Escaping the Friendzone

by Katy Preen 2 years ago in advice

Dealing With Rejection Appropriately

Escaping the Friendzone

I recently wrote about why The Friendzone is a bullshit concept, but I can see that that’s not enough. We also need to think about how we’re going to manage when we think we are in this fictional place of self-destruction and denial.

While the Friendzone might be bullshit, your feelings are not. They are real and they are valid. The thing is, they’re not wanted by the object of your affections, so you’re going to have to deal with them some other way. I know what it’s like to face heartbreak and rejection, and I know it hurts. I’ve pined for literally years for lost loves, and I’ve behaved badly and obsessively as a result. Maybe it would have been kinder on me and on others if I’d handled it better at the time, but at least I’m in a healthier and more mature place now. And I really don’t want to make those same mistakes again.

So let’s say you’ve just been dumped or turned down by a date you thought was a dead cert. Whatcha gonna do? Right now is a really good time to stop, think, and not do anything else. Not yet. The last thing you need is to act on impulse and then have to clean up a great big mess afterwards. You probably can’t think of anything but your pain, and you probably can’t concentrate on anything else, so don’t try to. Just take a bit of time out, maybe go for a walk or shoot some zombies on the Xbox, but do your wallowing—you need to process all this, and while it’s still raw, you don’t want to be doing anything silly because your head was all over the place. Even if you still feel the same after this bit of time out (and you probably will), you will have at least paced yourself a bit.

Fantasy vs. Reality

Now, we need to reconcile the rational and irrational aspects of your mind, and keep a check on reality. When you’re hurting, your brain tries to protect you, and one of the ways it does this is by lying to you. It’ll make you think that this isn’t happening, that you still have a chance, and that you should definitely say something to your beau to smooth out this “misunderstanding”. DON’T DO IT! This delusion feels good, but it’s not real. You can’t stop your brain from thinking what it’s thinking, but you can be aware of it and recognise your brain for the massive fibber that it is. This breakup/rejection happened for a reason—a reason in the real world. Sure, you don’t like it, but that ain’t gonna change a thing. You’ve got to own this pain and keep your damn mouth shut, or you will make things worse.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll replay the events over and over in your head and question if there was anything you could have done to change things. Probably not—as I said, it happened for a reason, and it was probably coming no matter what. There’s no magic formula and you can’t change the past, but your brain is having none of it. Questioning what happened and re-analysing it to see if there were other possibilities makes you feel good, temporarily. We naturally want to solve problems, but these fantasies only offer fleeting respite. If you hang on to them, you’ll need them more and more, but the reality is still the same, and completely at odds with your thinking. This problem cannot be “fixed.” You need to accept that these little moments of control, or bliss, are keeping you right where you are and actually making you more miserable. It will take time to absorb that, but again, if you know what your brain’s up to, you’re a step closer to moving on.

There’s a lot to think about, and being philosophical about it can be very helpful. Reflecting on things in a more positive way can take the edge off of the parts you dwell on, or wonder about. There’s no point trying to stop those thoughts, you just have to work through them and allow them to take their course. They will fade. It does get better.

But let’s say you can’t take this advice and you really want to do something. What might the outcome be?

Don't be a creep.

Now, shit’s getting serious. Maybe you want to send a message to your ex/almost-was, or do something really romantic to convince them you’re the one for them. NO NO NO NO NO. STOP RIGHT THERE. There’s a few things for you to consider, and these will actually help you to feel strong enough to cope with the sense of loss. Think about how they are feeling. They probably want a bit of space, at the very least. So give them that—you’re the better person for doing so. And if you still believe it’s a good idea, will you still think that after you’ve annoyed the crap out of them and they’ve unambiguously told you to fuck off?

The saying goes: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again.” Tenacity is often seen as a virtue, but in this case, it’s not. Your persistence can rapidly cross over into harassment. We all think that we’re not like that, that we’re one of The Good Guys. So does every other person that can’t take “no” for an answer. You’ve got to recognise when you’re going too far and understand that your actions can cause harm. If you look at things rationally, is that really what you want? The urge to contact someone may be strong, but if they’ve made it clear they’re not interested, you have to rise above that desire and can it. Your feelings matter, but you can’t impose them on someone who doesn’t want them.

