, but not making it very clear from the jump that he or she was interested in a date, not just hanging out as friends… and as a result, ending up being considered as a friend rather than a potential romantic partner. Interestingly, this is one of the most common forms of the Friend Zone for women to find themselves stuck in – also known as The Bro-Zone.

Friend Zone v.4: The Genuine Friend

This form of the Friend Zone tends to arrive out of nowhere – it entails becoming attracted to somebody that you were already genuinely friends with. Sometimes it’s a matter of realizing that your childhood friend is actually shockingly hot. Sometimes it’s a case of a crush striking out of the clear blue sky and making things complicated. Occasionally it’s a matter of bringing feelings that have been simmering undetected to the surface and unable to be ignored.

This form of the Friend Zone can be one of the most pernicious and hardest to avoid as it often seems to come on suddenly and out of nowhere. It is also one of the hardest to escape from; since these tend to occur in friendships of long-standing, it can be difficult to reframe the situation.

Be Clear From The Beginning

If you are interested in somebody, regardless as to whether you’re interested in them sexually or as a potential romantic partner, you need to be absolutely clear about your intentions. You can’t simply assume that your desires are so obvious that they can’t possibly be mistaken; I can’t keep track of the number of letters and comments I’ve received from people who couldn’t understand why the person they liked had no idea they exist despite giving what they thought were unmistakable indicators of interest. Unfortunately, one person’s “glaringly obvious” is another person’s “insanely subtle” and prone to misinterpretation. In fact, you will find that some people – nerds, especially – are prone to picking up on indicators of interest and actually rationalizing them away because they don’t believe that somebody could possibly be showing any sort of interest in them.

“My self-identity is too caught up in my being the tragic hero to recognize that women might be flirting with me.”

If you want to avoid any potential confusion, you have to be blatant. If you are asking somebody out, you need to make it perfectly clear that you are asking them out on a date. Not to “go hang out some time”. Not to “grab dinner, if y’know, you don’t have any plans”. Not “get coffee some time” or study together. You need to actually use the word “date” – anything less and your outing is subject to interpretation; you may think that you’re going on a date but she may think that you’re just hanging out because you enjoy each other’s company.

One issue that comes up, especially in the world of online dating, is that some people will want to be friends first; in fact, you’ll find many people – mostly women – will have “I want to make friends, if something more happens, then great!” in their dating profile. More often than not, this is an indicator that they want to take things slowly -all well and good. As I said, I do believe that strong relationships can and do bloom from friendships. However, you still have to be clear: you are communicating with this person because you are interested in this becoming something more than just platonic friendship. To do otherwise is not only dishonest but also runs the risk of causing them to misinterpret your interest. You also run the risk of losing out to somebody who is willing to make the connection happen rather than hoping that it just occurs naturally and without any input on your end of things. If you aren’t willing to take the initiative from the very beginning, you risk having any emotional potential grow stagnant.

Know The Difference Between Friends And Lovers

Most instances of The Friend Zone can easily be avoided, but it requires a willingness to take risks. Getting stuck in The Friend Zone is almost always the result of playing things too safe; it’s the end result of being too passive and too unwilling to put yourself out there in such a way that you couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted.

In short: you acted too much like a friend and not enough like a lover.

It’s an easy trap to fall into; many nerds assume that the best way into a woman’s heart is to be a nice guy and act like her new BFF. They make a point of being available at all hours, they want to talk every day about everything and nothing, they want to hang out all the time. This is friend behavior; the same behavior, when mapped onto a potential suitor1, would scream needy and no life whatsoever. Not only is this unattractive behavior in a potential lover, it’s misleading and will inevitably cause a misunderstanding of intent. When your behavior is incongruous with your intentions, it’s very easy to round down to friend rather than up to lover.

If you’re interested in wooing somebody, you need to be willing to be unavailable at times. This means not leaping to the phone as soon as you see your crush’s number flash on the caller ID screen; you can text her or call her back later. It means not dropping all your plans just because they called you up and suggested getting together – tell her that you can’t make it today but (and this is critical) you are free this other day and you would love to see her then. Keep in mind however: this does not mean playing games out of “The Rules” – you’re not making shit up just to keep the supposed “upper hand” in the relationship by being artificially unavailable, you’re just establishing that you have your own life and you’re busy living it.

