Monday, July 31, 2017

Re-zoning the Friend Zone

I’ve been male for 39 years now, and in that time I’ve learned a thing or two about other males and how we function. For the good of all I’m writing a three part series about why men generally do what we do. I write “generally” because there are many broad generalizations in what you are about to read; generalizations, anecdotal evidence, conjecture, and my own personal insight as a straight male of color. I hope you find this somewhat useful. 
The rock is your self-respect

     I have often been in the Friend Zone; I own land there, I pay taxes there. I'm part of the Friend Zone Homeowner's Association. When I used to complain about the friend zone it was a generally accepted “thing.” It was harmless joke, something people referred to when they were down in the dumps. It wasn't necessarily gender specific, although it was applied to and primarily used by men. Everyone knew what you meant when you said that “I’m stuck in the friend zone.” There was no controversy surrounding the phrase back then. “Friend Zone” referred to a certain relationship state where person A is romantically interested in person B, but person B is not interested in person A the same way. Hence person A is stuck in the friend zone. It is a state in which Person B has genuine affection for person A, but not enough to be in a relationship. There is a nuance here that is lost on many people, specifically men, and specifically me. I’ll elaborate.

     I’m 39, which means that I formed all of my opinions about how relationships with women work in the 80’s. This was a terrible, terrible thing that happened to many men in Gen X and should never be repeated. John Hughes basically fucked up an entire generation of men (and women, but in a different way.) I never actually saw any of his movies but Hughes's work was part of the 80's zeitgeist. It was impossible to evade the effects of his works.I’m not sure how things worked in the cities, but in the Suburbs my generation was often left to its own devices when trying to figure out how to deal with interpersonal relationships. Our parents, the “Boomers,” were discovering that the American Dream needed constant upkeep and repair, and without such care it turned into American alcoholism, American Divorce, and American Major Depressive Disorder. They had their own shit to deal with. So, starved and desperate for romantic direction we had to figure out a blueprint for life from pop culture. The teen comedies, they ruined us. I’m talking about Porky’s (1982), Risky Business (1983), Heathers (1988) and countless others. I never saw those, but I watched a shitload of 80’s sitcoms. If there’s one thing I learned from 80’s television is that being a sincere, sensitive, caring “nice guy” who listened to a woman’s feelings was a sure way to get some vag.
Will they or won't they?
     As I discussed in "The Nice Guy Paradox" the Nice Guy lie negatively influenced male behavior for 30 years. I was often called “a nice guy” mostly because I wasn’t a dick to people. At least, I was rarely a dick. At least, I thought that I was rarely a dick... I'm going to change topics now. Anyway, I thought this was a positive thing. Men really are toddlers with guns, angry machines of destruction with little to no insight into our emotions or motivations. There I was, trying to become the sensitive caring-but-charming guy that got the girl instead of the antagonist of the story who was always an objectively better choice for a relationship than the protagonist (me.) Steve Urkel couldn’t get Laura the way he was, so he became Stephan. How many seasons did Kevin blow trying to feel up Winnie Cooper?
Really, could you blame Kevin?

     Think of the role models I had: Saved by the Bell, Who’s the Boss, Growing Pains. Sam and Diane, Jack, Chrissie, and Janet, Alf and Willie, Tony and Angela, Whitley and Dwayne, Peg and Al, Harry and Christine, Maddie and David… these wildly contrasting couples were all I had to go on. Is it any wonder I came out with my dating head up my dating ass?  I was confused. All I knew for certain is that I really, really, really wanted to be near girls, touching girls, looking at girls. To be honest from 10-13 I wasn’t absolutely certain what I would do with a girl when I got one, but I figured I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I had a point A and a point C and no idea what point B was, or how to get from one to another. I had one piece of rock-solid knowledge, one plan, one egg that all my baskets were in. If I had never picked up this faulty cognition who knows how differently my life would have turned out. If you want to be a boyfriend you have to be her friend first. Believing that was my first and biggest mistake.

     As it turns out, if you become someone’s friend they tend to think of you as a friend. Go figure. Building to a relationship through friendship made sense to me because it’s how I would ideally start going out with someone. Who wants to date someone they don’t know, I thought. Honestly I think many relationships fail because people become genital friends before they become emotional friends, but I digress. Many of the women I’d come to like in life were friends who I fell for. When I would broach the subject of dating, or try to set up that perfect romantic set piece, it would always blow up in my face.  The woman would often say “I never thought of you that way” to my eternal consternation. Sneaking into a relationship under cover of Nice Guy often meant that the girl I liked, never being approached romantically, never thought of me in a romantic way. This is how 98% of Friend Zone situations happen. Now I know to make my intentions clear within the first few times I meet a girl, and then take things from there; only took me 20 years to figure that out. In this way I avoid the friend zone but often get told that I'm too aggressive. Sigh.

