The Battle of the Friend Zone

Read a nice satire today on the “Friend Zone” complaint that has become so popular in recent years. This piece made me laugh, because it is a fair turn-about of the standard whining from guys who genuinely do believe that women are Sex Dispensers who are obligated to “put out” if you plug in the right combination of “emotion coins”.

The piece made me laugh, but it made me think as well. As many of my readers have pointed out, a great many of my stories touch on the subject of unrequited love. One of my most recent stories actually featured a protagonist who had been living in the Friend Zone with a woman he loved for many years. I think it’s fair to say that I have a little more sympathy than most for ANY human being–male or female–who finds themselves struggling with inappropriate or unrequited sexual/romantic desires.

I have been on both the giving and receiving end of the Friend Zone issue in my personal life. I’ve had a few men that I truly and genuinely liked, and felt a real connection with, who retreated suddenly from a budding friendship with me without warning over the years. In all cases, they were happily married. What happened was that our growing friendship had caused a sudden spark of attraction which made them uncomfortable. They were good men and didn’t want to deliberately hang around with someone who made them feel weird, or guilty, or tempted in any way to hurt or betray their partners.

My response to this is….fair enough. These men weren’t in open relationships. They acted to protect themselves and their monogamous partners from a potential threat to their happiness and security. And while I was a little confused and hurt at the time, when I didn’t know why my new friend didn’t want to talk to me, I did respect the decision once I understood it.

I have also had at least a couple of situations where my developing romantic interest in a friend was not returned in kind. How well I was able to cope with the situation, and whether the friendship survived the bounce, depended greatly on how secure I was feeling in my life at the time. And quite honestly, the ongoing friendship also depended to some degree on the grace and tact of the person who rebuffed my interest.

“Friendship” is ultimately a relationship of mutual caring. At the end of the day, a real friendship IS love of a sort. When a friend was able to make me feel loved and valued despite the rejection, when he empathized, and was as sympathetic to my feelings when I was shot down by HIM as he would have been if I had been shot down by some other guy?

Then we were fine, and I got over it pretty easily. I even had to tell one dear friend to stop apologizing, because it was starting to verge on gloating. I had let it go, and so should he.  And I went very smoothly to being “one of the guys” in his life from then on…and we were fine.

The Friend Zone is also sometimes the place where we want to put our former partners out to pasture after the romantic and sexual parts of a relationship are over. And again…it’s easy to see how this is a desirable thing, since a lot of times you wouldn’t have had any romantic feelings for someone if they weren’t already a good friend. Successful transition to friendship is something I have achieved a few times, when a relationship has been re-negotiated to be non-sexual.

There have been at least two relationships in my life, however, where a former lover caused me enough pain and confusion during a break-up that I was unable to be friends with them afterward. I had to retreat far out of the range of intimacy, whether this person wanted to keep me in the “Friend Zone” or not. And honestly, in both cases the process of letting go was too messy because my former partner was trying to keep me much too close–at least in part because the romantic and sexual feelings were not entirely dead on either side.

The other major issue in both cases was that my former partner had a new partner or partners that I had to try and cope with, during a period when I was still in pain and needed to mourn the loss of the relationship without taking any more damage. In cases like this, it was just not reasonable to expect me to want box seats and a Season Pass to witness my old love’s new intimacies.

I was better off retreating from the connection entirely, including the friendship I once treasured, rather than stay in the Friend Zone. Because getting dumped sucks, but the one thing that makes getting dumped worse is having your self-esteem annihilated by sticking around for emotionally abusive crap afterward. Sometimes it’s better and more sane for all concerned if you just…move out of the neighborhood.

Upshot of all this? This Friend Zone stuff is funny…it is also kinda not. The “Friend Zone” issue is actually much more ambiguous than a lot of my fellow feminists seem to admit, and at times I think the dismissive treatment of the emotions involved actually verges on “female entitlement”. Patriarchy is a two-edged sword, and the edge that cuts the men in our society the deepest is always the invalidation of their feelings…the denial of their vulnerability and need for intimacy.

I think both men and women are pretty uncomfortable with the Friend Zone. The misfiring of human desire makes us all uneasy, and sad, and defensive. And when any two people, regardless of gender, find themselves on two such different pages? Both of them will believe that THEIR page is the right one. They may even treat the other person unkindly while defending the rightness of their page.

My  personal opinion is that the modern “Friend Zone” controversy has become a “Dueling Banjos” performance of entitlement.

Look at it objectively: notice that both parties in the conflict feel entitled to intimacy, love, and pleasure–which is to be delivered completely on their own terms.

Notice how both parties feel entitled to dictate how others “should” feel, and what pain and vulnerability is valid.

Notice how both parties want to control where the boundaries of the relationship are set, regardless of the other person’s needs, wants or happiness.

Maybe the issue here is that neither party cares enough about the other person’s feelings to qualify for any kind of intimacy. Maybe the Friend Zone is to human relationships what the “Free Speech Zone” is to a G8 Summit–a barbed wire enclosure designed to keep people from interfering with your agenda. Maybe the Friend Zone really is a “Discomfort Zone” or an “Ongoing Agony Zone” that both parties are trapped in, because they both feel entitled to use others to fulfill their emotional needs…regardless of whether the other person’s needs are met, and regardless of whether they are in pain.

Maybe no one has the right to insist that another human being live in pain, or that another human being dispense intimacy on command…regardless of gender.

Maybe Friends don’t make Friends live in a Friend Zone.

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About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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