Normally, on Fridays I like to answer readers’ dating questions. However, occasionally I’ll receive a question that merits a full article, something that has wider interest than the specific circumstances of the question. This week, we have just such a question.
And it involves The Friend Zone1
We’ve talked about avoiding the Friend Zone in the first place by behaving like a potential lover, rather than a friend. We’ve even talked about how to try to reframe a purely platonic relationship into a potentially sexual one. But one of the things we haven‘t discussed are the mechanics of actually making that leap. What do you do when you’ve finally screwed up the courage to tell your special someone how you feel? How do you even bring it up? How do you handle the potential fallout?
It’s a tricky maneuver, and one that carries serious risks to your relationship as it currently stands. But without risk, there is no reward.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Look Before You Leap
Now before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s look at the question that led to the post:
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I have a crush on my best friend. It kinda started when we started chatting after our college orientation and we found out we have a lot in common. She caught my eye right away. We are both into nerdy stuff and we are always there for each other when one of us is in a situation. She’s cute, funny, and very down to earth. Though we do get along very well, I don’t know if she’s interested or not, and I’m afraid to ask. I rarely get nervous, but whenever I tell myself that today’s the day I tell her, I just end up chickening out at the last minute. Please give me some tips.
Thanks in advance,
Girl in Love
This is one of the most common ways that we end up dealing the complicated nature of trying to navigate the Friend Zone. You meet somebody who is simply awesome, but you don’t make a move at first. Perhaps you started off as friends and realized over time that your feelings have changed. Or perhaps you weren’t sure whether you could make a move; in GiL’s case, being cautious and taking a more roundabout route isn’t necessarily a bad idea. One of the unfortunate truths is that for many gay, bisexual and trans men and women, simply asking somebody out means taking a literal risk. Even in the more gay-friendly, cosmopolitan big cities, there are folks who do not react well to being approached by somebody of the same sex or who’s genderqueer or otherwise nonconforming.
(This would be my number one concern for you, GiL. You don’t mention whether you’re out in general or out to your friend in particular, but if she doesn’t know, this could come like a bolt out of the blue to her. You know her better than I do, so hopefully you’ve got a grasp on how she’d handle being approached by another woman. If not… well, I’d say approach with caution.)
But regardless of the circumstances, the fact of the matter is: you’re in a platonic relationship that you would like to turn into a romantic or sexual one. Before you make that leap, however, you should take some time to do some investigating first.
The most important part of transitioning out of The Friend Zone is attraction. You already have emotional chemistry; you’re friends after all. However, if there’s no attraction there at all, then there’s no point in asking in the first place; the answer will just be a “no”. So you need to examine how your potential honey behaves around you. Does she show signs of physical interest? Does she make little preening gestures when she sees you? Is she more physical with you than she is with her other friends? Do you catch her looking at your lips or doing the elevator stare? Does she orient her body towards you or make little invasions of your personal space with her belongings? If you get a little flirty, how does she respond? Does she play along, avoid the topic entirely or just shut you down cold?
As when you’re gauging the interest of a stranger, you want to look for clusters of signs – several indications of interest that occur around the same time or in rapid succession. Any one gesture could mean anything; looking for multiple signs helps sort the signal from the noise. You also have to keep in mind, the longer you’ve been friends, the more comfortable she will be with you; an intimate friendship can be touchy-feely and physically intimate in ways that can feel like signs of attraction. The longer your friendship, the more you need to discount the signs of interest. Similarly, keep in mind that you’re going to get confirmation bias; you’re hoping for a specific outcome, and so you’re going to want to see signs that you’ve got the green light.
Remember, you often have a better idea of your odds than you realize. If you’re continually trying to read meaning into the tone of her voice or the particular way she phrased things, then you already know how things are likely going to go. You just don’t like the answer.
Want Out of the Friend Zone? Put Yourself In Their Shoes
Let’s say that you’ve gotten enough of a feel for things that you’re ready to take the plunge. What next? Well, let’s game things out a little, shall we? You’re probably used to imagining how it would go and trying to picture the best case (or, more frequently, worst case) scenario.
However, instead of the usual fantasies you play out, we’re going to switch roles. You will be the person being asked out, rather than the one doing the asking. So I want you to imagine what it would be like if a close but utterly platonic friend told you that they (he or she, your choice) has a crush on you and wanted to go on a date with you. Ignore the impulse to just leap to “Well, I’d say yes!” and think honestly about how you would feel about being asked out by a friend. I suspect you would have questions. How long have they been feeling like this? Have they been holding this in the entire time, or did they catch the feels recently? Have they been just pretending to be your friend all this time? What’s going to happen if you say no? Are they going to get weird about it? Are you going to lose your friendship if you reject them? What if you do date and it doesn’t work out? Will you be able to stay friends afterwards, or will you become one of those ex-couples that can’t stand each other after a break up? Is that something you’re willing to risk?
Think about all of this carefully, because these are all the thoughts that are going to go through her mind when you tell her. This isn’t to dissuade you from asking, but it should affect if and how you’re going to do the asking. And one of the best things you can do to ease all of those worries is to get out in front of them.
When you tell her, you want to get the following things across:
- It’s totally ok for her to say no. It won’t be fun for you but you aren’t going to end your friendship on it and you’re not going to push the subject.
