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Relationships

How People Deal With Being in "The Friend Zone"

Blurred boundaries and feelings of rejection.

Key points

  • Overall, relationships became more strained after attempts to convert to romance.
  • The friendzone is often a temporary, transitional, and unstable state, as opposed to a stable friendship.
  • In many cases, friendzoning is synonymous with rejection and leads away from enduring friendship.

by Grant H. Brenner

Relationships are shifting, as noted by authors of a recent study of “friendzoning” (LeFebvre et al., 2022), in the journal Imagination, Cognition, and Personality: Consciousness in Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice:

“People habitually do not process new information and use old stereotypes as relationship behavioral guides; as such, they are often mindless when it comes to thinking about the communication in their relationship.”

Since relationships are so key for mental health, it's good to get a handle on what's happening. Alongside increasing fluidity and renegotiation of core aspects of identity such as gender, culture, and ethnicity—relationships nowadays are evolving, increasingly complex, and undergoing a spontaneous redesign.

Contemporary emerging terminology includes, as elaborated by study authors: "on-again/off-again," "hooking-up," "relationship churning," "back-burner relationships," "ghosting," "backcatching feelings," and of course the dreaded "friendzone."

Add the more conventional concepts of dating, boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse/husband/wife, partner, and serial monogamy, not to mention “Netflix and chill,” “friends with benefits,” “side bae," plus related less-G-rated terms, and we’ve got quite a tossed salad. As the notorious profile status tells us, “It’s Complicated,” highlighting the challenge in articulating exactly just what it is, actually.

Are New Attachment Styles Developing?

A big part of the underlying psychology is grounded in attachment style—including the main secure and insecure types, with insecure subtypes being avoidant, anxious (alternatively preoccupied and withdrawn), and disorganized.

But why choose just one? In this view, given all the changes noted above in relationships, culture, and identity, as well as shifts in the workplace with younger adults (“GenZennials”)—we may need to update attachment theory, integrating secure and insecure attachment into a more cohesive, dynamic framework embodying a meta-stable, adaptive model with responsive secure and insecure elements1.

Mapping the Friendzone Terrain

How to make sense of the friendzone? Researchers conducted a study with 787 people ranging in age from 18 to 32 years to clarify several key elements of the friendzone phenomenon, exploring the following with collecting structured “quantitative” data about the frequency of friendzoning initiation and reception and related info, and descriptive “qualitative” responses about participants’ experience, analyzed for significant consistent themes2. They sought to answer four exploratory questions:

  1. How do individuals, who have experienced the phenomenon, conceptualize friendzoning?
  2. How do initiators communicate interest in changing the relationship?
  3. What are respondents’ reactions to initiators’ interests in changing their friendship?
  4. What change occurs to the friendships following the expression of romantic feelings?

Friendscaping the 'Zone

Overall, 55.7 percent of participants reported being both Initiators (raising the possibility of romance from a base of friendship) and Respondents, 11.4 percent noted only being in the Initiator role, and 33 percent only the Respondent role.

The qualitative analysis looked at four elements: Conceptualizing Friendzone, Communication of Feelings, Reaction to Communication, Change in Relationship Status, broken down into several different typical responses. The numbers reported for “I” and “R” represent the percentage of Initiators and Respondents who reported various experience on the way to the friendzone.

1. Conceptualizing Friendzoning—The Big Picture

  • Failed Transition (I 49/R 55.9 percent)
  • Misunderstanding (I 15.8/R 14.9 percent)
  • Romantic History (I 18.4/R 10.8 percent)
  • Alternative Partners (I 10.3/R 8.9 percent)
  • Persistence (I 1.8/R 7.5 percent)
  • There Is a Chance (I 3.1/R 0.7 percent)
  • Incompatible Attraction (I 0.4/R 0.4 percent)

Communication of Feelings—Approaching Romantic Possibilities

  • Direct Declaration (I 40.3/R 24.6 percent), including rare “Grand Gestures”
  • Subtle Indication (I 28/R 27.3 percent)
  • Multi-Pronged Approach (I 3.6/R 17.9 percent)
  • Physical Indication (I 7.4/R 12.0 percent)
  • Mediated Approach (I 8/R 10.2 percent) e.g. using text or social media
  • Absence of Declaration (I 7.8/R 0.9 percent)
  • Third-Party Approach (I 2/R 2.5 percent)

