The Futility Of Friendzoning

“There was a time, I am told, when exes lived in Texas and you could avoid them by moving to Tennessee. Cutting ties is no longer so easy — nor, I guess, do we really want it to be. We gorge ourselves on information about the lives of our exes. We can’t help ourselves.” — Maureen O’Connor, “All My Exes Live in Texts”
Shutterstock/Grigoriev Ruslan
Shutterstock/Grigoriev Ruslan

Have you heard that kissing allows an exchange of about 80 million germs between two people?

I’m no biologist, but how long do you suppose even one of those germs, at its most atomic unit, remains on our person long after the person we’ve kissed has vanished from our lives?

It is strange that, as humans, we can casually exchange 80 million germs, and then attempt to cancel that transaction out with three simple words.

“Let’s be friends.”

It’s a Saturday: I haven’t showered yet and my breath reeks of coffee. I’ve just sliced up garlic cloves and have thrown them into the slow cooker for a stew I’ll eat for dinner later tonight. I might move some semicolons around on a long-form piece of prose I’m chipping away at.

I might play video games.

I’ll allow my phone battery to run out.

There is a rhythm to my weekends. It is reliable, it is comfortable because I’m the one dictating the cadence—it is at the mercy of no one but me. It is the kind of selfish rhythm that took time to perfect. It is the kind of selfish rhythm I nearly-perfected after spending too many weekends out on dates with duds in past years: A mix of men who have told me or who I have told, “Let’s be friends.” It’s a process that has taken several years to cultivate—learning that life is about the joy of missing out, that unless absolutely necessary, all those tricks blowing up my phone don’t need responses right now and that none of them are going to be the prince I bring home to meet my family, anyway.

M. makes me nervous because he is a wrench in this rhythm.

He might be the prince.

Months ago, he told me, “Let’s be friends.”

It didn’t change our dynamic one beat and we continued growing closer.

There is a time in the not-too-distant past when I am stuck in a vicious loop with him. I keep chasing time with him. He encourages my affections, feeds off my attention, but ultimately keeps me at arm’s length. He seeks me out when he needs to fuel up on validation and otherwise disappears for days or weeks at a time.

I stupidly wait in the wings, wanting to pick him up when he’s down. I ignore my id’s pleas to respect myself.

That lack of respect is what precludes any possibility of a true friendship. M. is the ever-elusive rabbit and I’m Alice running through a goddamn hedge maze that’s all turns and no exit.

It is an unusual friendship that probably doesn’t make sense to an outsider. It is a friendship which winks at a heartbreaking reality: He isn’t really that into me. It is a fact which stings especially because as his friend, I should celebrate his life choices—yet I have no mental software I can execute if I see him slumming it, flirting with the kind of person who makes me go, “…him?”

When I try to run those lines of code to celebrate him for being him, there is a glitch. My ego is activated and I find the only way to switch it off is to back away from the situation until I am nearly invisible. The casual absence creates a kind of static that then prompts him into action. It’s toxic. It’s immature. It is one of the few shields I have against the double-edged sword of “Let’s be friends.”

Recently, I decided to eavesdrop on a comment thread on one of M.’s Facebook posts and regretted it immediately. I felt a violent churning in my gut—he was flirting with someone who made me go, “…him?” On social media, casual flirtation is a way of life. But when those stakes cross over into our physical, waking life, seemingly trivial actions inspire visceral real-world reactions.

It’s not a rational reaction to read words on a computer screen between two strangers that have nothing to do with you and to consequently feel a convulsion in your stomach. Yet, there I was, clutching my abdomen and realizing that this was jealousy. “Let’s be friends” wasn’t working.

I knew very well why reading letters on a screen caused me to seize up and want to puke.

I could never compete against the men that M. openly chases time with. I don’t know that I want to compete against them.

They are beautiful; they are vacant.

So, maybe instead of chasing him through the hedge maze, I should quit the hunt.

“Let’s be friends” is a limp attempt at letting someone down. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. “Let’s be friends,” is easy. It beats the sting of saying, “This is not going to work out, and realistically, I do not see us being friends.”

It breeds a lot of resentment, too.