- You’re her friend and you’re into her because she’s an awesome person. You haven’t been hanging around under false pretenses.
- You can’t make any promises about the future, but you will work your ass off to make the friendship work even if the relationship doesn’t work out.
- She doesn’t have to answer right away and you won’t push her to decide before she’s ready.
That last one is especially important; odds are good that this could come like a giant space flea from nowhere and she may have to take a few minutes to hard reboot her brain. If you push for an answer right then and there, you’re more likely to get a reflexive “no,” regardless of how she may feel if she were given some time.
So how do you factor all of this in? Work from a template. Start with giving her permission in advance to reject you to help ease the potential awkwardness. Then lay it out: she’s a great friend and you are happy being friends with her. However, you’re also interested in her and want to date her (don’t use the l-word; it’s intimidating at best and can leave her feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable). Then establish that this doesn’t change anything, you’re tight and you’ll stay that way.
So using this as a base, you might say: “Hey, I want to tell you something and it’s totally cool to tell me no. You’re an awesome person and I really value our friendship, but I like you as more than a friend and I’d like to take you out on an actual date. If you don’t feel the same way, that’s completely fine: I’m happy being friends with you no matter whether we date or not and this doesn’t change anything. I won’t bring it up again unless you want to talk about it first. You don’t have to give me an answer now; I just wanted to put it out there.”
Then you give her space. You’ve just dropped something heavy on them; the last thing anyone wants is somebody getting all up in their face about giving an answer.
Regardless of whether you come across as an annoyingly enthusiastic puppy or someone who’s pressuring them for a “yes”, the more you bug them the less likely you are going to like the answer. Giving her space isn’t going to ensure that you get a “yes”, but pestering her is going to all but ensure a no.
Pick Your Moment And Make Your Move
Once you’ve decided that you’re going to take the plunge, then you need to make your move. While I understand wanting to wait until you’re 100% sure, or wanting to pick the perfect moment, the longer you wait, the less of a chance you have. He who hesitates is lost, and usually ends up having to watch their crush go off with someone who didn’t hesitate.
The thing to realize is that there are no moments but the ones you make. If you want to ask her out, you have to make the moment happen. It doesn’t need to be elaborate; in fact, making a production out of things is more likely to make her uncomfortable and put on the spot. Instead, it’s better to simply find time to hang out together and make an opportunity to say “I want to talk to you about something. Nothing bad, I promise.” If at all possible, try to do this at an emotional high-point: you’ve had a great day together and you’re both enjoying each other’s company. Keep it low-key and matter of fact; heartfelt, emotional declarations in the rain make for great drama in movies but in real life, it’s stressful and off-putting.
However, there’s one moment you need to avoid: when she’s just broken up with someone. Look, I get it: you’ve been waiting for her to ditch the loser and you don’t want to wait a minute longer. But trust me: nobody appreciates someone who sees her having ended a relationship as their window of opportunity.
It’s a giant screaming indicator that you’re only thinking of yourself and couldn’t care less about her feelings. I have seen this play out over and over again and it never works. Trying to position yourself as the rebound is a dick move and not only will you not be getting out of the Friend Zone any time soon but the odds are good that you’re not going to have a friend afterwards.
Remember: Friendship is Not The Consolation Prize
With luck, everything went wonderfully; she said “yes” and you had that amazing kiss that set off cartoon fireworks in the background. But there’s still the chance that you will be turned down. So let’s take a moment to talk about that possibility. You’ve been turned down. Now what?
Well, frankly, life goes on, and how you handle things is going to determine where your relationship goes from here. Remember what I said earlier about reassuring her that you’re happy to be friends even if she doesn’t feel the same way about you? Now’s the time to prove it. One of the problems with the concept of The Friend Zone is the idea that friendship is somehow a secondary relationship, the consolation prize you get for not being “good enough” for a relationship. Treating somebody’s offer of friendship like it’s a punishment or somehow not as valuable as a sexual or romantic relationship is a horrible thing to do to somebody you profess to care about.
Now to be fair: if you do get turned down, it’s going to sting. You’re probably going to need time to recover and that’s fine. Just be up front about that. Tell her “OK, cool. I’m going to need a little time to sort myself out, so I may have to be distant for a little while. We’re totally cool and I will be back.”
However, if you start using distance or your being upset at being rejected as a weapon? Then all you’re doing is proving that a) you’re an asshole and b) you’re not – and likely have never been – her friend.
The thing to keep in mind is that just because someone turned you down, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care for you. They may well want to date you but know themselves well enough to know it wouldn’t work, or the fear of risking the relationship is more than they could take. Sometimes it’s literally nobody’s fault; everything that says you would work could be there but circumstances outside of anyone’s control means that you just can’t synch up enough to make the connection. Just because somebody doesn’t love you the way you want, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you the best that they can. It feels like cold comfort, I know, but keeping that in mind does make things easier.
It’s scary. Rejection sucks, and approaching a friend means that the odds in your favor aren’t great. But even when things don’t work out, there is a satisfaction to be found in getting an answer instead of always wondering and wishing you had taken that chance.
But some risks are worth taking. It’s up to you to decide whether this is one of them.
- Standard disclaimer: there is no friend-zone, there are just people who want to date or sleep with you and people who don’t. The terminology is used here merely as a term of convenience. [↩]