By the way, don’t get me wrong: this is not to say that you can’t be friends with someone you’re attracted to or want to have more than just friendship with. Friendship and attraction are not antithetical binary states where you can only be a friend or interested in somebody with nothing between them. However, there are decided differences in behavior when you’re offering someone a platonic friendship and when you’re letting them know that you are interested to them as being more than friends. Part of avoiding the Friend Zone means knowing the difference and, critically, making sure that you’re not sending out the wrong signals.

 Break The Touch Barrier

One of the ways that we signal our intent is with touch. Touch is an incredibly important part of how humans communicate with one another, and it’s one that we frequently cut ourselves off from. A lot of people are hesitant to touch the person they’re interested in, whether it’s for fear of repulsing them or because they’re afraid of the potential intimacy. Still others will avoid doing any casual touching for fear of actually signaling that they’re interested – even when they are wishing that the one they like would touch them, taking the responsibility for the action off of their shoulders.

The fact of the matter is, you need to be able to touch the person you like  if they’re not comfortable with your touch, they are definitely not going to be comfortable with hugging you, kissing you, or having sex with you. So you need to learn to be comfortable with touching and using that touch to signal that you like them as more than friends.

This means that you need to be willing to make bigger moves, both playful ones and moves with greater implied intimacy, not just little, timid gestures. You can’t just be touching somebody on the arm and assume that you’ve clued them into how you feel. You need to be willing to put your arm around them.You need to be able to give them a side hug when they make a joke and push them away like they were your bratty sibling. You need to take their hand when you’re walking together and give a hip-check them for a playful greeting. You need to be able to touch with implied intimacy in subtle ways as well; think of the times when your thigh brushes up against hers while you sit together on the couch, or your feet touch under the table as you talk.

Touch is also a good way to guage her level of interest as well; if you put your arm around her, does she put hers back around you? If you take her hand and walk with her through the bar to get drinks, does she squeeze your hand? If you hug, do you get the full body hug or the a-frame?

Call it a hunch, but I think she digs him.

When you’re touching, by the way, you need to also know when to break the touch as well. If you put your arm around her, for example, and you feel her muscles tense – even if she’s otherwise showing that she’s having a good time – then you don’t want to leave it and risk making her uncomfortable. You also don’t want to yank your arm back like you burned it; hold it for a second then pull back instead. Being in control of who breaks the touch – by being able to read her response and avoid discomfort – will help build the intimacy that you both want.

Be Willing To Be Sexual

There are some readers who will be uncomfortable with this in concept. In fact, I fully expect that there will be many comments about how injecting a little sexuality into the interaction would repulse them instantly and cause them to never talk to anyone who would do this ever again. And to you all I say: I understand where you’re coming from, but I think you may be misunderstanding things.

Straight talk: every relationship, no matter how fairy-tale romantic it may be, has a core of sexual attraction. Even if you are someone who prefers to take their time to build up trust and emotional intimacy before escalating on a physical level, you have to acknowledge that any relationship that is going to move beyond platonic friendship is going to have sexual interest. Trying to pretend otherwise is, frankly, either naive or dishonest.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the fact that yes, you are attracted to somebody. If that person isn’t comfortable with the fact that you are sexually interested in them, then you simply aren’t going to be able to progress in your relationship.

So, yes, you are going to want to build some sexual tension into your flirting.

Now keep in mind: this isn’t something to bust out when meeting someone for the first time, nor is it first date material2. There does need to be a level of comfort and existing intimacy before you begin ramping things up and that can vary from couple to couple. But it is a critical part of dating, especially if you’re looking to avoid getting classified as a platonic friend.

The best way to do this without being offensive is through humor. Teasing and joking – getting her to laugh – is a great way to inject some sexual tension into the interaction. You can do this with some creative misinterpretation – deliberately interpreting something she said as innuendo and responding – for example. You can tease her about your attraction to her: “I’m sorry, I was too busy thinking about your lips. You were saying?”  You can also jokingly reframe the situation and insist that she is trying to seduce you: “Look, I appreciate this but I’m not going to give it up right away. I need intimacy and comfort.” “I’m fine with you buying me dinner but I’m just not going to sleep with you tonight, ok?” “Quit looking at me like that. You’re giving me ideas and they’re totally inappropriate right now.”