Don't be this guy.

You need to be alert to the boundary between romantic longing and coercion. That’s something being talked about a lot with regard to #MeToo, and it seems that, for many, it’s easy, maybe automatic, to slip into behaviour that’s intimidating and unwanted—without realising. Usually when we talk about controlling behaviours, it’s framed in the light of a conscious choice to dominate another person, but in this case, we don’t realise that we’re hurting the other party, and they might not be able to articulate that because of cultural messages about relationships and gender roles. If you’re sick of hearing about rape culture and patriarchy, I have some bad news for you: this conversation has started and it’s not going to stop until we collectively sort out our ideas about decency and respect. So think about how your romantic gesture may come across. Listen to other people’s stories and reflect on your own beliefs and behaviour. I felt really uncomfortable looking back on my past self, but it helped me to be a more considerate and understanding person, and less likely to behave like a complete arse when things don’t go my way.

It's personal, but don't take it personally.

If you’re continually unsuccessful romantically, it can feel like the whole world’s against you. You might feel personally targeted in a deliberate act of malice from the one you love. But that’s not it at all—think for a moment; who would even do that? This isn’t a problem that can be solved with logic or persuasion, and it’s not a battle of wills. You can’t trick someone into going out with you or staying with you, no matter what the PUA handbook says. And why would you want to? Wouldn’t you rather they were happy?

The immediate response to rejection can be anger, which is why it’s important to take some time away at the start. The way to deal with this in public is with a calm and reasonable exterior. Getting angry might make you feel good in the short-term, but it is a frankly terrifying response to an answer that was probably awkward to give. It’s also unreasonable because they’re not choosing to not fancy you. Their emotions are driven by illogical forces, same as yours. Anger and threats are a definite way to scare people off and isolate yourself, and you’re sure to regret your behaviour. Think before you act; does this person’s lack of interest really deserve an aggressive response? And how will you feel afterwards, knowing how poorly you treated someone just because you couldn’t force them into something they didn’t want? You’re going to need to do something with that anger, but there’s a right way and a wrong way. If you stop and think first, the wrong way becomes self-evident.

Not Like This

Your Selfish Heart

That’s what this boils down to, isn’t it? You wanted something and you were told you can’t have it. It feels unjust, and injustice is another powerful emotion. But steady on—is it really unfair? Does anyone owe you their attention, time, and affection? The answer is “no," and thinking about it this way can help to put things into perspective. Yes, our life overlaps with other people’s, but we all have our own storyline. Your quest is different from everyone else’s, and not everyone wants to share your journey. People come and go in our lives, and that’s just how things are. If you don’t accept that, you’re trying to rewrite someone else’s tale—and they won’t thank you for it.

Feeling that you’re owed something, and that the other party is in the wrong for denying it to you, is a very bad place to be. This is where things start to get dangerous. Repeatedly initiating unwanted contact, snooping on their activities, turning up at places you know they’ll be…you may think you’re just taking an interest, and it’s a free country, right? You can go where you want! Now you’re deluding yourself even more. You’re convincing yourself that your behaviour is justified and appropriate, when it’s anything but. Your brain’s lying to you again, and it could get you in serious trouble. Think of the consequences. Your heart may be aching, but do you really want the police knocking on your door? Do you want to get a reputation as a controlling stalker? You need to stop yourself if you think you’re heading down this path.

If you don’t deal with this urge properly, you’ll become a hateful and dangerous person, and you’ll struggle to find happiness in the future. Part of managing intimate relationships is knowing when to let go, and accepting that pain is a potential hazard of any encounter. It might take a long time to recover, and during that time it may feel like the world is going to end, but I promise it will still be here. And if you can deal with this, it will be a more beautiful place for it.

