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?

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Sorry, Max, “friend-zone” is a man thing. No woman I know talks or thinks about it like that. Granted, I am not an early-20s American girl, but really – women don’t worry about being put in the ‘friend-zone’ by guys, and from what I can make out, what it actually means is “She won’t have sex with me, which is all I care about regarding her”.

  • Martin T.

    Excellent !

  • lindenman

    I don’t normally post in my own combox, but your comment made me worry that I’d given some wrong impressions. Just to clamp off any misunderstandings before they spread, I’ll clarify a few things. After that, I’m gone.

    Is the friend zone mainly a guy thing? Maybe. I know plenty has been written about it, so data are out there for whoever wants them. I do, however, remember hearing a young woman say, “Men always want one woman to kick it with and another to dick it with.” She was the former and didn’t like it a bit.

    And even if is a guy thing, that doesn’t mean bringing it up is necessarily anti-woman. These women meant me no harm. I put myself — or allowed myself to be put, which is the same thing — in a situation where the costs outweighed the benefits. I did it out of naivete. Because I was barely out of my teens, because I’d spent my undergraduate years cracking the books constantly, I had seen the signs of attraction so seldom that I’d never cataloged them for future reference. I didn’t know when I stood a chance and when I didn’t.

    At a certain point, I learned. But I didn’t yet have any exit strategies. Eventually, I developed some of those, too. But at the time in question, I tended to go about it very crudely. It was not a fun time. In fact, it was a really cruddy time, which is why, as I state here, a life of non-sexual love expressed through service still strikes some primitive part off me as a badge of shame.

  • Michelene

    Another great column as usual (meaning “Your viewpoint matches mine.”). And speaking from experience, the friend zone happens to women as well. As a 20-something, it sometimes meant actually being friends. As a 40-something, yes, it means, You won’t sleep with me, so this is a polite way to end things. Worry about it? No, not now that I’m old enough to see it coming.

    The last two paragraphs are the best advice on/summing up of the Catholic single life I’ve read.

  • Abe Rosenzweig

    Yeah–this exactly. “Friend zone” is a really loaded term these days. It’s like the verbal equivalent of the fedora, and depending on the age/internet-savviness of your audience, it will send up a red flag almost immediately.

  • Katrina Fernandez

    “But the idea that any other kind of love belongs on a par with the sexual kind”… that’s not the point I was trying to make at all.

  • JohnE_o

    As a mostly agnostic guy married to an occasionally practicing cultural Catholic Latina, I possibly don’t share enough points in common with where you are at to get where you are coming from, as the kids say – but surely there must be some women in your circle of acquaintances who share your religious values and would welcome your clearly stated romantic attentions toward the goal of discovering the possibility of mutually entering into Holy Matrimony.

    Or am I missing something?

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Ah, I wasn’t aiming the comment at you in particular, Max. I’m probably way too old for this term to have any meaning for me (a fact for which I am profoundly grateful). Also, probably too Irish – I think it’s a trendy term which is really only in currency amongst a particular subset of urban wannabes over here.

    As I said, my experience has been (for instance) one young woman who was on a training course with me a couple of years back. Very eager to date, very eager to have a boyfriend, with possibility of long-term relationship/marriage. Her misadventures in dating entertained the rest of us, but I never heard her say (or any other female of my acquaintance say) that “So-and-so friendzoned me”.

    Where I have heard/read it has been in the context of young males who, barely acquainted with a female (maybe she frequents the same coffee shop as he does, or is attending the same college), ‘put the moves’ on her. Since women are socialised to be conflict-avoidant, instead of breaking a chair over his head, she politely declines his advances. Guy then goes on Facebook, Twitter, etc. to moan about how the bitch has friendzoned him and/or why is it nice guys get ‘put in the friendzone’, conclusion: women are all lying bitches who only want money, not romance.

    That may not be so for everyone, but that’s the context in which I am most familiar with the term.

    Besides, I hardly think even “Friends” can claim the credit for inventing the term – I distinctly remember a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon dating from the Zoot Suit era, in which Tom courted a lady cat, which riffed on “How many girls have said ‘No, Horace, I can only be a sister to you’?”

  • TheReluctantWidow

    I’m 49 so “friend zone” is not my generation’s term, but women get friend zoned. I have in the past. I used to be told by guys that I was a fun friend but not dating/marriage material. And that was when I was young and cute. I have just barely dipped my big toe in the single life being widowed only 16 months and having four kids. It’s a bit hard for me to find my place, not married, not single without kids, not divorced with kids and an ex-husband, it’s an odd place to be when you are widowed and younger than 70 and trying to find your place in the Church. Oh, and I didn’t choose celibacy, it’s been forced upon me. That sucks.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Going forth, being fruitful and multiplying is often more fruitful when we don’t procreate. It frees up all that energy for sharing The Sacred Spirit with many outside our own “tribe.”

    Procreation/sex is the strongest animal instinct we have, other than possibly protecting our own lives. When we stop being ashamed and/or afraid of our sexuality, we can openly explore what we want from sex with our best opposite sex friends before hopping into bed with them. We do have ways of taking the edge off the animal urgency, as in “When Harry Met Sally.”

    There is nothing sinful or strange about self-satisfaction unless it is being used as a substitute for relationships with others or to incite oneself to controlling others with sex. Eroticism happens, even in our dreams. Enjoy and go on!

  • Kristen inDallas

    “women don’t worry about being put in the ‘friend-zone’ by guys…” oh sure they do. Except instead of translating as “he won’t sleep with me” usually translates to something closer to “he doesn’t find me attractive” which vuts in a similar, but girly way. Anywhoozle – love without sex, totally possible, totally meaningful, can even be given meaningfully in one direction, I know both men and women that would say so. But that’s not what te friendzone is about… the friendzone is unrequited physical attraction. Whole other can o’ worms.