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An Appeal to End “The Friend Zone” as We Know It

September  8th,  2020
Alex Ross
By Alex Ross read
Posted in Culture

One time, a guy friend of mine was lamenting to me about being put in the “friendzone”, and it was really hard to hear his complaint knowing the honest intentions of the women on the other side. Contrary to my personality, I went on a big rant on why his use of the word “friendzone” was a problem… how the assumptions around the term devalued friendship and cultivating a mindset of getting rather than giving. I stopped in my tracks when I realized what I was doing, unsure of how he would react. To my surprise he said, “Wow, thank you… I needed that reality check.”

My hope today is that maybe I can provide that reality check for the whole internet.

So… the “friendzone”. I’m sure you have heard of it. It is the metaphorical place in which a man or woman apparently occupies when their romantic interest in a friend is not reciprocated. While the term might seem innocent enough, I have many gripes. Why? Because the conversations using this term tend to lack an understanding of the radically important mindsets below.

1. Friendship is an incredible HONOR and GIFT – not a consolation prize!

We live in a society that devalues the essential role of friendship in the human experience. I believe that the term “friendzone” is a symptom of that. Can you think of many movies where a man and woman share a meaningful friendship that doesn’t become sexualized at some point? I had to think hard. But in a world that tends to reduce friendship to simply being a stepping stone to “something more”, let’s recognize that friendship is something great within itself.

What is friendship? Every single human person is a gift, and in friendship, two persons get to more intentionally share and receive the gift of one another. Friendship is an enriching companionship. We get to journey with another eternal soul and be let into their life just a little deeper. We are committed towards one another’s truest good, and share a common goal towards something bigger than ourselves. In fact, friendship is a school of love. In friendships, we learn how to love without asking for anything in return and are challenged to become the people we are created to be. 

I’ve heard it argued that the fullness of friendship can’t exist between those of the opposite sex because of the possible presence of romantic or sexual desire (Eros). But in his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis disagrees. “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend,” he says. Oof. Bold words. Maybe, like me, it has taken you way too long to recognize that friendship is so much more than you once thought. That love is not regulated to romantic relationships, but in fact, a hallmark of all virtuous ones. But we can all agree that friendship is an immense gift. Let’s drop the “just” in “just friends” and embrace the gift that is friendship.

2. A friendship is not a “lesser” form of relationship than a romantic one.

The terminology of the word “friendzone” implies that friendship is some “zone” in which someone is punished, banished, or regulated to, rather than a beautiful, substantive love. Yes, if romantic feelings arise in a friendship with someone of the opposite sex, it may make sense to pursue that person romantically. It’s beautiful to have a foundation of friendship going into dating, because a deeper friendship is exactly what dating is meant to cultivate. However, feelings are not always reciprocated, and I understand that this can be a very painful experience. But if a romantic relationship cannot happen because of unreciprocated feelings, that doesn’t mean you are being shorted. Friendships are always worth cherishing. 

There is a suggestion around the word “friendzone” that being a friend is a second-rate relationship. But here’s the thing. Romantic love is not an objectively better or higher type of love than the love within friendships. Romance and friendship differ in type- not rank. They are different, equally substantive realities. Yes, there are distinctions between them, but there is no hierarchy. They refer to how your love and sacrifice for one another is lived out in the world and expressed. While only romantic relationships are oriented towards marriage, both types of relationship are oriented towards love, growth, and Heaven. And Heaven is the ultimate goal. 

3. We cannot earn someone’s romantic interest.

Yes, by virtue of your dignity, you deserve to be encountered with love and reverence by everyone you meet. However, romantic love is not something that we can deserve. In a world where many things can be earned through clear actions, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we can earn someone else’s heart or affection if we are extraordinarily nice or make certain sacrifices for them. I’ve heard people bitterly say things along the lines of, “I did this, this, and this, and I still can’t get a date out of them!” Hmm. Loving to get something out of someone is self seeking- and love is not self seeking. Love is meant to be a free gift, not a transactional exchange.

Love is the proper response to every human person, and acts of sacrifice are meant to spring from an overflow of that love. A mentality of entitlement can compromise the purity of the acts of love we extend, because authentic love is extended without expectations of anything in return. This is what makes sacrifice sacrificial. 

4. Befriending someone purely for the sake of a possible romantic relationship is not really loving them.

Let me shoot it straight. If you are being friends with someone more for the possibility or sake of being with them romantically in the future than for simply being with them now… then you are not truly loving them. Why? Because then you are pursuing a fantasy more than you are pursuing the person as they are in the reality of your current relationship. This results in completely missing the person in front of you whom you want to love. This is why, to love well, we must be honest about the intentions of our heart with both ourselves, and others.

I know that I am not the only person who has been hurt in the past when someone has walked with me under the guise of friendship, not for the sake of actually being a friend, but purely for a possible romance. How do I know that these were their intentions? Because the moment they found out I was not romantically interested in them, they dropped me. While it would make sense to step back from a friendship to reassess how to direct your feelings for someone appropriately, in these situations it was clear that they did not intend to enter into a friendship in the first place. This left me thinking: Am I not more than a possible date? Is that all I have to offer in a friendship? Am I not worthy of being loved simply for who I am and not for what I can give someone? 

This put a bitter taste of distrust in my mouth around certain acts of love within friendships. I became suspicious when men tried to step out in service towards me through acts as simple as holding the door or asking how they could pray for me. In those moments I questioned, “What do they want out of me?” This distrust is something in which friendships with good, holy men in my life have helped heal, but I still commonly encounter this sense of distrust in both men and women. How can we combat that? By a resurrection of a clarity of intentions within all friendships.

5. Clarity and intentionality should be a constant feature of male/female friendships. 

We all long for communion with others, and this is a good desire. However, if we are not careful, this desire can lead us to seeking attention, affirmation, or intimacy within a male/female friendship in a way that treats them more like a boyfriend or girlfriend than like a friend. Flirting or intimacy that doesn’t match the communicated status of the relationship can result in a lot of confusion, and is essentially dishonest if we are using a friend to fill our emotional needs without having to make an exclusive commitment to them. A lot of people who experience the pain of what they call the “friendzone” may actually be experiencing the pain of being emotionally used or led on. 

This is why clarity is a joint responsibility between all parties. Both friends should be honest and upfront about their feelings and intentions, and manifest these appropriately. This might entail awkward conversations and questions, but protecting each other’s hearts and the love of friendship is worth all the awkwardness in the world. If feelings arise, it is most likely appropriate to ask the other on a date. If someone says no to a date, they should be clear about their feelings rather than make excuses that don’t provide clarity. At the end of the day, everyone deserves to be operating in the reality of the feelings that are present or not present for each other. Learning to navigate our friendships with intentionality and honesty is just one of the many ways that friendships teach us how to love. 

Alex Ross
Alex Ross

About the Author

Alex grew up in Central Indiana as the oldest of five lacrosse-loving kids. She studied Interpersonal Communication and Counseling at Ball State University where St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body rocked her world. Her first encounter with the Culture Project at a FOCUS conference boosted her courage to live a fuller and more virtuous life, and she soon felt set on fire to spread the great vibrancy of the Gospel of Life herself. “When I saw how radically attractive, beautiful, and healing the Culture Project missionaries’ lives of chastity could be to the world around them, I knew I wanted in with all my heart. The message and the experience of authentic love uniquely transforms lives. It is authentic love that unlocks exactly who we are created to be.”

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