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Just Good Friends?

Apparently the Friendzone is still a thing. Yippee.

Well, this is awkward.

There has been much written on the Friendzone, and its counterpart the Fuckzone, by people of all genders and opinions on this dismal dichotomy. Experiencing the horrors of this trap is shitty for all concerned. In the interaction between two humans, one suffers rejection and refuses to deal with it, and another has to work around a set of feelings and expectations they never asked for. And there are the bystanders, the friends and allies of either party, sometimes helping, sometimes enabling.

I will start by stating my own position on the the Friendzone: it's bullshit. Grade-A bullshit. It's a made-up concept that appears, at first, to create sanctuary & solidarity between men dealing with difficult feelings (it is usually played out with men being the rejected party in a heterosexual dynamic, and that is the context in which I will discuss the phenomenon in this article). Unfortunately, it is not like this at all. It's actually a dangerous, cult-like movement, that encourages men to do anything but deal with their feelings. It portrays one's emotions as a problem for other people to deal with, and rationalises predatory behaviour. It reduces women to targets and conquests, and devalues platonic relationships at the expense of getting laid at all costs. It also does a tremendous amount of harm to men. By reducing a complex and fraught situation to a slogan, there is no time to reflect on and manage one's feelings, and it imbues a harmful sense of entitlement, and the idea that you can change the facts by continuing down a dead-end. It causes women to fret whether a friendship with a man is simply a set-up for an attempt at obtaining sexual favours, and endless second-guessing and unwanted responsibility for men's feelings and actions. For men, it can encourage them to become manipulative and to view women as objects — making it even more difficult to maintain either platonic or romantic relationships.

I also want to talk about a phenomenon that has been spoken about on Twitter over the last few months, in the wake of #MeToo. It's something that I'd never really thought about before, but seeing it described in a way that gave a name to it, and collated and congealed all those part-formed notions, and fleeting feelings of unease into a coherent theory, really resonated with me. It's the idea that women give men the “wrong idea,” or come across as mysterious and incomprehensible, due to their forever placating men's desires and apologising for their own. In performing this arduous emotional labour, we actually end up contributing to the problem by giving half-hearted responses and mealy-mouthed “no”s — allowing for misinterpretation. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but it's kinder on everyone to actually be a little bit cruel in the circumstances.

The trouble with the direct approach is that you have to assume that the other party is going to accept your response, and respect it. This doesn't always happen, and it's not necessarily manipulative and intimidating — to begin with. It's perfectly natural and normal to be upset about rejection, and even to pretend it's not happening. These are ordinary mental self-defence reactions — we don't want to hear or accept things that contradict our desires. It gets messy, though, if we don't deal with these feelings appropriately. The instinct is to continue to pursue and persuade, in the hope that reality isn't actually happening, that you can convince the object of your affections to reconsider. But you can't mould people to fit in with your fantasy — and that is exactly what the Friendzone encourages. Ignore the truth, carry on, and blame others for not bending to your will.

Well, that road leads to madness. I know, because I've not just been on the receiving end of this; I have, in the past, refused to accept rejection, and behaved in ways that have cost me friendships and relationships, and made me even more miserable. Even though acting the way I did seemed to make me feel better, or rather, justified; I knew deep down that my behaviour was wrong. I chose to act selfishly and put my delusions above other people's wellbeing.

The “poor me” mindset in which the Friendzone encourages you to wallow is not healthy, for you or anyone else. It's normal to feel sad when someone you love rejects you. But you need to spend some time processing it, and then get on with your life. When it happens, it feels like your whole world has fallen apart and that you will never, ever, be the same again. But you will — you've just got to go through the natural grieving process. the Friendzone prevents this. It keeps you right there, in the first stages of grieving. It encourages you to deny reality, to believe that if you try a little harder, you can win over the other person. And if that doesn't work, well, they were obviously a terrible person, and you can block out your emotions by masking them with hate. Even better if you convey this hatred to the other person.

Well done, have a cookie.

My experiences on the receiving end do colour the way I approach interactions with men. I've learnt that it is better to act with caution rather than rely on my own assumptions that other people's intentions are innocent. I feel like my senses are honed to detect potential skeeviness (although it does have the benefit of making me acutely aware of mutual attraction) and I just wish it wasn't everywhere. I can spot a catcaller from 50 yards, recognise a “friendship” constructed purely to get into my pants, notice the “admirer” in a group. It's thoroughly unpleasant to try to live your life normally, while managing other people's intrusive feelings and actions. At best it's annoying, at worst it's potentially dangerous. There's a social penalty attached to asking someone to just leave you alone, and so there's a pressure to be polite. But if someone's determined, and blind to your kindly-worded refusal, it just doesn't work. You then need to decide whether to try to carry on as-is, balancing politeness and a suitable distance, or to be blunt and leave no ambiguity. Both options have their costs.

