“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
I started dating my husband when I was 21 and he was 20. I’d only been dating since I was 15, so that really only left a few years in which I dated around. Even then, I was somewhat of a repeat offender and tended to get back together with ex-boyfriends a lot (this is not recommended). I did, however, have a lot of male friends. I still do. Most of them were wonderful, and still are, but in the short six years that I dated around before starting my relationship with Jon, there was one prevalent occurrence that happened a lot throughout my dating life: I was often accused of “friend zoning.” Friend zoning, or being placed in the friend zone, is what females are accused of when males feel entitled to sex or a relationship for being kind to the females. This often goes hand in hand with the complaint that “nice guys finish last” or “women only date jerks”, often said by some guy to his friends when he has unrequited feelings for a girl who can’t understand why she won’t put out after he listened to her vent after a hard day.
I very briefly dated a guy in college named Aaron and during the introductory, getting-to-know-each-other phase, we talked about past relationships. He had recently moved back to town from Portland and told me about a girl up there who he hadn’t technically dated because she’d friend zoned him. He just couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to date him, especially after all the emotional support he’d given her during her breakup with her boyfriend. Aaron felt that he was owed a reward because he’d been a decent human being to someone who thought he was her friend, and he couldn’t fathom why she didn’t immediately want to jump into bed with a Nice Guy like him. This should have been a red flag to me, but, instead, I dated him for six weeks anyway and then Aaron tried to get me fired from my job when I broke up with him.
Perhaps the biggest instance in which I was accused of unfairly friend zoning someone started in high school. When I was 15, I met Tim and we instantly became friends. I knew he had a crush on me, but I just didn’t feel that way about him. We talked about it soon after we met, got it all out in the open, and decided we still wanted to be friends even though we weren’t going to date. I had a lot of fun whenever I hung out with Tim–he was extremely funny and considerate, but in terms of anything romantic, I just didn’t feel that way about him. Most people seemed to understand this, but I would get the occasional comment about how it was unfair of me to lead him on by just being his friend and not dating him, and how Tim really “deserved” to get out of the friend zone. I didn’t consider myself leading him on because we’d talked about it and Tim knew that while I valued his friendship, I wasn’t interested in dating him, so I dismissed the comments. Besides, Tim and I each dated other people–clearly, to me, we were just friends.
After being friends for a couple of years, there was a shift in our relationship. Tim used to make fun of me for being a silly girl who couldn’t control her emotions when it came to the boys that I did date. Never outright, but subtly, in a teasing way that in the moment made me laugh. However, when I looked back on our conversations a few hours later, his words always made me feel a little worse about myself. The comments became more overt over time but I didn’t say anything to refute Tim’s words. After all, wasn’t this my best friend? Didn’t he know me better than I knew myself? If he said it, it had to be true. This started to bleed over into my romantic relationships with other people. I started to see myself as flighty and emotional and unpredictable and began to behave that way. This isn’t to say I blame all my bad behavior or failed relationships on Tim, because I don’t–I’m responsible for my own actions.
I dated a very nice guy off and on throughout my senior year of high school named Jeff, who sat me down once and told me honestly that he was a little envious of my friendship with Tim because he felt excluded from me; Jeff wanted to be the one who I considered my best friend, the one with whom I laughed and had endless private jokes. I tried to give Jeff what he wanted, but there was already a partition in my mind: Jeff was my Boyfriend and Tim was my best friend. This was reinforced by Tim, who told me that there wasn’t any reason why he and I couldn’t continue our friendship; Jeff was just going to have to get over being second. This should have bothered me, but didn’t at the time. Not surprisingly, my relationship with Jeff finally ended for the last time.
When I was 19, I had just gotten out of a relationship with someone else who called himself a Nice Guy, but had ultimately abandoned me in a parking lot at 2AM while I had a panic attack and then broke up with me two days later via instant messenger.
Now that I was newly single, several people asked if I was finally going to date Tim and let him get out of the friend zone. Still feeling hurt and lonely from my breakup, I called up Tim and asked him out. While getting ready for the date, I kept repeating “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go,” aloud, which should have been an indicator that maybe I didn’t want to go. I’m pretty sure I whispered that just before I opened my front door when he came to pick me up. We went out to dinner and, ten minutes in, Tim asked if something was bothering me because I wasn’t acting like myself. He was, after all, my Best Friend and knew me well. I told him honestly that I was having second thoughts about our date and that maybe I just wasn’t ready since I had just gotten out of another relationship. Tim said he understood and asked if I still wanted to hang out; we’d just remove the date aspect of the evening. I said yes and felt much better.
Later, I found out that Tim had arranged for us to have a dessert picnic in a park that a couple of our friends had set up for us. Tim asked if I still wanted to go and at least eat cheesecake. I said yes and when we arrived, our friends, Nicole and Sam, were hiding very noisily in a bush before jumping out to surprise us. While Sam and Tim, chatted, Nicole quietly asked me how our date was going. When I hesitated, she loudly announced that she had to go the bathroom and pulled me with her towards the public restrooms across the park. I explained about the conversation Tim and I had had at dinner, and although she seemed a little disappointed that I wasn’t feeling any romantic spark, she was completely supportive and told me that if I didn’t feel it, I didn’t feel it and that was okay.