Follow it up with about a half-dozen, “I’m so busy at work”s before both parties simply shrug and give up even the attempt at being friends. A sour taste is left after.

It is a proposition that doesn’t work when one person pines away in a vacuum and the other one eggs them on while openly pursuing other suitors. It is a one-sided promise between two people. After all, it is the rarest bruise that does not heal when, after telling a guy who you’ve grown close to that you like-like him, he turns around and chases time with a dunderhead.

Annoyingly enough, you can’t make anyone like you a certain way. Failing that, however, you can very proactively begin putting him in your past and create the kind of distance that allows you to calm down and go find someone who can reciprocate.

You can bury their bodies with subsequent romantic entanglements, career accomplishments, catchy pop humdingers, lottery jackpots, and even time. It is the slow-motion peeling band-aid, this process of forgetting.

L. was probably the first true gentleman I dated; he was certainly the first man to whom I said “I like you” by giving him flowers (a bird of paradise, to be specific). He was also the first man who demonstrated how messy and ugly interactions between two otherwise reasonable humans could become. When he sealed our fates with those three words, I detested him. I nearly burned an effigy of him on the cockroach-infested stove of the Brooklyn apartment I was living in at the time.

L. told me, “Let’s be friends,” after pursuing me.

I never wanted to see him again.

He had a habit of casually reappearing that made it difficult for me to get over him. Each time I had built a formidable enough wall to insulate myself against him, he kept returning. At odd hours of the day or night, an unexpected G chat window would pop up with a quiet, “Hey.” My heart would stop. A zombie, rapping at my window, wanting me to pay attention to him.

Every time he reappeared, I’d have to yell louder to get him to flee, until he finally fled for the last time.

But we live in an unfortunate age of technology. Even though two humans can end a relationship, neither person can truly escape the other. We’re all very easily discoverable.

Sometime recently, I found L. online and we exchanged likes on one another’s Instagram photos. That weekend, I wrote him a long e-mail; congratulated him on his brilliantly domestic life situation (handsome boyfriend, adorable dog, chic New York City living situation—Brenda Shaughnessy would’ve been proud!) It was at that moment that the first piece of correspondence I sent him gave me what I needed to finally get over him, to no longer regard him as the one that got away, but rather the one that didn’t need to stay.

Rediscovering him meant that I had to be okay with the fact that he’d want nothing to do with me.

When I received an e-mail back from him, I realized that through the darkness, both of us could emerge and be friends.

All it took was about five hundred miles and several years.

Perhaps that is a roadmap that T. and I will follow, too.

I wasn’t supposed to fall for T. I guess we’re never really “supposed” to fall for the ones we don’t want to. I wasn’t supposed to fall for M. either.

I have a picture I took of T. as he was eating some fried seitan; in it, he is playfully attacking it with his silverware. I used to go back to it time and time again—almost to trigger a part of my brain that wanted to wallow after he withdrew from my life. It is a little like manually triggering a Venus fly-trap. Poke its leaves and it shuts close; do it enough times and the plant wilts.

Make a habit of lingering on memories of lost things and you wilt, too.

But when the ones we like so much and the ones we know are right for us reject us, what is left to do but seek answers by probing all those old memories?

It was Joan Didion who once said of the West, “The future always looks good in the golden land, because nobody remembers the past.” Lana Del Rey would later go onto say of the West, “Down on the West Coast they got a sayin’ / ‘If you’re not drinkin’ then you’re not playin’.’”

T. wasn’t ready for anything serious; he wanted to keep playing. We met when we were both living in the same part of the country, though. After he put his version of “Let’s be friends,” on the table, I told him I actually needed him out of my life. He ended up moving out West—and I couldn’t help but smirk at how the universe, indeed, has a way of making things work out.

There is no single action or event that prompted T. to utter those three words. Perhaps we were advancing too quickly, perhaps we were just at different stations in our lives. I was ready to throw my roots down and he wanted to fly.

It is a maddening endeavor to try to pick apart motives for seemingly casual cruelty. It isn’t casual cruelty in T.’s mind. Perhaps it is how he knows to survive—it is how he knows to move on from something he does not want to engage with. A pre-emptive strike, perhaps?

Rather than getting too deep, it’s about stepping away before that possibility has a chance to develop.