Taking the kindly route may seem like the right thing, just carrying on as normal and trying not to give off any signals that could be misinterpreted. No one wants to hurt anyone's feelings or make things awkward. This isn't going to work, because someone with their head in the Friendzone will deliberately misinterpret those signals and look for any “hook” they can latch on to. I know — I've been on both sides of the divide. The gentle option almost always maintains the status quo, leaving room for doubt, and resolving nothing. It might even become dangerous, if the pursuing party reaches a point in their internal narrative where they feel it is appropriate to act upon their desires. Unfortunately, the “nice and polite” method just strings the situation out until it goes so far that someone has to step in and confront the issue. It is sadly a matter of how long we're willing to allow things to continue. It can also be easy to delude ourselves that the problem will go away if we ignore it. It won't.

So where does the Friendzone leave you, as the rejected one? You still have the original sadness and regrets, plus a ton of toxic hatred, and you've alienated yourself from at least one person you care about. As well as that, if you choose to repeat this pattern in future interactions, you'll develop poisonous beliefs about relationships and romantic partners (let's face it, the negativity is mostly focused on women), and you'll become the kind of person that no one wants to get involved with. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: you anticipate rejection, act as though you deserve romantic attention regardless of anyone else's wishes, and that those partners you desire are worthy of your contempt. The effect that the Friendzone has on others is pretty harmful, but if you buy into it, it destroys you from the inside. The Friendzone cultivates dangerous myths about women, and encourages predatory and antisocial behaviour. It's a breeding ground for toxic masculinity and rape apologism.

Rejecting the ideology of the Friendzone isn't always an easy process. Some people reading this have always been aware of its toxicity, and are well-balanced and emotionally healthy. But it's not true for everyone, and it wasn't always true for me. It took me a number of years, and a number of failed relationships and heartaches, to actually grasp the idea that other people don't owe me their time and affection, even if I have more than enough for both parties. People enter and leave our lives all the time, some will have a profound effect, but any interaction with anybody needs to be with the consent of all involved. If you try to force it, you'll drive a person away; I guarantee it. But then, I also know how difficult it is to entertain advice that contradicts your version of the truth. As I said, it took me a long time to figure it out, and I had to get there by myself. Supportive friends might have helped me to recover more quickly, but I doubt I'd have listened to reason. Surrounding myself with others with the right attitude provided me with the “evidence” my heartbroken brain needed to move on. If I'd listened to toxic ideas that confirmed my biases and unreciprocated desires, there would have been a different outcome.

Rejecting the Friendzone requires that you think about the consequences of your actions. Following the Friendzone doctrine will make things far worse than they ever were to begin with. Initially, you were dealing with the pain of rejection, but the Friendzone trap throws in a little bitterness, conspiratorial thinking, and self-destruction. And you learn to hate others, who in turn know to be wary of you. Adopting the beliefs and behaviours of this fictitious bubble turns you into a monster, and turns everyone else against you. It's a surefire route to loneliness.

As well as learning to deal with rejection and loss appropriately, self-reflection, self-care and self-improvement are important skills that the Friendzone tells you that you don't need. It's not you that needs to improve, it's everyone else. Well, there's 7.5 billion of them, and one of you, so good luck trying to change all those minds. The truth is that everyone needs to look after themselves and work to be the best version of themselves that they can. But the Friendzone tells you that you don't need to bother. It's everyone else that's wrong; they should be queueing up at your doorstep. Why should you change? Well, if you want to change your life, ain't no one going to do it but you. It's difficult, and requires you to address things that might be unpleasant about yourself, but this is just part of growing as an individual. We all have to do it, to be an active participant in society, but the Friendzone encourages you to resist it — to stay as you are, and make your demands on other people.

The Friendzone and the Fuckzone are not good places for anyone to inhabit. If you find yourself there, the best thing you can do is get the hell out, as quickly as you can. It hurts to suffer loss and rejection, but denial and indignation are not going to change anything for the better. The Friendzone feels like a safe and comfortable place to lick your wounds, when it is actually a septic hellhole that infects your mind and your heart with toxic lies.

All of us need to make the transition into adulthood, but this fictional construct holds people back into their 20s, 30s and 40s, so that they are unable to process their emotions appropriately and like adults. Leaving the Friendzone is an act of maturity. You can't develop healthy attitudes to human interactions and romantic relationships if you're following a formula, especially one that encourages a power dynamic in which one party is the hunter, and the other is prey to be hunted. That's not how our brains work; we are not animals. The Friendzone strips women and men of agency, and ignores the rights and responsibilities of anyone caught up in its bullshit. It exerts pressure on lonely men to behave in a controlling way, and on women to comply with men's demands. No one can be happy in this setup. It's time for us all to bin the concept of the Friendzone, and grow the hell up.

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