On Zoning: The Girlfriend

A long, long time ago, I can still remember when…

Right. Back on track. A long time ago a guy friend of mine asked me why I wasn’t interested in him. This was during a conversation about his dating prospects. I matched what he wanted–on paper at least–but I wasn’t interested.

At the time, I tried to explain the question wasn’t why I wasn’t interested in him, the real question was why I was ever interested in anyone. The default isn’t attraction. It’s not like I’m attracted to every guy I meet, and then as we interact I’m taking away points for his mistakes. Meh. What a horrid world to live in.

My default is actually not to be attracted. Sure, I can tell if someone is physically attractive to me in an objective way, and yes, that will catch my eye. But if their mouth opens up and stupid falls out, I’m not sticking around no matter how pretty they are. On the other hand, if I’m really enjoying a conversation, sharing humor, and learning interesting things from my conversation partner, then he starts becoming more and more attractive to me. (I use “he” here because I’m into dudes, obviously y’all can use whatever pronoun you want).

So, attraction is not a losing game the way my friend seemed to believe. It wasn’t a matter of him losing points and having to figure out the perfect way to act. That sort of thing always leads to disaster. You end up walking on eggshells around the person you’re interested in, always trying to say what they want to hear, and worrying they won’t like the real you. Exhausting. Attraction seems a lot healthier to me when you treat it as additive. Every conversation then becomes a way to build up, instead of tear down.

But I shouldn’t let this get away from me completely. I’m tangenting a bit from what I wanted to talk about.

The girlfriend zone. The nice guy. The friend zone. There are some awesome articles, essays, and comics out there talking about it. The idea is that guys will automatically place an attractive girl in the girlfriend zone and, if it turns out she doesn’t want to date, then drop her completely. While she foolishly thought they actually liked her and wanted to be friends, not just get into her pants.

Please stop a moment and think about that interaction. Really think about it. Say that girl is me (she certainly has been in the past, and probably will be again). I’ve got my tangle of neuroses and insecurities. One of the reasons I like Jim so much is that he’s always been direct with me about what he wanted. I don’t have to worry about what he’s not saying. I don’t have to second guess our interactions. It lets my ever present anxiety have a bit of a break. But in the girlfriend zone, the dude is never direct.

So I’m hanging out with a guy friend, maybe playing Left 4 Dead. Maybe walking Ragnar. I know this guy is my friend, right? I’m assuming he’s a real friend. He really does like playing Left 4 Dead with me, he really does think Ragnar is cute. He really does enjoy talking about re-finishing furniture and really does like my cooking. Because I’m assuming he’s honest with me. Maybe we’ve been friends for a few weeks. Maybe a few years.

Somehow dating comes up as a topic. Maybe I tell him about someone I’ve met. Or maybe he finally says something about wanting to go out with me. But I’m not interested, for whatever reason. Maybe he looks too much like my brother, maybe he just smells wrong to me, maybe I just don’t like guys with too many vowels in their names. Doesn’t matter.

If he’s my friend, really and truly my friend, this is the conversation we should have:

Dude: So, I’d like to take you on a date.

Me: Oh. That’s flattering, but that wouldn’t work for me.

Dude: Oh. Can’t blame me for asking, I think you’re pretty cool. But I get it.

Me: Thanks. You’re pretty cool, too. Let’s go shoot zombies.

I’ve had conversations that were pretty similar to that. I had a breakup where I turned to the guy and said:

Me: I’m thinking I want to break up.

Dude: I’m thinking so.

Me: Wanna get a pizza?

Dude: Yep

And we went for pizza. That guy, by the way, was a true friend. He thought I was nifty when he was dating me and when he wasn’t dating me. And I felt the same about him.

But I’ve also had this conversation with a guy:

Dude: So, I’d like to take you on a date.

Me: Oh. That’s flattering, but that wouldn’t work for me.

Dude: Why not?

(Please note, this is a bad sign right here. He’s not accepting no and challenging my answer).

Me: Huh? Uhm. I just don’t feel that way. I think you’re awesome, but-

Dude: You think I’m awesome but you won’t date me. I can’t believe I wasted so much time.

Me: Wait, what?

You know what that conversation tells me? That all the time we spent being friends, playing Left 4 Dead, walking the dog, eating cookies I baked, all that time was a waste. All that time spent with me was a waste. And this is when my insecurities fire up again. I re-examine the entire relationship, realizing now that he was just hanging out in hopes of hooking up, and I can’t believe anything he said. Maybe he hated my cooking. Maybe he thought I was a terrible gamer. Maybe he thought if he just was nice to my dog, I’d sleep with him. I learn that I never should have trusted him. My judgment is suspect, and my value—for him at least—is only skin deep.

