Navigating The Friend Zone

Friend Zone

Today’s post comes from a Stump The Chump submission from Chelsie. For those of you who may not know, Stump The Chump is a feature of That Crazy Christian Romance where readers can submit questions about pursuing romance as a Christian. Your question could be selected as the inspiration for a future post on That Crazy Christian Romance. If you’d like to submit a question, click here.

Chelsie asks a great question about two of her friends that seem to be operating in the Friend Zone. Chelsie writes the following:

“I have witnessed a situation where one party (the gentleman) is extremely interested in a romantic relationship and the other (the lady) is not. Despite clear communication on the part of the fella about his interests and the gal saying she doesn’t want to date, they remain “best friends” and spend copious amounts of time together. He believes he has a chance, she says no way to everyone else (but maybe is less clear in her communication to him). Most people who don’t know of their previous agreement to not date assume they are dating. I know it’s very unhealthy and am afraid the guy is going to be very hurt. The girl is a friend of mine so I have some platform to speak into the situation but don’t even know where to start. She regularly defends their friendship. I don’t know how to articulate to her why her actions are unhealthy and, more or less, cruel to the guy for continuing to lead him on.”

Thanks for the great question, Chelsie!

Chelsie describes a situation I think most of us can relate to. The phenomenon of being interested in a friend who isn’t interested in you is a common human experience. But it’s also a difficult one. The relational and emotional components of such a situation are usually hard to navigate. There’s a lot of complexity described in even the short paragraph Chelsie writes. To help keep things straight, let me start by laying down some starting points…

Starting Points

First, I’m going to assign names to the guy and girl Chelsie describes so it’s easier to talk about them. I’ll call the guy Jared, and I’ll call the girl Jessica. (What? What’s wrong with ‘J’ names?)

Second, we need to recognize that Chelsie is asking two different questions. The first is “How should two friends navigate a situation where one is romantically interested in the other but the other is not?” In other words, Chelsie is asking how the two people she describes should act in their situation. The second question Chelsie is asking is “How should I as a friend to one of the people in this situation influence my friend toward doing what’s right?” I’m going to break this post into two parts in order to address each of these questions.

Third, I need to acknowledge that the complexities of the situation are such that, in spite of Chelsie’s good description, I can’t know everything about what’s happening in the minds and hearts of Jared and Jessica from this side of the internet. That being said, I’m going to write this post while assuming the following premises are true:

(1) Jared wants to have a romantic relationship with Jessica and has strong feelings for her.

(2) I don’t know how clearly Jessica has communicated to Jared that she doesn’t want a romantic relationship at present.

(3) I don’t know whether Jessica knows if she will never have romantic feelings for Jared in the future. I also don’t know if she has talked with Jared about this.

(4) Jessica consistently rejects romantic interest from other men.

(5) I don’t know why Jessica consistently rejects romantic interest from other men.

(6) Jared and Jessica are currently operating as best friends and spend much time together, with no romantic relationship presently existing between them.

(7) Jared hopes that, in the future, Jessica’s feelings for him will change and she’ll want to pursue a romantic relationship with him. So he continues to spend time with her.

Alright. With those starting points laid down, let’s jump in!

 

Part 1: Navigating The Friend Zone

In the next couple sections, I’m going to describe general principles for navigating the Friend Zone. It’s a bit more academic, but I want everyone to be able to understand the general principles so they can know how to apply them to their own unique situations. But if you’re pressed for time and you want to jump to my application of the principles to Jared and Jessica, just scroll down to the section labeled “Back to Jared & Jessica.”

Why The Friend Zone Exists

Ah, the odious Friend Zone. “The Friend Zone” is the popular expression we use to describe the relational situation where one person feels romantic interest in a friend and wants to pursue a romantic relationship, but the friend only wants to remain friends. The Friend Zone is an understandable thing. It naturally comes out of the way we humans are emotionally and relationally wired. We’re wired to develop social relationships and friendships. We’re also wired to develop romantic emotional attractions to people. No one fully understands what causes us to develop romantic attractions to one person and not another. Sometimes a person will become romantically interested in another person, but the feeling isn’t mutual. This can easily occur in the context of a preexisting friendship between a man and woman. When it does, we get what we call the Friend Zone. This is the place Jared and Jessica seem to be in.

