Thursday, January 30, 2014

The "Friend Zone" in Therapy

A young man sat in my office and related how he had recently attempted to initiate a romantic relationship with a woman friend. He told me they had seen a play together, and then gone to dinner. At dinner, he asked her if she would be interested in making “more” of their friendship.

“Do you know what she said? She said, 'I'm really not looking for a relationship right now. I'm more than happy to be your friend, though.' What am I supposed to do with that?”

I had a feeling that he actually wanted me to answer that question. But I didn't take the bait: “You tell me: What do you do with what?” I said, reflecting the question back to him.

“I don't know. I mean, it happened again! I got friend-zoned!” he said.

And there it is: The dreaded “Friend-Zone.” For those who do not know, the “friend-zone” is supposedly this place where men go when they are told by the object of their romantic fancy that there is no chance of a romantic relationship, just a friendship. (Although, this is somewhat of an unfair definition: I've heard women complain about being in the “friend-zone” more times than I can count. But that's a topic for another day.)

I replied: “So let me get this clear: You have a friendship with Sara [not her real name, obviously], and you would like a romantic relationship to develop. She is not interested. Do I have that right?”

“Yes,” he replied. “This happens to me all the time, though. I try to be a nice guy, and then I end up with a lot of women friends, but not a girlfriend.”

As a therapist who is also a feminist, I have so many responses to this. For example: “If you're just trying to be a nice guy to get a girlfriend, then you're not really a nice guy at all.” Or: “What makes you think that 'being a nice guy' is sufficient to generate romantic interest in anyone? 'Being a nice guy' is a default setting, dude.”

However, one of the realities of the therapy office is that I have to be present and aware for all my clients, even the ones who may not necessarily act in alignment with my politics.

I have noticed over the years that indignation—like most forms of anger—often hides emotional pain. So what I said was, “It sounds like you've been rejected more than a few times. Can you tell me what that feels like?”

His response was one of confusion. I think he was warming himself up to go on a “all women are terrible” rant, and I cut him off and asked him to explore his hurt. I could actually see the emotions on his face as he struggled—on the one hand, he really wanted to vent his rage. On the other, he really was in pain, and I had hit something real.

Eventually, pain won out: “It really does hurt. I mean, I know it hurts, but I never think about it. I really like Sara. I mean, I think we'd be great together. I want to make her as happy as she makes me, you know? I don't know... I just feel sad now.”

“Brian [again, not a real name, obviously], your pain is real. You stepped into vulnerability—you took a risk, and showed your true self. And, you got rejected. That hurts. What would happen if you just let yourself be hurt, instead of covering it with anger?”

He sat quietly for a few moments, and then said, “I just want someone to love me.”

Sometimes, it is better if the therapist doesn't say a word. I suspected that this was one of those times. It seemed like hours, but in reality it was only a couple of minutes. And then he spoke again: “I don't know if I can still be friends with her.”

“Tell me more about that,” I said.

“When I see her, it hurts, because it reminds me of what I don't have. And, if I stay friends with her, I'll always be thinking about dating her. And what's that going to be like when she does start dating someone? It's not fair to her or to me.” He was quiet for a minute. “Would it be terrible if I stopped being her friend?”

“I guess that depends on what you mean by terrible,” I said. “It would probably be painful, because you have feelings for her. But you are not obligated to maintain a friendship with anyone. So if it has to be that you cannot be friends anymore, then maybe that's what you have to do.”

“But...” he protested, “that's not what I want.”

“No,” I said as gently as I possibly could. “What you want is a romantic relationship. That's off the table. Now, you have to decide what you can live with.”

Our session continued. This client and I revisited this topic for several weeks. Eventually, he did end the friendship with Sara. To his credit, he did not pressure her for a romantic relationship. He did not try to "win her over." He was mature and respected what she said. And, he tried to remain friends, but found that too difficult and painful. 


Why did I write this post? Because I have seen the “friend-zone” stuff coming up again and again, and I wanted to give my opinion. (What else are blogs for?) Also, because I wanted to write a post that was more personal then my usual “5 Ways to Improve your Relationship” kind of thing.

And also, because I wanted to make a point about the "friend zone" being anger that masks feelings of hurt and rejection. I wanted to offer an alternative to engaging hurt and rejection besides falling into blaming another person (or an entire gender). So here is the summary of what I think may be helpful in this kind of situation. 

1. If someone tells you they are not interested in a romantic relationship, then you have to respect that. You do not get to pressure them to change their mind. You are not “entitled to an explanation,” so don't ask why they're not interested. And ultimately, knowing the reason you have been rejected won't make you feel better anyway.

2. That pain you feel when someone says they're not interested? That's real. It may be rejection, or sadness, or disappointment, or any number of things. Acknowledge that you have pain and work through it. If you have been turned down multiple times, it may be a significant amount of work. That's OK. In fact, it's better to work through the pain than to ignore it, or to blame someone else for it. And it is possible to work through emotional pain, trust me. And though it should go without saying, I'll say it anyway: Do not expect to resolve that pain by getting the romantic relationship you were just turned down for.

3. If you cannot stay friends, then you don't have to. There is absolutely no obligation to be friends with anyone. If it is too painful, you may have to end the friendship. (Notice that I'm talking about a friendship being “too painful.” If, on the other hand, you feel that you cannot stay friends because you no longer have common interests, then perhaps you weren't really friends to begin with.)

