Nerds In Love Column: The Friend Zone, and a follow up

Nerds,

I like this girl at Starbucks. She was very sweet and wrote her number on my starbucks cup. So I texted her and we’ve been getting along. Then she asks me if I think this guy she’s into is cute.

Fucking sucks. I’m not really an expert on dating but my friend told me I’ve been friend zoned. His explanation was vague, so I’d like a better explanation if there is one and more importantly, how can I win this barista’s heart?

Jordan

You’re absolutely right that rejection, in whatever form it comes in, sucks. It sucks to learn that the people we have romantic interest in don’t like us the same way, and it sucks to feel like our efforts to be lovable and loved are not appreciated. I’m sorry that you’re experiencing that right now.

The thing about rejection really sucking is that sometimes that fact keeps us from putting ourselves out there. Sometimes we are so nervous about the pain of getting shot down that we don’t state our intentions to the people we want to like us back. It’s so painful to hear “I’m sorry, I don’t feel the same way” that we try to find ways of circumventing that possibility, such as not declaring saying “hey, I’d be really interested in taking you out for a date,” or “hey, I think you’re really cool and I’d like to get to know you better.” Instead we wait and worry and hope the object of our affection sees how well we treat them, how kind and nice we can be, and hope that’s enough to guarantee we never hear the word “no.” How does this stack up to what you’ve experienced with this woman? You don’t mention telling her that you had feelings for her or otherwise made your romantic intentions clear, so this is what I’m inferring has happened (I could be wrong though).

But that doesn’t always, in fact hardly ever, work. There is nothing we can do to guarantee that a person will never say “no” to us. There is no magic set of steps to go through that means someone will love us back. This is because people are autonomous beings, and each of us is the only one who gets to decide who we care about, love, and spend time with. What, if anything, could someone do to make you love them? I can’t think of anything that would make me love someone I didn’t, any more than I can suddenly believe in pink elephants.

My belief is that the “friend zone” is what happens when people forget this fact. The “friend zone” is what happens when people buy into the false idea that there is a magic formula that can skirt rejection entirely and guarantee that people we like will like us back. When the object of our affection doesn’t play by those rules and in fact doesn’t like us back, sometimes we get angry at them for this. How dare they play me and my feelings, we think. How dare they not see how I did everything I was supposed to. They’re supposed to love me, but instead they just decided to put me in the “friend zone.”

For many people, this friend zone can become a dark, ugly, and often misogynistic place. There is a disturbing tendency for some men, in particular, to label women who have the temerity to not like them back as somehow defective, repellant, or worthless. Take a browse through r/niceguys on Reddit and you’ll see the kind of vicious language and hatred that can be directed at women who reject men. You didn’t give your pronouns in your letter, and in any case I don’t want to assume this is the path you’re on, but this is to illustrate what can happen when people forget that other people are human beings just like them, with the same abilities, limitations, rights, and desires. Even if they’re cute and we like them.

The idea that another human’s heart can be won, as if they’re the object of a game with rules, is a false one, despite how much it’s perpetuated throughout our culture (see: every narrative ever that rewarded the hero with getting the girl). There is nothing I want more for you than to have you move through life without the vitriol and bitterness that this idea brings. Risking rejection is scary, and being rejected is painful. These things are inevitable when we’re dealing with humans, there is no way to prevent or circumvent that. What would it be like to live openly with that fact? What would it be like to say “hey, I’d like to take you on a date” and be ready for any answer?

Nerds,
I had a hookup recently. It went really well and there was an actual connection like we might end up dating. But during the pillow talk she said she was disappointed in herself for sleeping with a white guy. I played it cool but asked why. She said it’s because white guys are the worst kinds of human beings.


She’s been messaging me a little, so I’ve had to put some thought into this. I could maybe spend some time with her and bring her around on the subject of white guys, but that’s kind of an outside bet. And honestly, I just don’t think I have the stamina to try and be in a
relationship, even a super casual one, with someone who hates me for the way I was born.