After the failed date, there was a shift in my friendship with Tim. Rather than just being friends, he seemed to be waiting for me to be ready to date him. After a couple of months, I told him that I wasn’t interested in dating him, despite having enough space from my last relationship, but I still wanted to continue our friendship. He said he understood and that if it wasn’t there, it just wasn’t there. I started dating other people and everything seemed like it had gone back to the way it was before.
Except it wasn’t. In the past, Tim had mocked my boyfriends with veiled or dismissive comments about how our friendship came before my relationships with them. Now, Tim was openly derisive about the guys I saw, like after he met Aaron for the first time. I wasn’t all that into Aaron and was planning on breaking up with him anyway, so this didn’t really bother me. In retrospect, I regret this. I should’ve had enough respect for Aaron to at least not mock him behind his back, but I didn’t. Shortly after this, I left the country to study abroad in England for six months. I broke up with Aaron and spent time enjoying singlehood abroad, and, after a while, I met someone. A British someone, someone I really, really liked. He genuinely was, and still is, a very nice guy. Not a Nice Guy, but an actual good person. I don’t like the phrase “losing one’s virginity” because it sounds like I misplaced it the same way I do my keys or cell phone, and that wasn’t the case at all; I gave it away to this person, purposefully and freely. Our relationship later ended, but I have never regretted this decision.
The one time this choice about my body and my sexuality was really called into question, however, came during a conversation with Tim. Despite knowing that I was in a relationship with someone, Tim clearly viewed it as temporary and had started making plans for us to start dating when I returned from my time abroad. Unbeknownst to me, he had actually gone to my mother to ask her permission to date me when I returned, not unlike the way many men ask their future wife’s father for permission to propose. I tried to explain to Tim that he and I were just friends, and that I was in a serious relationship with someone else. Tim didn’t seem to understand–or was forcibly not understanding–so I ended up telling Tim that I was having sex with my boyfriend. Tim insisted on talking to me on the phone, despite it being a transatlantic call (this was back when that was a big deal). When we got on the phone, Tim sounded extremely angry. Not ranting and yelling angry, but a quiet, smoldering anger, like I’d betrayed him and given away something that wasn’t mine to give. The call was short as Tim confirmed what I’d told him in the email, and then I didn’t hear from him for four months. I sent the occasional email and tried to call when I returned to the U.S., but I didn’t hear anything.
I cried. I missed my best friend, but not having Tim around allowed me to open up more and grow closer with my boyfriend as well as open myself up for other friendships. Slowly, I began to realize that people other than Tim could love and understand me.
When I finally heard from Tim again, it was months later and just a few days before my British boyfriend was due to visit me in the U.S. Tim sounded forced on the phone, like he was trying too hard to be casual. I tried to ignore his tone and we chatted. He asked if I was free to hang out and catch up in a couple of days and I told him I was, I just had to pick up my boyfriend from the airport that evening. So we wouldn’t have to worry about the time at a meal or something similar, he asked if I wanted to hang out before I had to head to the airport and watch a movie at his house. We’d done this hundreds of times in the past, so I said that sounded fine.
When I saw him, I kind of expected our interactions to be stilted and awkward like our phone call had been, but he seemed totally normal. We watched a movie we’d seen a dozen times, laughing and making all of our usual jokes in all the same places. Then, when I had to leave, Tim walked me to the door. He gave me a hug goodbye and I felt like maybe our friendship would be fine. But then he pressed his forehead against mine. I didn’t know what to do so I just stayed still. Then I felt the shift in the air, that electric charge that means something is about to happen. A kiss could happen. He started to reach for my hand and I pulled away, saying cheerily that I had to go pick up my boyfriend from the airport. He seemed a little surprised.
“Oh. Okay,” he said.
We said goodbye and I got in my car and drove away. After I rounded the corner and was no longer in view of his house. I pulled over, parked, and sat in my car for a few minutes. I stared out the windshield, not really seeing anything while I was consumed by confusing thoughts. In that moment, I realized what had been true for months: our friendship was over, at least in the way I’d always known it. I didn’t want to date Tim and, other than the date that only lasted ten minutes before losing its label, I’d been clear about that. This no longer worked for Tim, if it ever really had, and it was best that we both moved on from each other’s lives.
Tim and I drifted apart after that. We each married other people and we live our separate lives that have rarely intersected in the last decade. When my son was born, he had a severe heart defect that necessitated a heart transplant, which he received when he was five days old. Faced with astronomical medical costs, my husband and I started an online fundraiser and we were overwhelmed and humbled by the love and support and assistance people gave us. Among these donors was Tim. We were no longer connected through Facebook so he must have seen the site through a mutual friend, but he generously donated to our son’s medical bills. Several months later, Tim and his wife welcomed their own baby. I sent him an email congratulating him and thanking him, very belatedly, for donating to my son’s fundraiser. I heard back, just a few lines, thanking me for the well wishes.