4. Finally, if you are respectful and direct with your communications, you do not need to feel shame around wanting to have a romantic or sexual relationship with a friend. There is no shame in wanting a romantic or sexual relationship with another adult. Taking a risk and being vulnerable is something to celebrate, not something to punish.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dysfunctional Family Roles (Illustrated!)

Ideally, a family unit is a strongly connected group of individuals who provide mutual support, encouragement and feedback. Ideally, a family is a safe environment in which children (and adults) can have their needs met regularly and predictably. In order for a family to fulfill these kinds of functions, the individual members—and particularly the adults in the family—must be fairly stable and able to meet their own emotional needs.

But some families do not have this kind of stability. Some families are organized around conflict, mental illness, or addictions. We often call these kinds of families “dysfunctional.” Children will often seek stability and safety, and when children are raised in dysfunctional families, they begin to seek ways to normalize their experience. The may start to act in ways that bring structure, consistency and safety into an otherwise chaotic environment. Many of these roles are predictable, and were first identified by Virginia Satir.

Understanding what kinds of roles we play in our families is important in our understanding of ourselves. The roles we play in our families set up our behavior for our adulthood. Of course the way that these roles manifest in a real family will be complex, but for the sake of this article, I have briefly described five common dysfunctional family roles. I have also illustrated them with an example from popular television, just because. 

Family Hero
The One We're Proud Of.

“If I don't do it, no one will.”
“If I don't continue to achieve, bad things will happen.”

Lisa Simpson, the Hero of the Simpsons.
Her achievements distract from the
reality of the family dysfunction.   
The family hero is the one who strives for perfection. This person gets attention through accomplishments and achievements, whether they are academic, social, athletic or in some other area. The narrative that drives this role is “Our family can't be so bad if we produced this star athlete/talented musician/straight-A student.” The Hero will usually make the case that s/he is merely driven, and seeks accomplishments and achievements for their own sake. Ultimately, the Hero knows that s/he enjoys the attention and power that come from this role.

The family's definition of functionality depends on this person's achievement, and this is a very difficult burden to shoulder. Heroes are often workaholics, perfectionists and controlling. They may have difficulty with relationships with others. Heroes almost always have extreme difficulty tolerating failure. They avoid shame and other negative emotions at all costs.

The Troubled One.

“You have to take what you want in life. No one will give you anything.”
“This family is messed up, and I'm the only one who admits it.”
Tyrion Lannister, who is blamed
for much of the family dysfunction,
is the Scapegoat of his family. He also
shows that "Scapegoat" is not
the same thing as "underachiever."  

The Scapegoat is the inverse of the Hero in some ways. Instead of seeking attention through positive accomplishments, the Scapegoat gets attention through negative actions. The Scapegoat may feel that s/he “never fit in” to the family. The Scapegoat brings the family together by being a “problem,” and needing attention and intervention.

The Scapegoat's behavior can become a habit, figuratively or literally. Frequently, Scapegoats have problem with addictions, get into trouble with the law, or have difficulty holding down a job. Internally, Scapegoats can begin to feel hurt, rejection or shame. The Scapegoat may begin to believe that s/he is “bad,” and this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is important to note that the Scapegoat's behavior does not have to be illegal to be considered "troubled" in the family. The Scapegoat acts outsides of the family norms and rules, even if the behavior itself is not condemned by society at large. 

The One We Turn To.

“People will like me if I'm nice.”
“I'll take care of you—and then you won't leave me.”
Michael, from Arrested Development,
is the one his family turns to when
things need fixing. 

The Pleaser is the member of the family who picks up the pieces after a catastrophe. This person is usually caring and empathetic, and s/he usually gives good advice. After something goes wrong, the family can and does turn to the Pleaser to “make it better.”

The Pleaser often gets validation from being needed, but often does not learn to take care of her/himself. S/he may also develop a high tolerance for inappropriate behaviors, and may have difficulty setting boundaries with others. In adult relationships, s/he may confuse love for pity, and fall in love with people s/he can rescue and fix. The Pleaser is often anxious, and may have feelings of guilt that are not centered in a specific situation.

Lost Child
The One We Don't Think About

“If I don't get involved, I won't get hurt.”
“It's best not to draw attention to yourself.”
Jan Brady was the Lost Child in her
family. But unlike most lost children,
she expresses her feelings of
being overlooked. 

The Lost Child disappears from the family chaos—physically, emotionally, or both. The Lost Child might become lost in books, video games or other distractions. Or, s/he might literally leave the family by becoming involved in activities away from home. Sometimes, the Lost Child runs away from home.

The Lost Child may find that s/he has difficulty being in touch with emotions, and may not know how to begin to express them to others. S/he may feel powerless in relationships. S/he may feel lonely, ignored, or unimportant. The Lost Child may have difficulty feeling loved and needed in relationships.

The Clown

“You can't laugh and be in pain at the same time.”
“If you just smile, everything will be fine.”

Roseanne meets every situation, no matter
how challenging, with a joke. Her character
showed that humor is both a source of strength
and a way to avoid dealing with difficult situations. 
The Mascot copes with the family chaos by bringing laughter to the family. This distracts the family, and helps the family avoid resolving the underlying difficulties. The Mascot usually enjoys being funny, and enjoys being able to “cheer people up.”

The Mascot may not learn coping mechanisms other than humor. S/he may hide real feelings with humor and jokes; s/he may feel inadequate and frightened in the face of difficult or painful emotions. The Mascot may struggle with achieving maturity in life, career, and relationships because the family is dependent on the Mascot never to grow up.