Dear New Romantics,
You’ve gone on a few dates with a new cutie, and you’re feeling good about it. Maybe you think this one will (finally!) turn into a committed relationship. Maybe you’re hoping to have sex on your next rendezvous. Things are working out. You’re feeling a serious energy exchange — and surely, you can’t be the only one!
You text Future Lover to schedule your next hangout, and the message you receive back throws you for a loop: “I would love to keep hanging out with you, but I’m feeling more of a friendship vibe. Is it cool if we take this down a notch and proceed as friends?”
You’ve suddenly found yourself in the middle of a Carly Rae Jepsen song, and it does not feel good.
According to Urban Dictionary, the Friend Zone is a “particularly aggravating metaphorical place [where] people end up… when someone they are interested in only wants to be friends.”
Sometimes this shows up like in the above example, when someone new you’re dating decides they want to stop the romantic or sexual pursuit and move into friendship. Arguably more often, it shows up as a standing friendship wherein there’s unrequited love: One person is interested in moving the relationship into something “more,” but the other, disinterested person won’t allow it.
Either way, when you’re the interested party, it sucks.
But somewhat surprisingly, it can also suck to be on the receiving end of unrequited love, especially when it’s wrapped up in entitlement. And this is what makes the friend zone complicated to talk about.
Because from a biological and psychological standpoint, sure. The friend zone totally exists. The experience of being rejected is a real thing. But taking a sociocultural lens helps us understand how our conceptualizing of an idea affects (and even harms) other people.
When we have our hearts broken — when the love we want to give isn’t returned — we experience what researchers call “love rejection.” And that has an impact on our neurobiology, or the hormonal makeup of our systems.
In fact, it can leave us with a sense of desperation.
And that shift in your body and mind — where you’re feeling frustrated, panicked, angry, or depressed — is real.
When we’ve been rejected, our cortisol (a stress hormone) increases, which influences our serotonin (a mood stabilizer) to drop. That makes our brain pump out dopamine (a pleasure-seeking hormone), which then produces norepinephrine (which makes us highly excitable and prone to memory-making).
Funny enough, a similar chemical reaction happens while we’re falling in love. The major difference here is that when we’re crushing on someone, our hormone-driven obsessive, compulsive, and addiction-like behavior is being met with the reward we’re seeking (love).
But during a love rejection, while the hormones that make us anxious are high, and the ones that keep us stable are low, our emotions are left running high without reward.
Frustratingly, there is no logical reason (really, stop looking for one) why our love isn’t being returned. Often, searching for one gets us nowhere but sitting with intensely anxious, and even angry, emotions.
It can even lead to “abandonment rage” — wherein our reaction to feeling desperate might cause us to act out against the person we believe “abandoned” (or, in this case, friend-zoned) us.
And while it can and does make us feel like sh*t, we don’t get to take that out on other people. Having a strong negative reaction to being rejected is normal (in fact, after a breakup, 40 percent of people experience moderate depressive symptoms, and 12 percent of people experience severe ones). But experiencing rejection in and of itself is also normal.
To say “I was rejected, and it hurts” is one thing. To say “I was friend-zoned, and it’s unfair” is quite another. The former acknowledges a common human experience with empathy and compassion, both for you and the person who rejected you. The latter implies that rejection was done to you and that you’re now stuck in an unjust situation that you have earned some right to escape through reciprocity.
And that is when we run into a problem.
The derision with which we talk about the friend zone says a lot about how we think about it. We don’t see it as, simply, an unfortunate difference in how two people want to engage in a relationship. Many people see it as an offense that one person commits against another.
And this especially shows up in relationships between men (especially the more social power they hold on axes like race and orientation) and gender minorities, where men have been socialized to feel entitled to sexual or romantic relationships with whomever they want, thanks to perceptions shaped by the media (seriously, have you ever seen a rom-com?) and more.
The idea of the friend zone in particular, as a subset or specific experience of love rejection, implies several untruths that need to be interrogated:
Myth 1. Friendship is less valuable than sexual or romantic relationships
At the heart of the friend zone is the notion that friendship is an inferior position. That one is demoted there.
In a society where romantic and familial relationships are often prioritized over other dynamics, it’s unsurprising that we would conceptualize the friend zone this way. But the truth is: Friendship is valuable. More than that, it’s powerful.
Platonic intimacy — and particularly our desire for it — may be making a comeback. With apps like Bumble BFF and Friender and the near-ubiquitous question “How do you make friends as an adult?,” it’s clear that people are searching for more than sex and romance.
Equalizing its importance — seeing friendship not as supplemental, but as central — will take us a long way from believing the friend zone is an embarrassment.
Myth 2. People owe us sex or romance in exchange for kindness
When I was in high school, I had a good friend who was very much in love with me. He was a wonderful person, and I loved spending time with him. But on a near-weekly basis, he would approach me about why, oh why wasn’t I dating him yet? With a laundry list of ways in which he’d been nice to me, he would lament, “I’m doing everything I can!”
Being kind to someone — indeed, being a friend! — doesn’t mean that you receive sex or love in return. If you’re being nice to someone with the expectation that that will get you laid, I have a newsflash for you: You’re actually not being very nice. You’re being manipulative.
Myth 3. We are entitled to the relationships that we want
Entitlement is the idea that those of us who hold social power (men, white people, etc.) should receive what we want, by virtue of living in a society that tells us we’re deserving of those things. When we’re used to less friction in getting our way, we can become irritated when we’re denied something we see as rightfully ours.
But people aren’t things. People have autonomy — needs, boundaries, and desires — which include the right to choose how their time, energy, and bodies operate. And if someone wants to be friends with you, instead of sexual or romantic partners, they’re allowed to set that boundary. It’s your responsibility, despite the hurt it might cause, to respect it.
While it absolutely sucks to be rejected by someone you’re into, the attitude that they have now taken something away from you is unhelpful — and even harmful. Entitlement — the idea that we deserve something and should expect to receive it — has no place in relationships.
Take a relationship anarchist approach: All relationship structures are equal, rather than hierarchical, and how we approach each relationship in regard to what it includes is determined mutually and respectfully.
Because while rejection most certainly hurts, friendship doesn’t. And we should all feel honored to be included in any zone that someone we love offers.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.