Social media keeps us from being able to permanently delete heartbreakers. Perhaps it is a device that allows us to grow up, to make room for the possibility of finally learning to “be friends” with people who have upset us.

He kept following me on Twitter even though I unfollowed him when I realized I needed to build a wall between us. Then, when I’d least expect it, he’d favorite or reply to one of my tweets, to the most banal of my tweets.

Eventually I refollowed him. It is an irresistible temptation to try to exhume some of these bodies, to see if they’ve been breathing all along and if so, if they’re still thinking of you.

Perhaps he is just one of many Peter Pans, stuck in Neverland.

He means well, he honestly does. In trying to arc towards friendship, it means that no matter how bitter I may have felt upon being friendzoned, I’d still have to find the ability to love him as a friend—and respect that he’d rather be flying over make-believe lands than looking to ground himself.

When T. engages with me from afar, over the safe noncomittal distance of social media, replying to a tweet, he is simply saying, “Let’s be friends.”

He is on the West Coast and I am in Great Lakes country, this friendly distance between us makes letting him go easier.

It is honestly so stupid.

As grown men, we now engage in an elaborate courtship ritual dictated by Likes, comments, tweets, favorites, reblogs. We measure and analyze them with the same zeal and concentration of a marketer who trades in such metrics.

No wonder so many of us are single.

Many of us are so scared to be open and honest that we hide behind these “safe” actions that we execute at a high frequency. They facilitate a low-risk exit strategy, the easy invocation of “Let’s be friends.” Those three words are always a safety net when the weight of an interpersonal relationship becomes too heavy to bear. So many of us have hundreds—maybe thousands—of friends across so many social media networks that it is a word that starts to lose meaning.

“Friends.”

It is funny to think of “Let’s be friends” as a series of safe words; it only insulates the person who invokes it from harm—and subjects the recipient of the message to crushing disappointment.

“Friends.”

I made a resolution some years ago that in the event I had to be the bearer of bad news, I wouldn’t try to hand friendship off as a consolation prize to someone I wasn’t interested in. Such an action devalues my friendships. It insults the intelligence of the person I’m dating. It requires a modicum of courage, but is worth it to simply say, “You are a great person—however, I don’t see us working out.” That can be an act of basic human decency rather than a privilege afforded only to friends.

If you say a word over and over again, it simply ceases to exist beyond the phonemes which comprise it.

My feet had become sore from chasing M. through the hedge maze, thinking if I run just a little more, I’d catch up. Instead, I’d find just another path to run down. I got so tired that recently, I decided to throw everything in the fire.

It is unrealistic to expect any human being to keep holding in something which swells to an unmanageable size.

Realizing that I couldn’t simply be friends with M., I thought back to Lane Kim’s proclamation of love to Zack on Gilmore Girls:

“I like you Zack. I like you as more than a bandmate and more than a friend. I like you. I have liked you for some time now and I don’t think this feeling is going to go away. I just thought you should know. Here’s your beer.”
I was moved to action by this speech. The status quo no longer worked for us. There was nothing healthy about the one-sided nature of my friendship with M. So, several weeks ago, I sent him a text message telling him that I think we should date, that I see him as being instrumental to my future happiness. It is bold. It is idiotic.

It is an enormous mass to be handing to someone, especially if they may not have the emotional musculature to bear its weight. But it is also an unreal burden for one person to be holding in.

And it’s a relief to no longer be tasked with carrying it any longer.

To throw that burden into the fire means that I’ve decided to quit the hunt and step out of the hedge maze.

It means that I’ve accepted that once the fire dies down, I might be left with nothing but cinders and radio silence. And that’s okay. To be left with cinders means that, at least, I don’t have to continue carrying the heavy weight of uncertainty.

I don’t have to run in circles chasing something that might not be there.

There is tremendous power in doing the vulnerable thing—in sparking a series of events that may spur someone you like a whole lot to tell you, “Let’s be friends”—or to prompt such a conclusion through a lack of any response. Perhaps after that silence, a text message may finally surface from the other side: “We haven’t talked in a while. Want to grab a drink?”

Of course I’ll say yes. It would be unfriendly not to. TC mark

This post originally appeared at Medium.

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