The Friend Zone: Less Innocuous than it Seems?

By Elizabeth Lehman

According to the “Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus,” the friend zone is described as “the state of being friends with someone when you would prefer a romantic or sexual relationship with them.”

It can also be used as a verb: “to make someone understand that you want to be their friend, but not to have a romantic or sexual relationship with them.”

Nate Woodruff of Garfield Heights, Ohio said he believes people often end up in the friend zone as a result of not clearly communicating the nature of their interest.

Woodruff said men might avoid communicating their romantic interest initially to avoid coming off as too aggressive, but it can backfire.

He said he sees three options for a person who finds himself in the friend zone.

“Either continue on with this woman as a friend because he is a mature human being and can put aside his original desire for more while continuing to try and find his mate; [or] he could cut the friendship off and move on; or he could continue on disguised as a friend in hopes that someday the girl will come around and feel more than just friendship feelings,” Woodruff said.

Amanda Fehlbaum, assistant professor in sociology, anthropology and gerontology, said friend zoning is a concept that is inherently misogynistic.

“It assumes that women are meant to be possessed and that men just need to do this and if they’ve done that and she still won’t go out with him, then, well, screw her,” Fehlbaum said.

Fehlbaum said many times when men claim they have been friend zoned, there is frustration that they have done all the right things, but to no avail.

“It’s not supposed to be like that,” she said. “You’re supposed to do that because she’s a person and you’re a person, but instead, [it’s] just seeming to objectify her.”

Cryshanna Jackson Leftwich, associate professor for politics and international relations, said when a person says they have been friend zoned, they are not really a friend at all.

“You want to be with me and you thought that because you were nice to me that we should have hooked up,” Jackson Leftwich said. “I think that people in general every day should just be nice to me because that’s just what people should do. But I’m not going to sleep with everybody that’s nice to me because that’s ridiculous.”

Fehlbaum said that, yes, being friend zoned is something that happens to women, too, but she is not sure the reaction is the same as that of a man.

“I just don’t know that they react in the same way as men do to not getting to be in a relationship with someone they want to be in a relationship with,” Fehlbaum said.

Shelley Blundell, assistant professor of communication, said the concept of friend zoning is tied closely to the issue of consent.

She said the whole concept of the friend zone is that a person believes their needs exceed the other person’s needs.

“If I believe I have the power in this interaction and I feel like you’ve put me in the friend zone and I want more than the friend zone, I might be going to put undue pressure on you and persist and try and pull you out of this weird place that you’ve put me in,” Blundell said. “Or I’m going to become incredibly toxic and hostile and aggressive toward you and make you rue the day that you ever put me in the friend zone.”

Blundell said people should remove friend zone from their vocabularies.

“It is diminishing to anyone’s agency to intonate negatively that because they are not interested in you that there is something wrong with them, which is the whole concept behind the friend zone,” Blundell said.

Based on her past work with a domestic violence project, Blundell said she thinks the friend zone concept is problematic. She said she has talked to people in stalking situations where rejecting someone’s romantic overtures was where it all began.

“They had an interaction with the person, that person wanted more from them romantically than they were prepared to give them, that person developed an unhealthy obsession and either was incredibly aggressive toward them and made their lives very difficult, being very threatening [and] harassing, or became incredibly persistent, which sometimes escalated into sexual violence,” Blundell said.

Blundell said the friend zone and its negative connotation comes down to being an issue of entitlement and control.

“Maybe the friend zone is less about people being upset that a potential romantic interest does not return their interest, but more so in who we are as people and what we believe that we are entitled to, and if we believe we’re not [getting it], that we should be allowed to have control over other people and the way that they interact with us,” Blundell said.