"Just" Good Friends

A lot of articles on romantic rejection focus on the idea of the rejected party devaluing platonic friendship at the expense of something sexual. I don’t think that’s helpful, as it attaches a moral element to normal human feelings. I know exactly what it’s like to be in love with a friend who isn’t interested, and it’s not as simple as my disappointment meaning that I don’t value the friendship. They are two different types of relationship, and it can be difficult to face that person or carry on as normal if they don’t feel the same way. There’s nothing wrong with feeling like you want “more” than what’s on offer, and wishing things were different is normal. You shouldn’t be ashamed for having feelings, but you also need to be respectful. If you’re close friends with somebody, it can be really hard to manage this rejection in such proximity. But there’s a far higher chance of screwing things up. While you may feel that a sexual relationship is “better” than a platonic one, if you act like an entitled prick, you’re going to lose them completely. All of the above rules apply, plus, you want to maintain the friendship, and if you don’t then maybe you weren’t such good friends in the first place (and that’s okay, too).

And DO NOT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, set up a “friendship” as a vehicle to get into someone’s pants. It’s deceptive, won’t work, and marks you out as a manipulative creep. It’s exactly the kind of thing The Friendzone says is a good idea, and we’ve already established that it’s bullshit. This is the type of behaviour that leads to notions like the one I bemoaned in the previous paragraph; as if there were a hierarchy of relationships, with “sexy fun times” at the top and “friendship” at the bottom.

Connect with others.

When we experience trauma, all sorts of thoughts are whizzing round inside our minds. Trying to cope alone can make you feel worse, as you’re carrying it all inside and there’s nothing to give you any sense of perspective but your own, highly sensitive internal barometer. I’ve kept so much inside that I felt I could burst, or scream out loud, or (more likely) cry for hours. It’s that constriction of our emotional bubble that leads us to behave irrationally and freak people out.

All those emotions I said you need to deal with? You don’t need to do it alone. While you’d like to be sharing your feelings with that special someone, it’s not possible and you’re going to have to back off. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell somebody about how you’re feeling. There’s no right or wrong way to do this: you could speak with a friend, a counsellor, ring an anonymous helpline, or write it all down in a letter, poem, or short story (Don’t send it though! Whether you keep it, or shred it, is up to you—whatever helps you to cope. I recently found a six page love letter to an ex, and it reminded me of the difference in who I was then, and who I am now. It was a real source of comfort knowing that, in spite of all the pain I felt at the time, I was able to learn from the experience and mature).

If you do go online in search of solace, be sensible about where you seek it. Anywhere that upholds the idea of The Friendzone is a no-go area. It might seem to offer solidarity and companionship, but it is almost certainly a toxic hellhole that will encourage you to put your feelings above everyone else’s reality and make your life 100 times worse. “Get your ex back” or PUA sites are also a terrible idea. Seriously, they’re the stalker’s and rapist’s handbooks. Just don’t go there! There are some really good sites on developing as a person, dealing with difficult emotions, and having better relationships. Here are a few you might like to try:

In Summary

This is a shitty time that you’re going through. The secret is to get through it without making your own life more shit, and without taking a massive dump on other people’s lives. There are so many “wrong” ways to cope, but a lot of “right” ways, as well. I don’t have a magic recipe or all the answers, but there are three things you can do to stop yourself going off at the deep end:

Reflect— Do your grieving, feel sorry for yourself, and spend some time looking after you.

Compose yourself— Acknowledge your feelings, but don’t let them dominate your life or anyone else’s. Respect other people’s boundaries and know what’s appropriate.

Talk about it— Bottling it up makes everything seem worse. Even if things are still bad in reality, getting it off your chest can help you deal with it and give you some relief.

You may want what you can’t have, and that sucks, but if you can make it out the other side more resilient and thoughtful, you’ll live a better life in the future. And who knows where that will take you…

How does it work?
Read next: 'Chocolate Kisses'
Katy Preen

Research scientist, author & artist based in Manchester, UK.  Strident feminist, SJW, proudly working-class.

See all posts by Katy Preen