The dating puddle

Squatting in the friend zone

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I've got this friend, and he's literally half my age. Which means I've been dating for longer than he's been alive, which is weird to think of. But, in any case, he's going through the normal post-high school phase of coming into the real world and coming face to face with the fact that all the ways we learn to date in our teenage years have little or nothing to do with how dating works in the real world. I'm trying to help warn him off the pitfalls, but, of course, the heart goes where it goes, so he can barely even hear me, let alone actually follow my advice. I guess I hold on to hope that maybe some small percentage of what I say gets through so that he'll do at least marginally better than me. Isn't that kind of what we're all about, to try and make it so each generation does slightly better?

Some stuff he gets intellectually, even though I'm not sure he's really acting on it. For example, in high school, and sort of in university too, you have way too much time to court a woman. You see that girl you want to meet almost every school day, in some class you share, or in the halls you both frequent, and there's all this time to wait for a right moment, to work up the courage to do something about it, to let your feelings for her evolve before you even speak to her. When I was in high school I had crushes on girls that went months. Some that traversed an entire arc from infatuation to disinterest without even having spoken to them.

It passively trains people, boys mostly, since our society still puts emphasis on men as the "pursuers", to take time, to built momentum, to work slowly toward a goal. But, in the real world, generally speaking, if you see a woman you find attractive at the grocery store, at a club, at that soccer match you're both playing in with some group you joined through, or whatever the case may be... if you don't act within that one time, you will never see her again. Maybe if she works in the same office building or something you have a chance to cross paths again, but, looking for love in places you frequent has its own set of opportunities and problems. In any case it's simply too small a world to live in where the dating pool consists only of people that circumstance has afforded you the luxury of stumbling over again and again.

I think my friend gets that on an academic, theoretical level, but, it's hard to shift into higher gears. There are emotional pitfalls along the way. And some of them reflect harsh realities.

He likes a girl. Well, a woman. I shouldn't call her a girl, I guess, but somehow it feels like "guys and girls" when talking about dating. Also, they're both so much younger than me. Whatever. I apologize in advance if I'm not "woke" enough for you. Anyway, he sees her now and again, and because he hasn't really mastered swimming in the ocean of women that are out in the world, he over-values the women that he keeps bumping into in the puddle of his circumstances. Which sounds harsh, but it's true for all of us. The jobs we do, the friends we have, the social circles we keep, the hobbies which get some interaction with other people. No matter how expansive your life is, the rest of the world is so much bigger. When it comes to dating, which is a harsh game of low percentage returns on who is compatible and available, you've got to have a relationship to that bigger world. Otherwise you're selecting from a handful of women you think you could be with and it's hard for a heart to distinguish between "could be with" and "should be with".

If it were that simple, maybe he'd move on. But, he tells me, things are happening. She spends time with him and that's a good sign, isn't it? And here's where my words start to bounce off his ears as if I were throwing individual pieces of packing foam at him. The heart holds on to hope.

And here's where life reveals harsh truths about how selfish all humans can be. Why does she spend time with him if there's no chance of anything happening? It would be charitable to suppose that maybe she is just unaware of his true feelings, so she's just acting as a friend because she's oblivious. It's also likely that she would probably claim ignorance if he forced an awkward discussion, for fear of being confronted with accusations of being manipulative. It's almost certain, though, that she is aware he likes her. People in general aren't that oblivious, and my experience is that women are quicker to develop an understanding of social cues than men. So, if she's aware, does that mean she's knowingly leading him on for some selfish purpose? Probably not. She's just doing it for the same reason he would hang out with a woman he wasn't particularly interested in for whatever reason while knowing she liked him. Same reason I've done that. Same reason everyone does. It's an ego boost.

Who wouldn't want to look around a room and know that some or maybe even all people in that room would want to have a chance with you even if you weren't that interested in them? If they were reasonably cool as a person, where you could hang in that space of only acknowledging the friendship, while knowing that the other person is putting more effort into it, you would do that. I've done it. Everyone does it.