Now it’s important to understand that when we encounter the Friend Zone, no one is at fault. The Friend Zone naturally arises out of our emotional and relational natures. People usually don’t have say over who they feel an attraction to or who they don’t feel an attraction to. So while the circumstances of the Friend Zone can be difficult and painful to navigate, it’s important for both people to remember that no one is at fault as long as they both care for each other in the situation and navigate it like adults. That being said, how do you navigate the Friend Zone?

Navigating the Friend Zone

Emotional Realities

Finding wisdom in navigating the Friend Zone starts with understanding the emotional realities that are at work in the situation. The first emotional reality is that one of the people involved has a significant romantic attraction to the other. This attraction can range anywhere from light and casual to deep and overpowering. In our case, Jared is experiencing the romantic attraction.

The second reality is that the other person doesn’t feel romantic attraction to the first. He or she enjoys the emotional ties of friendship, but doesn’t have interest in pursuing a romantic relationship. This is Jessica.

The third reality is that mutual romantic interest is necessary for building a healthy, long-term romantic relationship that has potential to become a marriage. It’s not wise to attempt to pursue a serious romantic relationship if one of the people involved truly doesn’t feel any romantic attraction to the other. No matter how much you might like someone, you don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you.

The fourth reality is that the feelings involved in the Friend Zone can be very hard to manage. It can be downright painful to have feelings for someone, be near him or her, yet have to live through the reality of your interest being rejected. Those feelings don’t necessarily disappear just because your interest was rejected. They might remain very fierce. It can be hard to live with them. Emotion doesn’t quickly obey volition. And it’s not only hard for the person who’s romantically interested. The person without any romantic feelings can have a hard time. He or she might feel sadness that the friendship he or she has enjoyed so much has been impacted by the change of circumstance. Your friend wants to go beyond friendship, but you know you can’t honestly offer that opportunity. Knowing your friendship may not be able to continue the same way it has can be hard.

Relational Realities

Next, we need to understand that the two individuals together control the relational realities. The two individuals, by communicating with each other, together can define and direct their relationship. There are numerous possibilities for how they can direct their relationship. They can agree to pursue a romantic relationship. They can remain platonic friends with the agreement to pursue a romantic relationship at a later time. They can remain platonic friends with no expectation of a future romantic relationship. They can also choose to distance their friendship. The two together have to decide which course will be chosen in their relationship. Most of the options require agreement. The only option a person can choose without agreement is to step away from the friendship.

So how do the two friends determine what course to pursue?

Love, The Great Guide

I want to pause here to remind everyone that love for one another is what should guide two friends as they navigate the process of directing their relationship. I’m not talking about romantic love but the deep, godly love that should always exist between one person and another. This is the type of love Paul talked about when he said,

Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
Romans 13:8 (NET)

The two friends both need to care about each other’s feelings and choices as they work together to determine how their relationship will proceed. Even if they don’t pursue a romantic relationship, they must both continue to love each other in this way. Earlier I said that no one is at fault for a Friend Zone arising. However, fault does occur if either person behaves toward the other in a way that isn’t truly loving. But to clarify, it’s not unloving to decide not to pursue a romantic relationship with a person. An example of unloving behavior would be to act as though you’re interested in a romantic relationship when you really know you’re not (i.e. leading a person on). That would be dishonest. So be sure to let love be the guide that helps the two of you find wisdom in navigating the Friend Zone.

Directing Relationship In Light Of Emotion

That being said, the two friends will have to determine how to direct their relationship in light of the emotions the two of them are experiencing. This can be done by observing and responding. Observing means you take an honest look at what the two of you are feeling. This has to be done by communicating. In our scenario, Jared took the first step by expressing his interest to Jessica. At that point, Jessica needed to share how she felt with Jared. This allows both of them to observe their feelings by understanding how they both feel. This revealed that Jared was interested, but Jessica was not.

Once two people have observed the situation and fully understand the circumstances, it’s time to respond. This means they together respond to the situation by determining how their relationship will proceed. Again, this takes a lot of communication. It also takes wisdom to look at the possibilities and decide which one will be chosen. Let’s look at the options the friends have available.