     Boys are taught to never give up, that if you really believe and work hard enough, you can win anything you want in life. We never take no for an answer. When you look at men’s approach to women it all makes sense now doesn’t it? My generation was raised to believe that if you put enough work into winning a girl over, you would persevere. You would win. And in 99% of life, this is the correct course of action. Hard work and perseverance will often bring you your heart’s desire; what it can’t bring you is someone else’s heart. It took me a very… very long time to figure out that you can put effort into making a relationship work, but you can’t work to get into a relationship. You can’t work on someone else anyway. What they should have been telling us is that if you work on making yourself a better man, then women will come on their own accord. Now that I think about it, maybe someone did tell me that, but it was probably too late, I was obsessed; I still am. I’ve always been obsessed with women (Ironically before I hit puberty I hated girls.) Once I thought they were inferior in every way, and then I thought that they were superior in every way. Some of you may recognize this pattern of thinking as “Splitting.” Splitting is a cognitive distortion that pretty much defined much of my youth. It’s the tendency for a person to only think and perceive in absolutes; people are either all good or all bad. I thought women were all good; I often elevated chosen women to the status of goddesses or what people refer to today as “Beyoncé.” When I liked a girl she was Beyoncé, and when, inevitably, she disappointed or let me down (rejected me) she became the exact opposite of Beyoncé, Lena Dunham. Only in the mind of a screwed-up lust fueled boy could one woman go from Beyoncé to Lena Dunham in the space of one day.

Did I really need an excuse to insert a picture of Beyonce?
     You see this behavior everywhere from men. Watch any emotionally dysfunctional man get rejected from a woman. She goes from B to D in a heartbeat. The Virgin-to-Whore Express runs 24 hours a day in some guys minds. Unfortunately I still do this in my head, but I’m aware enough to spray myself with a water bottle and hit myself on the nose with a rolled up newspaper when I realize that I am thinking this way. “No! Bad Id! No!” If you are a guy reading this and don’t understand why it is a problematic way to interpret the world, walk with me talk with me. I once was strongly in like with a girl, let’s call her Rachel. I’d talked with her for a while and discovered that we had everything in common (in my mind.) Let’s say she’s a nerdy, geeky WoC who is intelligent, and funny. She gets all the weird malfunctions in my personality and actually finds them endearing. We talk for hours about what it’s like to be Brown people in White Nerd World. I feel like we are bonding on a molecular level. She’s beautiful and has all my preferred secondary sexual characteristics in abundance.* At this point I am idealizing her. She has flaws certainly, but I’m not being realistic about that. I make my move eventually and tell her that I want to be together, and she blocks my shot like Marty Brodeur. Turns out that she had already evaluated me as a partner and didn’t think it was a good fit. Now, nothing about the relationship has changed, not in the way she sees me. I respectfully disagree, and now am feeling three extremely strong emotions at the same time:

1.       Confusion
2.       Hurt
3.       Anger

The confusion comes because I honestly don’t see how she doesn’t see that we SHOULD (see there’s that word again) be together. The hurt comes because it always hurts when someone tells you that they prefer the company of other’s to your specific company. Anger, because that’s the only emotion men are ever really allowed to express. So now I have an abundance of hurt and confusion rolling itself up in anger with nowhere to go. I did everything the right way so all of this pain must be her fault. Since it’s HER fault and SHE destroyed MY vision of who I thought she was, now she is the enemy. She’s stupid for not seeing how great we could be together. Bonus rage; she gets together with a Nice Guy who I find to be inferior to me. Sometimes I will react in this situation by thinking “I didn’t try hard enough. I just have to work harder to MAKE her love me. I have the Touch. I have the Power!” So now I’m doing increasingly desperate gestures to win her heart, gestures that to an outside observer seem unhinged and psychotic. When you look back at 80’s pop culture, The Grand Gesture always worked. Think of the movie trope of a Person B leaving Person A’s life because he can’t commit. In the climactic scene, Person A confronts her at the gate to her flight wild-eyed and short of breath. He proclaims his undying love for her, and the woman always says “I love you too” and purposely misses her very expensive flight out of town. It’s such a guy way of thinking; if she doesn’t like me the way I am ROMANCE BIGGER AND HARDER TIL SHE LOVES ME! In reality these actions often frighten women away, and the rejection intensifies. Now I am devaluing her and directing anger at her. Since my behavioral pattern is to take anger on women out on myself, I would get depressed and stress eat or do something else self-destructive.

     Sometimes if I could stand it, I would still be friends with the girl, hoping that whenever her relationship ended (because these things happen) that I would be there to score her on the rebound. I specifically got this message from Seinfeld (“The Wait Out” Season 7 episode 23.)