And it isn't necessarily conscious. I've had those times in my life where someone had a crush on me and I didn't reciprocate, but it wasn't simply taking on the ego boost, I was just too insecure to believe that someone could feel that way about me. Some people might be manipulative and deliberately exploit that circumstance, but I genuinely think most humans aren't sociopaths, and they allow a situation like that to continue either because they have a hard time coming to terms with it, or because it's flattering and they can't help but want a boost when so much of the rest of life slaps your ego down all the time.

Some people call this being "friend zoned", and make it into an accusation that the person receiving the attention is at fault for knowing the other is attracted and exploiting that. But really, the only people in a friend zone are the people squatting there. We're responsible for our own feelings, and no one is at fault if they take what you offer willingly. If you want out of a friend zone, you leave, and you do so by saying, "you know what, I'm hoping for more from this relationship, and if you don't want the same things as me, then it's going to be too difficult for me to handle the imbalance, so at the very least I need some time apart." Boom. Simple as that. It takes strength, though, in that you have to be able to handle the fact that as much as it's fair for you to be upfront about how you feel and what circumstances you accept, the other person has that right as well. They can say, "Oh, I'm sorry, I just really don't think I could get to a place of being more than friends with you. I hope that you can find it within yourself to want to be friends too, and whatever process you need to get there, I'd be happy to help, even if it means time apart."

Note, of course, that almost no one is ever that clear, polite, considerate, or forward. The reality is a lot less direct, but the principle holds true no matter how it's expressed. You can never be friend zoned if you do what it takes to address your real feelings and accept the other person's right to do the same.

In almost all romantic situations, it's only the fear of hearing "no" that causes any confusion or uncertainty about how to proceed. Almost any time anyone says, "I like this person but I don't know what to do," the reality is that it's completely obvious what to do, it's just that doing the obvious thing risks hearing "no" and so everyone tries to think of convoluted ways of trying to minimize the chance of that syllable being spoken. The short term hurt of that word is so high that it takes a lot of strength to pursue the long term gains it offers.

If two people don't want the same thing, whether it's that they both want to be friends, or lovers, or coworkers, or acquaintances, or whatever human relationship you can conceive of, it's healthier for one or both to walk away. Any imbalanced relationship is bad to be in, so ultimately, it's better to hear "no" and walk the fuck away ASAP. Not that anyone is strong enough to hear "no" and be unaffected. It isn't strong to be unaffected by hearing "no", that's just being sociopathic. Strength is feeling every bit of hurt from hearing "no", but not punishing the other for saying it, and, after a period of suffering, moving on, moving forward.

So, my friend keeps talking about how he thinks something might come of this attraction he has to this gi...sorry, woman. But, every day that he can't just say, "hey, I like you, a lot. Can we go out sometime, like on a date, see how things go?" is another day just hanging onto a hope that is fuelled by her human need to just be validated by someone else's attraction.

I try to tell him to move on, but I know he won't. He'll linger in that space for ages, maybe getting into some kind of relationship with her, emphasis on "some kind", until something breaks, most likely his heart. He'll pretend that's not the case, though, because he doesn't yet know all the dimensions of what heart break feels like yet, and it's important to young men that they keep up an image that they aren't affected by things anyway. "It's all good dude, she just wants to keep it chill, and y'know, actually, that's what I really want anyway, 'cause, she's like, cool to hang out with even if nothing more is happening."

Sure, man. But, get back to me when you're ready to drown in pussy, because if you knew at your age what I know now at my age, you'd be doing a lot better than all the years I spent fabricating similar cover ups for my loneliness, and suffering fissures in my heart I didn't even understand or perceive the implications of, in order to get to where I am now, which is too old and drifting further from the dating ocean that I've mapped so well. Someone should benefit from all that learning, and since it's less and less likely to be me, it might as well be you.