I can’t believe I’m about to write an essay about friend-zoning, but so it goes.
A few of my friends have recently shared this comic called The Friend-zoner vs. the Nice Guy. The comments on their shares have generally been supportive, with the exception of one friend, who drew out a gem or two of responses. (I know, don’t read the comments, right? What was I thinking?)
One idea expressed was that it wasn’t okay to make fun of “nice guys” because it is nice guy shaming. Questions of comedy aside (a huge amount of comedy thrives on the principle of making fun of pretty much everything and everyone imaginable, and where the line is between appropriate and inappropriate varies from person to person and could take up a few textbooks, I suspect), I’m actually really glad to see this discussion of “niceness” as manipulation taking place. Because that’s what we’re talking about here. The comic isn’t so much making fun as it is illustrating a problematic behavior.
Now, is it only men who use niceness to manipulate? Of course not! Is it possible for people to take advantage of this nice guy behavior? You bet. (Which is another great reason not to do it.) But pointing out this kind of systemic problem is useful because it raises our collective awareness as a society, which means we can work towards healthier models of friendship and dating.
The idea has taken root that being overly nice or a people pleaser with no personal boundaries is a good life strategy. People are raised to believe this generally because it supports the system they’re a part of, whether that is a smaller family system or a larger system (the patriarchy being one example). Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. I would not have spent the last three and a half years busting my butt to change myself if I didn’t think being a people pleaser was problematic. It hurts the people pleaser, and it hurts the people they care about. Taking that a few steps further and using a lack of boundaries to try to manipulate other people is a dark and destructive path that ends in wreckage and disappointment. We call this “nice” but of course, this kind of thing isn’t actually nice at all.
However, what really strikes me about this conversation about friend-zoning is that we seem to have lost sight of what adult friendship is.
What friendship IS NOT: Preferential treatment that you don’t really want to be giving; trying to impress; a running tally of favors and obligations; a relationship you’re not really interested in unless it leads to something more (ie sex or a romantic relationship), all about you, all about the other person, all about making demands.
What friendship IS: Two people who genuinely care about each other. They want the other person to be happy, and they are also comfortable taking care of themselves and saying no when necessary. Friends perform acts of kindness for each other not because they are expecting something specific in the future but because they are happy and able to help and because they are already getting something valuable out of the friendship as it currently stands.
If your friend doesn’t think the two of you would work out in a romantic relationship, and you are angry at them about that because you were so nice to them, well then, that isn’t a friendship to begin with, is it? Will you feel disappointed to have your romantic overtures turned down? Sure. Will you need some additional space for a while? Maybe. But believing your niceness has somehow entitled you to a specific prize? Nope. Believing the other person is obligated to sleep with you because you’ve done favors for them in the past? No again. Accepting bad behavior from someone else because you hope someday they’ll date you? Not a strategy for happiness.
An authentic friendship can withstand the strain of a conversation where only one side wants to progress to a romantic relationship; a friendship based on lack of communication and high expectations of what might happen in the future often can’t. And trying to guilt someone into sex they don’t want to have? That is never the behavior of a friend.
In conclusion: If you want to date someone and don’t really have much interest in being their friend, that’s fine. Then don’t pretend you want friendship, and don’t do favors for them that you don’t want to do. Ask them on a date instead. If you have a friend and you’ve decided you’d like to date them, that’s fine. Tell them, and be willing and open to hearing whatever their response might be without thinking they owe it to you to say yes.
P.S.: After I wrote this, Diana Sherman published a post on the same topic. It goes into greater depth as to why the whole “entitled to date you since I’ve spent so much time with you” attitude sucks for the person on the receiving end and is well worth a read.