JERRY: But we gotta make it seem like we're not calling for dates.
ELAINE: Then why are we calling?
JERRY: Good question. (More to himself than to Elaine) Why are we calling?
(Both start chanting "why are we calling..", thinking deeply)
ELAINE: (Loud) Oh! (Jerry has a surprised look) I've got it! I've got it! We're calling just to say, "I'm there for you."
JERRY: (Nodding, trying it out) "I'm there for you."
ELAINE: Then, after a period of being "there for you", we slowly remove the two words "for you", and we're just (Makes a "ta-da!" gesture) "there".

I’ve heard this works, but only if the person you’re waiting on has already run a dating sim of you two together in their head. If not It’s never going to work. I’m not going to get into whether it’s a morally right or wrong way to go about getting a date because really, all’s fair. I’m saying it’s not an effective way to go about winning someone’s heart. I’ve done all of these and none of them have ever worked, not because I wasn’t trying hard enough (believe me, I did) but because there wasn’t going to be a relationship there. Apparently when a woman identifies a guy as a friend a friend he shall stay unless some unforeseen circumstance changes the way she sees you. The trick is guys, that what changes her mind is not something that you can consciously manifsest. You are wasting financial and emotional resources on her when they could be better spent on yourself or someone who is actually interested in you. Changes may be needed yes, but change things about yourself not for her but for you. The hardest part to write here is that no matter how much self-improvement you do, you still may not get the girl of your dreams. That frustration and loneliness is incredibly hard to live with, I know that better than most. The thing is you have to live with it because it is NOT her fault and she is NOT a monster for not wanting to go out with you. One of the biggest emotional growth spurts I ever managed was seeing women as people; not angels or demons, but people with their own merits and flaws just like everyone else. Not dating you may indeed be a mistake, but it’s her mistake to make and her mistake to fix if she ever sees it that way. The fact that it took me, a guy with an extremely high emotional IQ decades to realize women are people shows you how distorted the average man’s perception of the average woman must be.
One of these people murdered the other minutes after this picture was taken.

Finally we come to the nuance that I, and I suspect many men, have never been able to master. A woman can like you as a friend; and that’s OK. You’re friendship may mean the world to a woman, and without it she could possibly be devastated. But she only specifically sees you as a friend. The fact that I keep typing “only a friend” shows my only cognitive distortion that friendship is not a desirable relationship status with some women. In the past 10 years of my life I realized that I’ve actually had to stop remaining friends with women that I’m romantically interested in because I do not possess the emotional maturity necessary to be able to handle seeing her with another guy. I know it’s childish and petty, but I’m just not there yet. Knowing my limitations is where I am, and for now that has to be good enough because what else is there? I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea of a woman finding me very date-able but not wanting to date me. A friend once told me that I was attractive but she was not attracted to me; my head still gets swimmy when I think about it. There are probably lots of women reading this who are thinking “yeah I get that” and lots of guys reading this saying “WTF?!?!” And you are all right. I don’t get that nuance. I did eventually realize that a friendship can be just as intimate as a relationship, and that allowed me to hold on to many friendships that I wouldn’t have been able to before.

This is pure speculation, but I think male behavior states that if you are attracted to a woman and she wants to have sex with you, you have sex with her, whether you want to be in a relationship or not. It seems that modern women are subscribing to this philosophy more and more as they feel less constrained by societal definitions of “ladylike” behavior. But what do I know about that. What I do know is that the Friend Zone is a real status, and no more good or evil than any other arbitrary definition of the emotional space between two humans. What men need to understand is that no one is ever “trapped” in the Friend Zone. I own a condo and some beachfront property in the Friend Zone. People know my name there. I run the Friend Zone like Diddy runs the city. The key is one day I realized that the only thing trapping me in the Friend Zone was me. It's not the Hotel California, you can leave anytime you want to. If you cannot handle being a woman’s friend and not her lover, you need to be open and clear about that. Skulking and sulking and trying to win her heart will only breed animosity and mistrust. Being open and honest about feelings, while painful in the short term, is vital to long term emotional health. If you can’t do that, and the shame and hurt and confusion and rage just won’t let you move on, talk to someone. Get a therapist, or email me, I always answer my emails.Talk about it before the Friend Zone becomes a War Zone.

It is my firm belief that unless you have the necessary insight and maturity to handle such an arrangement, you (men) should not stay friends with a woman they are in love with. All of that love will eventually turn into proportional rage. I know that I still on occasion have a lot of difficulty being friends with a woman I really like, and if I recognize I am moving in that direction I bail out as soon as possible. Neither of us wants those problems. There is a reason that throughout human history the tale of the spurned and jealous lover is a constant throughout all peoples. If you are not aware google haw many women are victims of assault or murder at the hands of men they have rejected. It's staggering and frightening and we will cover this exact issue in part 3 of this dating trilogy for men, "The Crazy Ex-Boyfriend."