Pursuing a Romantic Relationship

This isn’t an option when one of the friends doesn’t have any romantic interest. But sometimes it will be an option of the friend with less interest still has some desire to see if deeper romantic feelings will grow. What both friends should understand, though, is that if they pursue a romantic relationship and later break up, they probably won’t be able to go back to being platonic friends. So there’s always risk.

Remaining Friends: Low Emotion

Maybe the friend who feels romantic interest only has a casual level of interest. If that’s the case, remaining friends may be easy. That’s because the knowledge that there’s no opportunity might be enough to enable that person to set aside his or her romantic interest.

I once experienced this with a friend of mine. We had casual interest in each other and went on a date. Soon thereafter we knew that we wouldn’t pursue a long-term relationship. But to this day we remain friends, and our brief time of dating didn’t threaten our friendship. If anything, I would actually say it helped build our friendship.

Remaining Friends: High Emotion

But sometimes the emotional realities in a situation don’t allow for easily remaining friends. There are cases where the interested person has such strong feelings for the uninterested person that it’s hard to be only friends.

I’ve experienced this too. I recall a young woman that I liked quite a bit. I expressed my interest, and she honestly told me she didn’t see any possibility beyond friendship with me. I accepted and respected her answer, and we went on as friends. But as I continued spending time with her, I discovered that my emotions weren’t as willing to be just friends as I hoped. Being with her but not going beyond friendship caused me some emotional difficulty that tripped me up in significant ways. In light of that difficulty, I was ultimately willing to accept a distancing in our friendship.

So what should happen when the interested person has a high level of emotional attraction? My rule of thumb is this: the person with no interest should give power of choice to the person with interest as to how close they remain as friends. In other words, since the interested person has the burden of bearing the greater emotional challenge, he or she should get to decide how close they remain as friends.

A long-term friend of mine once confided that she was interested in me. I had to tell her that I didn’t feel the same about her and didn’t expect my feelings to change. I also told her that I knew it can be hard being in her place, and I wanted her to be able to choose how close we would remain as friends. She chose for us to continue as friends.

I believe giving such a choice to the person who’s interested is an expression of love. It’s essentially saying to them, “I know you have to face an emotional challenge in accepting my choice not to pursue a romantic relationship, so I want you to choose what’s best for you going forward. I’ll support you no matter what.” This can require selflessness. It can be sad to accept distance in a friendship due to romantic feelings that aren’t mutual. But sacrificing your desire for a friendship with the other person for the sake of supporting him or her is one way to show genuine love.

Risk In Remaining Friends

Now, if the person with interest decides to remain friends, it means something very significant. It means that person has chosen to accept the emotional risk of remaining friends. Remember that it can be painful to be near someone you like but not have him or her. If you choose to maintain a close friendship with someone who has rejected your interest, then you alone are responsible for dealing with the emotional realities of it. You have to accept the risk of continuing to desire a relationship that will never happen. You have to accept the pain that may come from watching the other person get romantically involved with someone else. If the man or woman you like has clearly and honestly rejected your interest, then you can’t blame him or her if you face emotional problems in continuing a friendship.

Distancing

Sometimes emotions are too strong to be near a person but not have him or her. Sometimes it’s necessary for two friends to distance themselves from each other in order to aid the process of moving on. It doesn’t mean you never talk or see each other again. It might mean you spend less time with each other. Or maybe it means you spend less time together for a season. It all depends on observing the situation and responding in the way that’s best and healthiest for the two of you. If you know that you need distance in the friendship, honestly and clearly communicate that to your friend. Explain why you feel distance is what you need in light of your feelings. Describe what level of contact you want to have going forward. Describe how long you expect the change to last or if you think it’s permanent. Let your friend clearly understand what you desire in adding distance to the friendship and how he or she can best support you. Adding distance, even if only for a season, can be a way to move on in a healthy manner.

Decisiveness

One last thought before we go back to Jared and Jessica. When two friends are navigating the Friend Zone, I say the more decisive they can be the better.