I don’t expect we’ll reach out and contact each other again and I don’t expect to see him again unless it’s by chance. I feel like it’s an important detail, though, to include his donation to my son’s fundraiser to illustrate that I don’t think Tim is a bad person. At the same time though, I don’t think that excuses some of his behavior during the course of our friendship, like deriding my boyfriends or completely cutting off our friendship because I had sex with someone else. So many people–usually single guys, now that I think of it–told me almost relentlessly how unfair it was that I had friend zoned Tim. But, looking back, I’m not sure Tim ever said that, at least not to me. Which makes me think that the whole idea of me friend zoning Tim was a learned idea, not an original one. We both heard it enough times that maybe after a while, Tim and I both started to internalize it and believe it was true. Maybe Tim went into our friendship knowing where I stood and then other people’s words convinced him that I’d eventually come around, eventually date him, that if he just hung in there long enough he’d be rewarded with a relationship. I was repeatedly told how unfair it was that I was friend zoning Tim that I carried around guilt for years that I didn’t want to date him. Which is fucked up–no one should feel bad for not wanting to date another person. Your dating choices are your own and no one should be with someone else just because other people say they should. To devil’s advocate myself, it’s entirely possible that I’m just trying to justify Tim’s less than admirable behaviors by blaming them on other people, looping in his ear, “you’re friends with her, she owes you a relationship.” But even if the friend zone idea did originally come from Tim, that doesn’t mean he’s still like that. I’m not even the same person I was last year, let alone a decade ago, so I don’t expect he is either.
The friend zone isn’t real. Men blame women for putting them there because the women aren’t interested in dating them, but that just sounds like a bruised ego trying to justify rejection. It’s not his fault they’re not dating, it’s hers. There’s something wrong with her that she can’t see what a Nice Guy he is. But I think this misconception needs to be cleared up immediately. If she’s not dating you, it’s because she doesn’t want to. That’s not a character flaw. There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just not interested.
The truest statement I’ve ever read is a quote from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower that says, “People accept the love they think they deserve.” I heard this for the first time when I was twenty-five and it fucked me up so hard I felt like someone had just kicked me in the chest with a steel-toed boot. Even now, every time I re-read that quote, it still makes the blood pound a little louder in my ears as I’m hit with the magnitude of what those words are really saying. I think the power in this quote comes from the way it throws people from a passive role into an active one, accepting whatever kind of love they think they deserve, good or bad. I think this is applicable in a lot of situations, including my relationship with Tim. I can’t speak for what he felt because I don’t know for sure; I can only surmise based on my experiences with him. But for me, I felt guilty for not dating Tim because I was told so often that I should, that I owed it to him for him being such a good friend to me. I accepted that guilt because I thought I deserved it. I thought I deserved to feel bad for not wanting to date Tim. As a result of that guilt, I would only accept half a relationship from my boyfriends, such as with Jeff, who offered me a full and complete mental and emotional connection, but I rejected him because I felt I owed it to Tim to keep his friendship with me as the primary relationship in my life. I had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to get enough distance from the soundtrack of others telling me “you should date Tim, you owe it to him to date him” in order to allow myself to open up and accept both love and friendship from other people who could and wanted to love me.
I don’t regret my friendship with Tim. What I dislike, however, is the way I let others dictate our friendship. I let others bully me into thinking that I was unfairly friend zoning him and that I owed it to him to date him and if I didn’t, I was a bad person. It led me to ask him out and involve his feelings in a way that I don’t think I should have. I can take responsibility for my part in this because I chose to let others dictate what kind of love I thought I deserved from others and from myself. I chose to listen when Tim told me I was silly and emotional and flighty. I chose to believe I should feel guilty for not dating Tim. But then I later chose to accept love from my British boyfriend and the friends I made there, the ones who were there for me in the wake of Tim’s departure. We can’t always choose the way in which we learn lessons, but we can choose to remember the lesson and grow from it.
It’s true that I’m married now, to someone who loves me better than I could’ve ever hoped for, but I think the lesson of accepting the love we think we deserve is applicable to every relationship, romantic or platonic. Everyone deserves to be loved fully and without conditions or expectations. If someone does not love you this way, you should consider taking a moment and reflecting on how healthy this relationship actually is in your life. I can’t dictate to you, my reader, about the specifics of every relationship you have. But if you have someone who treats you worse than you’d like, it’s worth taking a moment to think about why you allow them to stay in your life and continue to treat you the way that they do. There’s no reason to allow someone to give you less love than you actually deserve.
And if you are a woman, I will tell you that you sure as shit don’t deserve to be told that you “owe it” to someone to take them out of the “friend zone.” You don’t owe your body or your heart to anyone that you don’t want to give it to. The friend zone isn’t real and if someone tries to make you feel guilty about a place that’s as fictitious as Narnia, tell them to fuck right off.
You can tell them I told you to say that. I’ve got your back.
Note: while the events in this essay are true, names have been changed.