You want it light, friendly and funny; if you push too hard, you only end up creeping her out instead.

Fortunately, as geeks, we have a sterling example of how to nudge the line towards the sexual without pushing past the point of acceptability:

What Would Peter Venkman Do?

Bill Murray plays Peter Venkman as a charming flirt, especially where Dana Barrett is concerned. She may get a little exasperated with him. She may even find him a little annoying at times. But the fact of the matter is, even when he pushes the envelope, she still can’t deny that he makes her laugh.

 

…But Not Too Sexual

Now having said that, there’s a careful balance to be maintained. While humor and teasing is a good way to keep some sexual tension going in the interaction, there’s a difference between tension and pressure. In fact, if you put someone into the position where they feel as though they have to decide whether or not sex is going to be a part of the relationship at that moment, the odds are extremely high that they’ll immediately default to “no”, cutting off any future possibility of being more than friends.

Not sure how to tell the difference?

Imagine if you will, someone that you’ve been hanging out with over the last couple weeks. There’s undeniable chemistry. You’ve been doing everything right: there is no question that you have been going on dates. There’s been ample amount of touching. You’ve been flirting, but you haven’t quite mastered that sexual edge.

Now imagine if you were to say “I want to fuck you so badly.” This is going to shut things down, hard. Beyond the fact that this is incredibly crass, you have essentially asked her to decide – right at that moment – whether or not the two of you are going to have sex. When you put pressure on someone to decide right then and there to sleep with you, most people will instinctively respond with “no”. Nobody appreciates being put on the spot like that and being made to feel as though you are pushing them to say “yes” before they’re ready.

On the other hand, if you were to say “If there weren’t people around, I would so totally be making a move right now”, you’ve put things in the theoretical. You’re firmly3 establishing that, yes, you want to sleep with her, but by putting things in the conditional, you take away the pressure to decide one way or the other. It allows for the fantasy of sex without making her feel as though that she needs to decide whether she’s ready to make that next step.

Keeping things in the realm of the *possible*, whether it’s by using the future tense or by making phrasing it as a conditional (i.e. it’s impossible right now but if it weren’t, then GODDAMN) you allow for wiggle room; she knows what you want, but you’re willing to give her the space to decide on her own terms.

Be Willing To Walk Away

One hard and fast truth: sometimes things just aren’t going to work out. The chemistry just may not be there, she may have met someone who she clicks with in ways you don’t… ultimately, the reasons don’t matter. The one surefire way to avoid the friend zone is to be willing to accept that things aren’t going to happen the way you hoped and to be willing to walk away and start looking elsewhere. Staying with the hope that they will come around is ultimately a matter of pretending to be somebody’s friend under false pretenses, and it’s a shitty thing to do to somebody. Staying as their friend in the hopes that your attraction will go away… well, that’s a very good way to make yourself miserable.

Is it possible to be a true friend to someone you have feelings for?

Sometimes.

You see, I stuck myself in the friend zone more times than I can count back in the bad old days. When I started to make my progress towards being better with women I began to learn that I could maintain a friendship – a genuine friendship – with someone I was attracted to… but only by moving on. That often meant that I had to go away for a while and – critically – get involved with other people. I’m an advocate that sometimes the best way of getting over somebody involves getting under somebody else, and these were no exceptions. Once I had learned to accept that other people found me attractive and that there were other people in the world that I was attracted to, it made it easier to repair the bridges and keep that friendship alive. I was usually still attracted to them – and I would own up to it. But I could also accept, appreciate and enjoy our friendship for what it was without trying to make it anything more.

If you want to try to maintain a real friendship with someone – someone you’ve put yourself into the Friend Zone over – you need to be willing to put them aside for a while and cut yourself off from them. No email. No texts. No Facebook. Nothing. Go and date other people. Learn that you can and will love (or lust) again with others.

If you’re truly friends… well, you’ll still be friends when you come back later.

  1. rather than someone who is already her boyfriend []
  2. especially since if the two of you end up sleeping together on the first dates, odds are pretty good you don’t need to worry about finding yourself in the Friend Zone []
  3. fnar []

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