When it comes to male and female friendships, I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since Billy Crystal declared them impossible. He said “the sex part always gets in the way.” And that can certainly be true, IF the guy in question is a twat.
“But Ed,” you might ask (but probably wouldn’t, as right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop in yesterday’s clothes typing furiously with the kind of built-in scowl only a whiskey-induced hangover and self-imposed deadline can give you). “You said you’re attracted to 99% of the female population. How can that not get in the way of a friendship?”
Glad you’re paying attention, imaginary reader. It’s simple: Attraction doesn’t create obligation, and you shouldn’t bullshit people you care about.
Fuck the Friendzone
The “friendzone” is one of those toxic cultural myths that seems like a harmless label but has likely fucked up an entire generation of young men who are already trying to juggle raging hormones and the stupid lessons of our culture while trying to date and maintain friendships. It’s trickier than it sounds.
Take almost any action movie. Our hero achieves the goal, defeats the bad guy, and gets the girl. Almost ALWAYS gets the girl. Why the hell do Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock hook up at the end of Speed? (Even they remark that their impending relationship is probably doomed so they should make the best of it and just bone.) The two leads in Jurassic World tried to date in the backstory and they clearly don’t like much about each other, the romance in the final act seems weird and forced— but we accept it because the invisible story rulebook says the guy is supposed to get the girl.
The end-of-movie sex trophy is just one ingredient in the formula that trains our boys to think wrongly about male-female relationships. This mixture brews up an expectation that if they do all the right things as the hero of their story, they’re gonna get the girl. Since that pesky lizard-brain never puts it into words, it just creates an expectation that the lady of desire will reciprocate: “OMG you’ve helped me with my term paper and brought jumper cables when my car’s battery died. *swoon* Let’s fuck!” (Said no woman, ever.)
The poor gal thinks she has a friend, that they both enjoy hanging out, doing nice things for each other, and can be called on in times of trouble. The poor, deluded guy is building up resentment while keeping a smile on his face: In his fucked-up view of the world, this girl is withholding something he is OWED. Our culture has failed him and taught him wrong.
When he talks about it with his guy-friends, he has a special word for the situation. The girl put him in the dreaded FRIENDZONE.
In the best cases, a nice guy who never figures life out simply feels frustrated and may rant about it on Reddit. Others end what could have been a lifelong friendship because they can’t shake the feeling that the girl has done him somehow wrong. And in the worst cases the guy takes advantage of the woman’s trust, using alcohol or worse in order to collect what he thinks is coming his way. (I catch you pulling that shit in my bar I will throw your ass down the stairs before calling the lady a cab. You go through with that plan and you belong in jail.)
Guys, I’m sorry the world has fucked you over by planting incorrect notions in your head. But take notes, because this isn’t hard to understand: No one owes you anything. Being nice to someone should be the norm, and if you think that being a “nice guy” puts others in your debt, you’re not so nice—you’re actually an asshole.
Let me put it another way. If you’re confused that you’ve been good to a female friend, been there for her, helped her, and she isn’t showing romantic or sexual interest in you, try this: Imagine she was a guy. Suppose you watch movies and play video games with one of your bros, drink some beers, help him fix up his shitty old car, and drive him to run some errands. If you don’t think your dude-friend owes you a handjob at the end of the day, then don’t drop that kind of bullshit expectation on a woman either.
The friendzone doesn’t exist. It’s just the whining of pathetic men who think women are vending machines, that if they put in the quarters of niceness then the ladies will dispense sex and love. Don’t be that guy.
In ANY kind of relationship—friendship, family, romantic, whatever—if you spend too much time worrying about what you’re getting rather than what you’re giving, you’re doing it wrong. Learn how to find joy in what you offer someone and you’ll be a lot happier than fuming over what you’re not getting. Sure, some relationships aren’t on the same page and aren’t gonna work out; some are fucking toxic and you need to find the exit door, fast.
But don’t ditch a good person in your life just because they don’t want to fuck you. Be better than that.
Now that I’ve blasted the “friendzone” out of the water and I’m smugly basking in moral superiority, I’m going to bitch about a related but different kind of problem: my problem. The label I’ve slapped onto this phenomenon is the Substitute Boyfriendzone.
I wish I could report that I dodged all of the above-mentioned issues above in my misspent youth. Instead I learned some pretty painful and embarrassing lessons. I got slapped, got my heart broken, got rejected in ways that made me want take a gasoline shower and set myself on fire rather than showing my face in certain places ever again. But I like to think I’m ahead of the curve these days.
With a sister, a bunch of female cousins, and growing up in a neighborhood surrounded by girls my own age and no boys I could stand, I enjoyed really important female friendships that lasted from pre-sexual awareness all the way through the point when I was pretty much a boner with ears. It meant that even when I did fuck up—and fuck up I did, holy shit you guys, stick around and I might write about some of the most spectacular ways—I was able to understand the lessons life teaching me.
It means that despite my intense attraction for many, many ladies I know, I have zero problems with platonic male-female friendship. These work because I don’t expect anything from them and I don’t hide it from them either. I let them know when they look good without being creepy, I crack jokes that make them blush, but it’s very clear that I’m just showing my cards, not trying to get in their pants. They trust me because I’ve earned it. But it’s not without pitfalls.
I lose my friends to other men.
I don’t blame my lady-friends, but there are a not-insignificant number over the years that have faded away because they got themselves a man. And once a boyfriend/husband comes along, things often change for yours truly.
The first time I was called a Substitute Boyfriend, it was a nice compliment. I am a “safe” male companion. Someone a woman can bitch to about her problems or about what an asshole her ex is, to enjoy male company without the pressure or expectations that come along with dating. Good ol’ Ed can be trusted, he respects boundaries, and brings the fun.
Turns out I’m often filling a slot meant for a significant other. (Not THAT slot you perv.) And I’m not just talking about time and availability. I get that once you have someone in your life you’re not gonna be able to hang out as much. But goddamn if it doesn’t hurt my feelings when someone who talked to me every single day is now barely answering my texts, that I’m no longer on the invite list, and she no longer shows up at our usual hangouts.
It makes me feel a little used, but I understand that’s not the case. It’s just that …
Her needs are being met. I was offering male emotional support and the ego-boost that comes from a guy who’s not shy with a compliment. I was someone to lean on during a lonely time, and could make her feel safe in those moments where she didn’t. And now she is getting all of that plus sex and romance.
Lots of men are insecure. This one drives me fucking crazy, but there isn’t much I can do about it. All that shit about cultural expectations above? It also comes with a healthy dose of jealousy or at least discomfort on the part of men. I’ve been told straight-up any number of times that Bob/Jeff/Zach/Whoever doesn’t really like his girlfriend hanging out with guys. Or if I were to Facebook a gal-pal the same kind of dirty joke I’ve done forever or mention that her legs look great in a skirt and heels, suddenly I’m being “disrespectful” to her relationship. My lady-friends are forced to choose between a goofy friend and the man they are fucking and trying to build a future with, and I’m gonna lose that battle every single time.
I try to put it in perspective. Nothing dignified about acting butt-hurt because my lonely friend got a boyfriend and retreated to a safe distance. It makes sense, but it sucks.
Some of you ladies are reading this and you know who you are. And we’ve done the dance several times, you stepping in and out based on your relationship status like we’re doing the hokey-fucking-pokey. (That’s what it’s all about.) Just know that I miss you, still love you, and wish there was still a little space for me in your life. I don’t have to be a substitute boyfriend.
Let’s be friends.