How a Hopeful Lover Ends Up a Disappointed Friend

The reasons are more complex than you think, but begin with timing.

Posted Aug 22, 2008

"I think we should just be friends."

Those are seven of the most horrifying words a woman could ever utter to a man. These are also cringe-worthy:

"Yes, I slept with Bobby and not you, but that's because I respect you!"

Many men, upon hearing such a declaration, may think to themselves: "Please, stop respecting me!"

For many men and women, being rejected, especially sexually, is the greatest insult, worse than being called a jerk, a loser, or even a "bad friend." This makes some sense: Evolutionary psychologists (and others) would point out that sexual intercourse gets our genes passed on to the next generation, while friendly banter, in itself, cannot offer the same vehicle.

Why am I writing about this? I'm a serious intelligence and creativity researcher. But I am deeply interested in the role of creativity in human mating behavior, so some of these ideas are on the forefront of my mind. And I'm spurred on by a recent post by my esteemed colleague Michael J. Formica on the topic, "Pornography, Emotional Availability, and Female Objectification." His posts add much needed soul to life, and this one particularly struck a chord with me.

Formica argued that pornography is about the objectification of women and, for some men, can substitute for a real emotional connection. I agree with him that addiction to pornography can be a problem, especially when it interferes with forming desired emotional bonds. But it's important to bear in mind that the problem isn't with pornography itself, but, as Formica astutely points out, when that pornography acts as a substitute for real human contact.

More relevant to this post, he wrote:

"Most men who indulge themselves in pornography would be appalled—despite the immediate response—if their wife or girlfriend walked into the bedroom wearing fishnets, stilettos and a latex corset and wanted to get nasty."

I found this humorous but also thought-provoking. Thinking along these lines reframes, at least for me, the entire meaning of "The Friend Zone." Suddenly, comments such as "I didn't get nasty with you because I respect you," and, "Let's just be friends. I want to sleep with the milkman and you are getting in my way," make sense. The other person (male or female) actually does respect you, and that is the reason they don't want to have passionate sex with you. The problem (for you) is they respect you too much to see you as a sexual opportunity.

Formica framed his blog post in terms of the objectification of women, but objectification, of course, is an equal opportunity employer. Even if more men consume hardcore pornography than women, some women are quite capable of objectifying men in similar, or other ways, such as valuing them strictly for their wealth or fame.

My point is this: For many (if not most) individuals, the mystery and intrigue of meeting an attractive stranger is exciting, maybe even sexy. If we become too close to that person in a "friend way" too soon, we start caring about them in a way that isn't associated with sexual interest. If this emotional connection forms before at least a modicum of sexual attraction has, then that person may enter "The Friend Zone."

Of course, none of this means that if you have passionate sex with your interested partner that you don't care for or respect that person. For many healthy relationships, it's a normal way of expressing each other's love, devotion, and sensitivity to each other's desires. Here I only address the issue of  "The Friend Zone"—that curious, poorly understood, and unfortunately, much under-researched place where one is cared about in a way that isn't sexual.

Of course, friends can (and do) develop into lovers. But this only happens when the long-time friend, for whatever reason, starts to be seen in a new light, as a sex object—among many other objects: social, emotional, etc. Indeed viewing someone as a sex object isn't in itself objectification; only when that's the only way you view them.

The reality is that being in "The Friend Zone" can be seen as an honor: It means you are well-respected, have formed an emotional connection with a person, and are thought of as nice, considerate, and dependable. These are valuable traits—I really mean that. They just aren't all that helpful if the recipient of the honor also feels a sexual attraction to its presenter.

Still, for many who get in the zone, it's easy to lose sight of how much of an honor it really is.


© 2008 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved 

Note: I thank Elliot Paul and Erin Wegner for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article. I also thank Ben Irvine for influencing my ideas through many stimulating discussions on this matter.

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