I once listened as a friend shared about how he expressed his interest to a young woman he knew. He said she responded by saying that she had some interest in him, but she didn’t want to pursue a romantic relationship right then. She might in the future, but she couldn’t promise that or say when. While her answer was honest, it left him in a difficult position because it was very indecisive. She gave him very little definite information to respond to. Should he wait for her? Should he move on? Should he move on for now but ask her again if he was still interested in a year or two? It’s hard to respond effectively to a situation that’s very uncertain.

Now I don’t want to condemn that young woman for her answer or suggest that you’re doing something wrong if you can’t give a very decisive answer to someone’s interest. Emotions aren’t always clear. There are many varying circumstances in life that make it hard to always know exactly where you stand or which path is best moving forward. But maybe that young woman could have been more decisive in her response. Maybe she could have told him to ask again one year from now. Maybe she could have assured him that her interest was definite. Or maybe she could have recommended that he date other people. I don’t know. Again, the ability to be decisive can vary case by case. But the more decisive you can be in knowing your own feelings and what they mean for the other person, the more you can help him or her navigate the path forward. So aim for decisiveness, but don’t feel guilty if you’re in a situation that leaves you somewhat uncertain.

Back to Jared & Jessica

So what does all this mean for Jared and Jessica? How should they navigate their present situation? Well, let’s start by observing.

We know Jared has strong feelings for Jessica and wants a romantic relationship. What I’m not sure of is how exactly Jessica feels about Jared or how she’s expressed her feelings. Chelsie says Jessica “doesn’t want to date.” Is that because she has absolutely no romantic attraction to Jared? Or might it be because she dislikes dating as a social structure and would be open to pursuing a romantic relationship in another form?

If Jessica has absolutely no romantic feelings for Jared and knows she never will, I would want to ask her if she’s clearly and explicitly expressed that to Jared. Remember, us guys communicate best through explicit statements. You can be kind in giving a rejection, but don’t be subtle about it. If Jessica knows she will never be interested in Jared, then Jared needs to clearly understand that.

Another thing that makes me wonder about Jessica’s feelings for Jared is that she’s rejecting romantic interest from other guys. Why is that? Might it be because she subconsciously finds greater interest in Jared and actually should explore a romantic relationship? Or might it be because she’s holding back from romantic pursuits altogether for some reason? I would want to ask Jessica what her intentions are for her life when it comes to romance and marriage. If she expects one day to start dating another guy, then she needs to think about what it will mean for Jared. He would have a front row seat to watching the woman he has feelings for get involved with another man. That would probably be very painful. If Jessica hasn’t been decisive about communicating her feelings and intentions to Jared, then she needs to care for him by doing so.

That’s because Jared is taking a big emotional risk in staying close to her in hopes of her feelings changing. See, Jared’s not crazy in hoping her feelings will change and she’ll want to pursue a romantic relationship. The longer I live, the more I hear stories along the lines of “my husband asked me out a bunch of times before I finally said yes.” I even have two personal friends who got married that way. They were friends. He like her. He asked her out. She said no. They remained friends and spent time together. A year later, he asked her out again. She again said no. They continued to remain friends and spent time together. A year later he asked her out again. She said yes. Now they’re happily married with a kid. So if Jessica is acting at all like she might one day be interested in a romantic relationship, I can’t blame Jared for sticking close. The problem is there’s no guarantee he’ll get the relationship he’s hoping for. And as long as he keeps waiting for a relationship with Jessica, he’s cutting himself off from moving on and finding opportunity with other women.

Final Thoughts For Jared & Jessica

So I can’t know what Jared and Jessica should do from my position. If I could talk with them I’d want to say these things to them:

“Jessica, have you been clear and decisive about your feelings for Jared? If you know you’re never going to be interested in him, have you clearly communicated that to him? Have you considered the pain he could face if he continues to believe he has a chance with you and then watches you get involved with someone else? It wouldn’t be right to let him continue to think he has a chance with you if you already know otherwise.

“Jared, do you understand the risk you accept by continuing to hope Jessica’s feelings will change? If she’s set on not pursuing a relationship with you, then I expect the day is coming when you’re going to watch her get involved with another man. Are you prepared for that? And are you really willing to spend your days with a woman who doesn’t want to look at building a future with you? Are you willing to do that at the cost of missing opportunity to build a future with another woman?