Reaction to Communication

  • Direct (I 28.4/R 28.9 percent)
  • Shared Interest (I 28.6/R 14.6 percent)
  • Lack of Reaction (I 9.5/R 15.8 percent)
  • Subtle (I 12.4/R 11.6 percent)
  • Surprise (I 5.5/R 12.2 percent)
  • Uncomfortable (I 6.7/R 10 percent)
  • Flattered (I 5.5/R 5.2 percent)

Change in Relationship Status

  • Strained Friendship: Impaired (I 28.9/R 35.6 percent) and Terminated (I 25/R 24.8 percent)
  • Continued Friendship: Maintained (I 30/R 24.1 percent), Escalated (I 6/R 5.9 percent), and Temporary Deviation (I 3.8/R 4.9 percent)
  • Romantic Relationship (I 2.7/R 1.1 percent)
  • Amplified Efforts (by the initiator) (I 0.4/R 1.6 percent)

Researchers also conducted “secondary analyses” to look for interactions between Initiator and Responder reactions to friendzoning moves.

For example, Respondents perceived more multi-pronged efforts than Initiators indicated, suggesting they were more aware of romantic interest than Initiators imagined, and that Initiators might have less self-awareness around their own romantic signals.

Initiators reported greater perceived romantic interest than Respondents reported—an important finding especially when Initiators may not take “no” for an answer, as reflected in the small number of Initiators who persisted following rejection.

Understanding this dynamic is especially important as it can lead to boundary violations, or worse.

The Shape of Things to Come

Friendzoning is, as implied in these research findings and commonplace experience, not the same as friendship. Overall, relationships became more strained after attempts to convert to romance, regardless of whether they gave it a shot or went straight to the friendzone.

Whether friendzoning outcomes would be different depending on if the initiation took place in the context of an established "strong" friendship or a newer, more tenuous one is a question for further research. Experience suggests, however, that solid friendships are more likely to survive the expression of romantic interest, regardless of whether they decide to move to romance or keep it friendly. And, of course, the idea of "marrying your best friend" has a cherished place in relationship lore.

Unpacking Friendzoning Sheds Light on the Future of Relationship

This research is useful because it provides information as to how individuals can think about transitioning from friendship to romance in an effort to avoid common pitfalls.

Romantic and sexual feelings are a real threat to friendship, with the exception of relatively rare times when people can either maintain or deepen friendships after failed attempts at romance or successfully transition.

Study authors argue that the friendzone is a kind of platonic relationship. The subtle and often tumultuous situations which arise when one person has romantic feelings and the other does not renders the friendzone often a temporary, transitional, and unstable state. Relationships are only romantic if all partners are consenting.

Ultimately, whether friendzoning settles down into a stable friendship is a function of many less well-understood factors, presumably related to basic compatibility, the persistence of unrequited desire which may or may not fade, and the shared desire of both partners to re-establish safer-feeling friendship versus holding on to the risky wish for something else.

In many cases, friendzoning is synonymous with rejection… and leads away from enduring friendship especially if there is a cringe factor... or even worse, excessive pressure. In the crucible of the friendzone, romantic and sexual possibilities often overshadow the meaning of friendship, especially for newer friendships3.

As relationships, identity, and culture evolve, as people become more psychologically savvy, as family structures are characterized by higher rates and normalization of divorce and platonic co-parenting outcomes, and as lifespan lengthens in a time of massive upheaval and uncertainty on a macro level, younger adults face greater uncertainty about what relationships are and what they want them to be.

Over time, the nature of contemporary relationships and attachment is likely to become clearer as new forms emerge and become convention. Until then, trying to work out what is what can unnervingly feel like being in the twilight zone.

Facebook image: MDV Edwards/Shutterstock

References

1. Complexity theory, specifically complex adaptive systems, has room for seemingly paradoxical or at least self-contradictory yet consistent relationship frameworks. For example, perhaps we'll see a "securely disorganized" attachment style, or a securely insecure (insecurely secure?), securely complex, or related pattern of relatedness and identity emerge from the turbulence of contemporary social evolution.

2. “Analytic induction involves abstracting categories without a prior classification, and allowing the negative cases to expand, adapt, and restrict the original conceptualization.”

3. It may be tempting to describe romance as “something more” than friendship. However, friendships on average are more enduring and in many ways more important than romantic relationships.

LeFebvre LE, Rasner RD, Kickert C-J, McLelland B, Owen E, Iyer A. Conceptualizing the Friendzone Phenomenon. Imagination, Cognition and Personality. 2022;42(1):42-76. doi:10.1177/02762366221077416

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