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.

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