“The two of you can’t stay in this Friend Zone state forever. Either you’re going to have to explore a romantic relationship with each other or you’re going to have to step away from each other and pursue romance with other people. To go on for years in a “friends but not lovers, but one of us wants to be lovers” state will be incredibly unhealthy for both of you. If you’re not going to be together for the long haul then it’s essential that both of you don’t cut yourselves off from other opportunities by continuing to focus time and attention mainly on each other.

“I know right now it might seem easier to continue to enjoy spending time together without making any hard decision. But putting off the decision to clearly define where your relationship is going will make things worse as more time goes by.”

 

Part 2: Influencing As A Friend

Now I want to address the second part of Chelsie’s question. She’s wondering how she can talk to Jessica as a friend in a way that will help Jessica handle the situation in a healthy way.

I would say the first step is to help your friend fully understand the emotional and relational realities of her friendship. It sounds like Jessica may think everything is fine the way it is. If so, I suspect it may be because she’s not thinking about what Jared is facing on his side or how there’s an emotional bubble that’s waiting to pop. Jessica may feel fine right now as the person with no romantic interest. But her mind might change if she gains a greater awareness of the emotional challenge Jared faces and the risk he takes. She should also consider where the two of them will end up if their current course continues into the future. Neither of them should miss other opportunities in life and relationships for the sake of a friendship that never will turn into a lifelong commitment.

So, Chelsie, you could talk with Jessica about the things I discussed in Part 1. You could even ask her to read Part 1!

The second thing to do is encourage Jessica to do what’s most loving in the situation, not what might feel best. It can feel easier to put off important conversations. But often in life, caring for a person means intentionally having those important conversations.

The third thing that’s important to do is not be attached to the situation. Jared and Jessica are (presumably) adults. They’re responsible for making their own decisions. It’s good to be a friend who challenges and encourages where a friend should. But don’t feel responsible for the outcome. It’s up to Jared and Jessica to determine that. Once you’ve spoken your part to Jessica, it’s up to her to decide what to do.

I sure hope that helps! Thanks for sticking with me through a very long response.

 

What do you think? Have you experienced the Friend Zone? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’d like to try to Stump The Chump with a question of your own, click here.

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4 Comments

  • Erin says:

    Justin,
    Thank you so much for this article! I have read dozens of articles on this topic, but this has been the best one by far. I appreciate how clear and thorough your writing is, and how you address every angle of the Friend Zone in a way that is fair and considerate to both parties. I have been very close friends with a guy for the past 3 years and have been in the Friend Zone for most of that, although there were a few times I pulled back for a season before deciding that the friendship was valuable enough to risk some potential pain.
    I can’t underscore enough how important clear communication is in such a situation. Staying friends with him has become much easier since we finally started talking about our relationship and some of the will-he-won’t-he ambiguity was cleared up.

    • Justin Megna says:

      Erin,
      Thanks so much for your encouraging words! I’m glad I can share wisdom that’s helpful for people facing such situations. I’m also glad you’ve been able to navigate the Friend Zone in your own experience. I hope we can all together build a culture where we share the skills needed to navigate the Friend Zone so others aren’t left wondering what to do.

  • Wendy Shopmyer-Untz says:

    What if one party who is not interested in you romantically is in a relationship with another person?
    Do you still put the ball in your court when this happens?
    What do you do in this situation?

    • Justin Megna says:

      Wendy,

      You said in your question that the person you’re interested in “is not interested in you romantically.” So I’m going to presume that in the situation you’re describing you already know that the person definitely isn’t romantically interested in you. In that situation, the best thing to do is simply to move on. This is because you already know he’s not interested in you (which makes sense considering how he’s in a relationship with someone else). If you were to express your interest, it would simply mean getting rejected. It’s good to express interest when you don’t know whether the other person might like you or not. But when you know he’s not interested, it’s time to move on. It certainly stinks to have to let go of someone you really like, but in such a situation we shouldn’t hold on to feelings that have no potential.

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