The Permanent Friend Zone

It’s not every day reading other Patheos blogs triggers a visceral reaction, but one of Katrina Fernandez’s latest all but made me chew straight through my poor tongue. In “Expressing Love Beyond Sex and the Single Life,” Kat writes:

Probably the most wonderful thing about being single is having my definition of love grandly expanded, as well as learning countless ways to express this love. I truly believe my singleness and celibacy is a gift that places me at an advantage to greatly experience love in ways that most married people don’t often get to experience.

“Et tu, Kat?” I thought. Then I had a vision of her living in a beguinage with Eve Tushnet, the two of them dressed identically in shapeless gray smocks, singing the Smurfs’ theme song as they sewed a giant quilt. Between them was an empty chair upon which rested an empty smock and a needle. The chair was marked with a little brass plate; in the metal was inscribed nobody’s name but mine. Siege Perilous to the Max! So to speak.

It was an example of what psychologists call “Going completely bonkers.” Read through eyes of reason, Kat’s piece contains no shortage of valid and timely points: Being single doesn’t have to mean living without purpose, much less without love. In exchange for the passing high of sexual fulfillment, people routinely commit all sorts of atrocities against their own dignity. Many are sensitive enough to know it but lack any clear guidelines on what to do instead. Really, Kat was right to write what she wrote.

But the idea that any other kind of love belongs on a par with the sexual kind never fails to stick in my craw…and burn. This isn’t rational. It’s not even empirical. An awful lot of sex is meh — for one party, if not for both. (Regarding encounters of three or more people, I remain sullenly ignorant.) When it comes to throwing turf over the ol’ void of existence, performing a random act of kindness for a stranger, or going head-to-head over the domino tiles, may in fact be more effective. Certainly, if you’re Catholic (as I struggle to be), a bracing game of Ping-Pong with a grateful senior citizen won’t leave you with the same guilty hangover as a frantic game of hide-the-salami with anyone, of any age.

But I have the hardest time getting any of this through my head, and now I know why: the friend zone.

I’d almost forgotten that expression. I have — finally, mirabile dictu — reached the age where serious people talk like serious people. But at its coinage, by the writers of NBC’s Friends (who, of course, placed it in the mouth of Joey and launched it at Ross), I was in my early 20s. If Ross was mayor of the Friend Zone, I was commissioner of Parks and Rec.

It’s hard pretending to be Ross when your sensitivity to slights rivals Tony Montana’s. Whatever fleeting social advantages it may gain for you, being in a woman’s friend zone makes you feel like her court eunuch, or like one of the gay boys she rolls with on your night off. And I’m afraid I could never tolerate it for long. Once or twice, I showed my hand. After it finally dawned on me that unexpected professions of romantic interest tend to leave girls feeling horribly baited and switched, I started inventing pretexts for ending friendships. Often, I’m sorry to say, I made sure to get in a final cutting remark. (Hell hath no fury like a dork scorned.)

Nietzsche saw Christianity’s rise as an instance where a slave-morality, valuing kindness, humility, and concern for others’ good, overthrew a master-morality, which prized power and sensual desire. At least in my case, the crazy old Boche was right. Catholicism’s central message, “I am the bread of life,” attracted me partly by making fewer unrequited demands on my skill set than the world’s ethos, which, seemingly, boiled down to “life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.” It’s because I crashed into the Church on wings of failure that I find the role prescribed for celibate laypeople so galling. If priests are eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, then what does that make the uncollared love-and-service machine? A permanent platonic shadow, an emotional tampon for all, a gay-best-friend-who-isn’t — ad aeternum.

Those inclined to take a long view of social trends will find a big part of the problem in our hypersexualized culture, where locking an attentive guy out of the bedroom can look like the depth of bad manners. That’s fine for them, but I happen to have this inner 22-year-old to deal with. A product of a specific time and place, he does not think well in the abstract, especially not when his amour-propre is at stake. A couple of years ago, a woman I knew tried to put a smiley-face on my friend-zone days by comparing them to 14th-century courtly love. It was all I could do not to brick her up in the nearest tower or sell her to the nearest gang of marauding Saracens.

Inner 22-year-olds tend to pipe down over time. For this one, who still kicks and hollers, a little common sense may be just the sedative: Love everybody, but beware whom you form — in house jargon — particular attachments to. For people who excite envy, lust, or the kind of loathing that you reserve for reflections of your most despised selves, a little love, quickly rendered, should suffice. Pray. At all costs, avoid racking up frequent-flyer miles on Grey Goose Airlines. Write, even if what comes out doesn’t seem to justify the time you spent on it. Exercise, dress as nattily as your budget permits. You’ve got the rest of your life to let yourself go.

And take heart — you’re Catholic now. Nobody’s getting any (or if anyone is, they’re keeping it mighty quiet). The old hierarchy is broken; the slaves are dictating terms. If Jesus is both Alpha and Omega, doesn’t it follow that the rest of us are betas?

Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!


Contra Mindy Selmys: Anger Isn't Always Hatred
For Veterans' Day: Reflections on the Field-Hospital Church
Jean Ousset: The Wit and Wisdom of A Wingnut
On All Souls' Day: A Plenary Indulgence for Dad