So now I have to make a choice. Should I tell her why I won’t be sticking around? It might serve as a wakeup call for her, or be something she can reflect on much later, that her attitude on race is hurting her. But also, it might cause a shitstorm that I’ll then have to endure. She’s knows where I live, after all. Or do I just ghost her. Ghosting is rude as hell, but a fella has to look out for his safety. Thoughts?

James

Those of you who listened to the Nerds in Love episode for this past week know about our off-the-cuff response to James’ email, which was basically “wow, that sucks and we’re sorry to hear you experienced that, don’t feel obligated to teach people things if it comes at the expense of your sense of well-being and safety.” I think that advice holds true, but I also feel like there’s a little more we can add to this response, given our current cultural context.

There’s a long-overdue and much-needed conversation happening in our culture right now about different kinds of privilege, and their impacts on the lives of people who have them or don’t. This is important because in order to have a truly equitable society, where each person has the best possible chance at living the life they want to live, we have to understand what makes that easier for some people and harder for others, so that we can find ways to overcome it.

The thing is, in order to change the things that make it easier for some people to do well, at the expense of others, we have to first acknowledge that these things exist, and that they apply to all of us. The current conversation about privilege is often about doing that- pointing out to people that they have privileges, such as light skin, male sex, heterosexual preference, and higher class background, that make it easier for them to achieve the things they want to achieve. Unfortunately, I think that this conversation, which in my mind is intended to educate, is often interpreted as an accusation. For many people, the discomfort at recognizing the existence of privilege can make us feel helpless, defensive, or angry, and so we hear the acknowledgement of our privilege as a condemnation- which muddies the conversation about privilege and adds to how sensitive and activating a topic it can be.

The characteristics that afford privilege are ones that we have no control over. None of us chose to be born in the skin, culture, class background, sexuality, gender identity, you name it, that we exist in. I didn’t choose to be a light-skinned woman, and you, James, didn’t choose to be a light-skinned man. We have privileges in our society because of it, though, and we need to account for the existence of this privilege in our actions towards others. Privilege has roots in terrible constructs such as racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that underline our culture, and we can’t ignore these roots and the suffering they cause. But does this make us inherently evil when we have privilege? I personally don’t believe this to be the case. We all have some form of privilege, some more than others to be sure, and I don’t think it’s right to say that we all have some intractable evil seed in us that grows with our privilege. We’re all capable of good and bad actions, of hurting others and of lifting them up. We have to figure out how to do right by others with how we were born.

My interpretation, and this could be wrong, of what this woman said to you is that she’s reading the existence of your privilege as an indication that you are in fact inherently evil. This could be because she’s suffered or seen loved ones suffer at the hands of those who have abused their privilege (as I think all of us have, to widely varying degrees), or because she equates privilege with sin, or something else that I can only guess at. Unfortunately, I can’t get into her head and tell you where she was coming from when she said that, or why she chose to be intimate with you in spite of her feelings towards you. I can say that it’s always shocking and unsettling to hear that someone has hatred, mistrust, or disgust towards us, especially when it’s over something we have no control over.

If you are interested in a relationship with this woman, if you feel safe and energetic enough to have a conversation with her about why she feels the way she feels about white men, and how you felt when she told you that you were the worst kind of human after she was intimate with you, that could be an enlightening conversation for both of you. But I wouldn’t suggest doing this if you’re feeling too hurt, exhausted, or unsafe. These kinds of conversations are happening all around us, and it’s okay to listen or join in to one of those instead.

-Kim

Kim Hall, BA, QPPMH is a clinical intern and graduate student in mental health counseling.

Be sure to listen to the Nerds in Love podcast for more dating advice!

Remember, this advice doesn’t substitute for actual professional mental health assistance. If you’re in crisis and need help, please contact:

1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Lifeline)

You can find a therapist over at https://www.psychologytoday.com.

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