If you already have trust issues, if you’re working on getting past those issues, this is a disaster. It’s horrible even if you don’t have trust issues, because it’s still a case of someone deceiving you. So this guy, who says he wants to date me, who therefore ought to want me to be happy and healthy, has instead decided to tear me down when I say no. It’s like a kid kicking down a sand castle because they don’t get to play with it.

As a friend, that dude seriously violated the campsite rule. You know, the one that says leave the place in better shape than you found it? Yeah, no. That guy just kicked over the trashcans on his way out. Which means that the next guy who wants to be friends with me may not get the chance. Because I’m going to be reluctant to open myself up for that again.

I get that there are social games out there around dating, and that guys get screwed over, too. I’ve known girls who go out on dates constantly not because they’re interested but because they want someone else to pay for their dinner. That sucks.

This is why I like up front communication. Yeah, I can be shy, but the past—wow—seven years, I’ve told guys I was interested. Maybe I’ll be friends with them for a long time first, because with me, it often takes a while to build up interest. But if it matters to me, I’ll eventually get around to saying something. “Just so you know, I’d totally date you if you were interested,” seems to go over well, even when the guy isn’t interested. And if he’s not interested, that’s fine. I’ll be disappointed, don’t get me wrong. But I won’t be mad. And I won’t obsess over how perfect we’d be if he just realized we were meant to be together (I’m trying not to gag here, ick). I’ll move on.

And I’ve had people (guys and gals) I really admire and like tell me roughly the same thing, and take it with grace when I decline. Honestly, some of those friendships are even more awesome after. Because we know we can trust each other. And it feels good to know someone you consider pretty nifty thinks you’re nifty, too. Even if you don’t want to lock lips over it.

4 Responses

  1. This is a great perspective. I love the way you describe the default girlfriend zone vs. default friend zone dichotomy. I think part of the reason I like being mommy first in my social sphere is that it automatically places me in the friend zone, and that’s where I’m comfortable and where I belong at this point in my life.

    I never have wrapped my head around the whole dating thing. I fell into a relationship in college, went straight from “met a cute boy” to “married” in my adult life. I feel the same way about free-meal dating as you do!

    I think part of the issue is that people think that, because being paired up seems to be the norm for the majority, being paired up should be a guiding principle for everybody. Because they’re on the hunt for a romantic partner, they assume everyone unpaired it too. It’s just not that way. I like being single. Who knows? Perhaps that’ll change some day, but it’s the way it is right now.

    Hugs to you!

  2. I want to be upfront – I’m not defending them and I’m certainly not defending myself. I take responsibility for my abhorrent actions. I did damage. I tried to repair it but I’m still learning the repercussions. I can never make it right but now I know there’s more I can do and tomorrow I will do more.

    I did this once, two years ago. I say once and I’m grasping at straws because depending on how you weight it it could represent one, a quarter, a percentage so high that if you discount one other mutually harmful relationship would be 99.. Was I inexperienced? Yes but I wasn’t ignorant. I should have known better. I did know better.

    I knew the dishonesty of my beheviour. I hadn’t asked that night because I’d come to a sudden realisation. I asked because the fear of not asking had finally trumped the fear of asking.

    Grace. I struggle to remember my actions clearly but I am certain that everything I did was the opposite of grace. Here was a friend I adore, who’d given me so much. Trust, respect, compassion, understanding and friendship. I could give these same gifts to a friend put in a painful position. I didn’t. I failed a friend who even as I was failing her still tried to support me.

    I want to thank you for writing this. I though I’d understood all damage, the hurt, pain and betrayal I’d caused but today I keenly see something I missed in my actions. I’m sorry for whatever caused you to write this, it shouldn’t be this way.

    I hope I’ve never find myself in the same position again but if I do I’ll react with respect, compassion and understanding. I’ll do it for them because they deserve it, I’ll do it for her because I failed her, I’ll do it for me because I should have done it and I’ll do it for you and everyone else who shouldn’t regret or fear being honest. I just hope I do it with grace.

  3. The “Why?” can have a lot of variation to it. Almost invariably they ask. Some of them ask it in that tone you’re wary of, but more (in my experience, obviously) ask it in a more “I’m curious, my friend. Please tell me a personal thing! It’s OK if you don’t want to right now, though.” kind of tone. I’m far more wary of the ones who don’t outright ask if you’d like to try a date sometime, the ones who sort of passive aggressively imply and then get defensive/grumpy/whiny if you don’t play the game in the direction they’d prefer.

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