Legends of the Friendzone
Recently, I went to dinner with a good friend of mine who told me about a college classmate they had a crush on for a long time who recently broke up with a significant other.
“Reina, how do I do this?” my friend asked. “How do I take a friend and make them into something more?”
I started laughing my head off, not out of taunting but rather familiarity. It was the famous story of the friendzone again, not the last and not the first. In my recent years of being single, the dance of the friendzone is one that has confused and stumped me again and again. I have never understood it, and I probably never would.
It seemed like a distant idea when I was a married girl watching When Harry Met Sally… on the living room couch of my then-friend in upstate New York back in 2010.
“You realize, of course, that we could never be friends,” Harry says to Sally in the car.
“Why not?” asks Sally.
“What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”
The conversation continues as Sally says, “Well, I guess we’re not going to be friends then.”
“Guess not,” Harry replies.
“That’s too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.”
The next morning, my then-friend walked into the living room I had slept in as I was getting ready to head out to Albany to see my cousins. The look on his face while he looked me over was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen over the course of my lifetime: His brown eyes narrowed in a peaceful way, crinkling slightly with his smile so relaxed and unguarded. He looked at me in my black sundress and daisy shoes the way my then-husband never looked at me. Like he loved me.
It wouldn’t be the last time he looked at me this way. Every time it happened I felt pure joy inside, but I never knew what to do with that look after my divorce because I was then, and still am, romantically inept. That’s why we are now “then-friends” as opposed to… well, I’ll probably never know, because nothing ever happened and we no longer are friends at his request.
But as my friend asked me over dinner, “How do I do this?” I thought about that boy. About this concept of the friendzone and the plague it leaves on our lives. It’s a concept that destroys friendships and it shouldn’t have to. And I hate it for that, and many other reasons.
In full disclosure, I know that in many of my friendships with men we have known that we were just friends with nothing more. We have communicated as such and that’s perfectly fine with both of us. I cherish these friendships; they give me a different perspective. Whether it’s the little brother nature of my friend Gary, the fun and whimsy of my college friend Paul or singing in the car with Jeffrey, they are amazing people even if they aren’t romantically-based connections. And I hope all of them find love with someone who is worthy of them (although, luckily, Paul found the most amazing woman to be his wife).
Although many feminists dismiss the friendzone as a concept that “nice guys” use to be angry about not being approached by women and feeling that women owe them sex, I will wholeheartedly acknowledge that I have been friendzoned by guys that I have liked. For me, it’s the equivalent of being told that you are super-cool but also that you resemble Sloth from The Goonies; in other words, a kick in the balls to your self-esteem. It never, ever feels good, no matter who is playing it. But rejection happens and we move on.
Meanwhile, over the course of my life I have watched several of my friends come together in romantic relationships, even though they started as “just friends.” I am always amazed by the pure joy of these relationships. It’s like they had a beautiful painting and then looked underneath it to find an even more magnificent masterpiece hidden behind it. The risk is there when they first start out, but when the reward is worth ten times more, it’s worth it.
It’s in these relationships I find my inspiration for what I want in mine. There are things that come with friendship that aren’t always there with traditional one-on-one dating: Inside jokes, shared memories, a sense of values that are already common. After all, if there weren’t, why would you be friends in the first place?
But at the same time, what is it about friendship that can make a relationship work? You can have common memories with almost anyone and you don’t necessarily have to like them all that much. Sure, there are romantic relationships that don’t start out this way, but I have found in the ones where they started as friends there is underlying deep sense of love that may not be in ones that started out a different way.
The other night, I was with a guy friend of mine at a party — ironically, a guy who has recently friendzoned me — who saw me talking to another guy. Halfway through the conversation, I realized that guy was someone a girl friend of mine had dated. She was nuts about him, so much so that she invited him to my birthday at a bar six months prior (he probably didn’t remember).
My guy friend tried to encourage us to exchange numbers, and I very reluctantly gave him mine. As we walked out of the bar, I told my guy friend about my girl friend who dated him.
“So?” he asked.
“So I wouldn’t date him. I would never do that to her,” I replied.
“I don’t see the problem here.”
“It’s not worth it. She liked him. My friends mean more to me than that.”
The guy friend didn’t understand. But less than 24 hours later, I got the call that made me realize that friendship meant something very different to me than to him. The woman who was ripped from my life was called friend — my mother had known her since their 10th grade year, when she would make a habit of copying off my mother’s social studies papers. However, the word friend sold her presence in my life short. She also took the role of crazy aunt, cousin confidante, truth-telling partner and sister in facing the crazy world at large. She was always there as family; she just didn’t happen to be related by blood.
For those who are true friends, the term “friend” sells them short. Maybe because we live in an age where it means someone you add onto your Facebook and never speak to after that. But in my world, it means something more than digital connections. As it is with my friend against her former flame, it was the same with the friend who asked me “how do I do this,” as it is even with my then-friend. There is trust and respect as friends that cannot be replicated and doesn’t diminish even when the friendship turns sour.
With my then-friend, despite the fact we hurt each other badly, I would tell you today how he is the most brilliant man I have ever known and what an upstanding and truly good person he is. I would not tell you details about the intimate conversations we shared. There would be a mention of him being the type of guy I could see myself with romantically, but that time has probably passed now for us. But I would add that I want him to be happy, and no matter where I go in my life, there is a place in my heart that is reserved exclusively for him and, like with friends past, will be there until I leave this earth.
That is the place where I want my romantic relationships to come from — love and respect, the same place where friendships come from. I think it’s more than healthy to want that in a romantic scenario. The friendzone should be a place full of those things, not a place of so-called punishment, because being a friend is a great thing if it’s done right. It’s eating pie with Gary, drinking wine with Jeffrey, hearing my “crazy aunt” begging me to save her Vicodin when I was in the hospital and coaching my “how do I do this” friend as to how to get that college crush — which, in the end, even that advice boiled down to being a sincere and true friend until the time was right to approach the subject of dating each other.
It’s time to value our friends just as much as we value our romantic relationships. After all, when Billy Crystal was asked whether Harry and Sally, the truest of friends in the end, would have stayed together after getting married, his answer was with a smile and a reassuring “yes.”