The internet is littered with blogs, self-help articles and cringe-worthy Facebook posts about how unfair and confusing it is when you’re friend-zoned. The friend-zone occurs when one person’s romantic interest is unreciprocated by another. Most online articles on the subject are all about how to escape this purgatory, or else how unacceptable it was that your advances were rebuffed. I, on the other hand, hope to reach out to those who’ve just heard those seven gut-wrenching words, “I think we should just be friends” and are currently scouting out florists for the best bouquet of roses. Don’t worry, I’ve got you – there’s a silver lining (I swear). First, we have to figure out – both biologically and psychologically – what the friend-zone is, how it happens, and more importantly: why.
The friend-zone is a ruthless animal which does not discriminate; it does not care about your gender or sexuality. Biologically speaking, there may actually be a simple explanation behind it: Bateman’s Principle. This principle asserts that it all comes down to the nature of sex cells in mammals. One gender has a limited supply compared to the other, which has a nearly unlimited supply (ovum vs sperm). This forces one sex to be competitive and the other choosy. Across species, we see males compete over females. Some still argue this occurs with humans. Although modern culture has pushed far beyond the simplicity of Bateman’s Principle, it’s still somewhat ingrained in our biology. Because of this, friend-zoning is an inevitability of modern dating.
Take it from David, who had a crush on Lauren for months only to be rebuffed. After a period of distance and re-evaluation, David told me he and Lauren were able to become good friends. At the end of the day, not every relationship is going to work out the way we’d like it to – and that’s okay! It’s simply a matter of redefining what you want from the relationship.
Psychologists have delved deeper into this phenomenon and have proposed their own theory regarding the friend-zone. Consider that every single relationship you’ve ever had is a social exchange. Social exchange theory is grounded in two central properties: self-interest and interdependence. In a social exchange, being “self-interested” isn’t to be conflated with selfishness. Once self-interest is recognised, it subconsciously becomes the gentle guide of whatever you desire. Interdependence pretty much says that we humans are innately reliant on others emotionally, economically, ecologically and even morally. And, let’s be honest, who hasn’t needed someone to hold them one night when the rains are out? Or, a mother to tell you that sharing is caring?
Social exchange theory works on the principle that we want to be in relationships with people who return what we give. We (and our potential partner) subconsciously look at the costs of entering a relationship compared to the benefits. When the comparison is positive, it’s a good potential relationship and we tend to jump right into it. If the result is negative, we’ll obviously end it or not enter into it. Once in a relationship, we measure our satisfaction with the other person against our expectations and any better fish out there. This is calculated with another handy formula: outcome = rewards – costs. All of these factors need to be fulfilled for us to go ahead with a relationship. The catch is that the other person is doing these calculations as well. You’re both doing these all the time. The friend-zone, therefore, is simply an uneven social exchange. You may think the worth against the cost is great and there are no other, better, options out there but your crush thinks that either: a) it’s literally not worth it or, b) there are better options available. Ouch.
Olivia described the friend-zone in an interview:
“Yeah, it’s more of a backburner to me. My current boyfriend was definitely ‘friend-zoned’. But as time went on I realised that Billy was always there for me and he was a better option than anyone else had been.”
They’ve been together two years now. Billy and Olivia’s relationship mirrors social exchange theory’s foundations. At the initial point of their relationship, there were no other psychologically viable options available to both of them.
Yes, it’s disappointing to be friend-zoned. But being ‘just friends’ might just be the best thing for both of you. In modern society, we sometimes struggle to maintain strong friendships due to work or other stresses in life – but maybe you two could make good friends. You were attracted to one another for a reason, you must have something in common! Social media has diluted friendships and drawn our time and energy away from meaningful relationships, so it may work out in your favour to be ‘just friends’ without all of the complications of modern dating! We grow as people when we come into contact with different perspectives. Where do different perspectives often come from? Often, it’s just friends.