How To Get Out Of The Friend Zone

The phrase “How to get out of the friend zone” generates 45,000 hits on Google. “Friendzone” by itself generates 4.8 million hits. Google helpfully defines “friend zone” as “a situation in which a friendship exists between two people, one of whom has an unreciprocated romantic or sexual interest in the other.” Friend zone has its own Wikipedia entry, which says, “In popular culture, the friend zone is a situation in which one member of a friendship wishes to enter into a romantic or sexual relationship, while the other does not. It is generally considered to be an undesirable situation for the rejected person.”

The broader question of whether men and women can or should be friends is frequently debated in the church. In my observation, the church tends to advocate in favor of male-female friendship at some level, even in the most conservative precincts. Aimee Byrd, a member of the most conservative Presbyterian denomination, just wrote a book called Why Can’t We Be Friends?, which in effect argues that the Bible requires men and women to be friends.  The famous book I Kissed Dating Goodbye strongly recommended male-friend friendships. Jen Wilkin says the church needs men and women to be friends. Injunctions against male-female friendships are generally directed only at those who are married, with some people (a minority I would estimate) advocating the Billy Graham Rule or the Mike Pence Rule or some such.

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I will be super direct: other than actual sin, nothing else in my life has done me more harm than being friends with women.  Nothing else even comes close.  So I established a rigorous policy against it.

What I am going to do is analyze the nature of male-female friendships, which you can consider and combine with other research of your own to decide on the policy you want to live by.

The key to me is that friendships between men and women are characterized by endemic negative asymmetries in two areas: asymmetry of intent and asymmetry of outcomes.

About the Friend Zone: Asymmetry of Intent

An asymmetry of intent is the situation described in those friend zone definitions above. It occurs when one person wants more out of a friendship than the other person does. The usual case that’s specific to male-female friendships is when one person wants to make the relationship romantic but the other person wants to remain friends.

A good example of this asymmetry is a story Tim Keller tells about his friendship with now-wife Kathy, recounted in their book The Meaning of Marriage:

Though we were best friends and kindred spirits, I was still hurting from a previous relationship that had ended badly. Katy was patient and understanding up to a point, but the day came when she said, “Look, I can’t take this anymore. I have been expecting to be promoted from friend to girlfriend. I know you to mean to be saying this, but every day you don’t choose me to be more than a friend, it feels as if I’ve been weighed and found wanting – hoping that someday you’ll want me to be more than a friend. I’m not calling myself a pearl, and I’m not calling you a pig, but one of the reasons Jesus told his disciples not to cast pearls before swine was because a pig can’t recognize the value of a pearl. If you can’t see me as valuable to you, then I’m not going to keep throwing myself into your company, hoping and hoping. I can’t do it. The rejection that I perceive, whether you intend it or not, is just too painful.
That’s exactly what she said. It got my attention. It sent me into a time of deep self-examination. A couple of weeks later, I made the choice.

Since there are already rules named after men, let’s name this one the “Kathy Keller Rule.”  The Kathy Keller Rule is:

Do not stay in a friendship where your desire for romance is persistently denied, but deliver an ultimatum (or ask the other person out on a date), exiting the friendship if the other person chooses not to reciprocate your desires.

People don’t necessarily move at the same speed in relationships. But if one person wants to take the relationship to the next level and the other person does not, and this persists for longer than a limited window of time, then the situation is fundamentally exploitative. Kathy recognized this and took appropriate action and revealed her true feelings.

In my experience, when a man and woman are “just friends” it’s usually the man who wants to be in a romantic relationship but the woman does not.  And generally, similar reasons apply as to why she’s happy with the situation. She is already getting many of the non-sexual benefits of a boyfriend or even of marriage without having to actually date him. It’s almost certain the woman in this friend zone situation is well aware that the man romantic feelings for her.  That is why I categorize these types of relationships as exploitative.

Kathy was quite correct in delivering that ultimatum to Tim, but she should not have had to do it. If you are in a friendship or dating relationship with a woman and you know she wants to take it to the next level but you don’t, then you have an obligation to take action yourself, probably by breaking it off. I feel confident being directive here because taking advantage of other people is sinful. Her willingness to stay is no excuse.

If you are on the other side of that relationship you have to understand that you are being exploited. It is fully in your power to do exactly what Kathy did. If you don’t, then you are willfully choosing to be exploited and should expect to reap the consequences of that.

Conclusion: Friendships between men and women have the characteristic that they often evolve into asymmetry of intent, which is exploitative if it persists. Remember the Kathy Keller Rule. And remember, just as no woman is under any obligation to go out on a date with a man such as you, you are under no obligation to be a friend to women. She has no right to your companionship.

About the Friend Zone: Asymmetry of Outcomes

The ideal investment is one with small and capped downside but unlimited upside.  This is a positive asymmetry. The worst situation is a negative asymmetry where your upside is small and limited, but your downside is potentially huge.

Male-female friendship has this negative asymmetry of the outcome. Admittedly, there actually is one very high-value potential positive outcome from being friends with someone of the opposite sex. It could turn into a romantic relationship that leads to marriage. If you meet your future wife as a result of being friends with her first, the way Tim met Kathy, you had a very positive outcome.

Except in that one scenario, the positive payoffs for male-female friendship are pretty low because the benefits of most friendships today are pretty low generally. The base case is that you get to enjoy socializing and conversation, and maybe some mutual aid now and again. The aid usually flows towards the woman in many cases. Such as her being helped by a “good friend” to help her move furniture, etc. This is a clear subtext of the church’s calls for male-female friendships. There are a lot of singles in the church, meaning a lot of single women, and they need help with things like moving sofas. Solution: promote friendships between men and women.

Consider the many possible negative outcomes – including potentially very negative outcomes – that could result from being friends with a woman:

  • Developing romantic feelings and finding your interest unrequited – moving from friend to friend zone and becoming one of her “guy friends.”
  • Spending years of your precious youth that you’ll never get back waiting patiently in the friend zone in the vain hope that she will want to date you, passing up opportunities to meet many other high-quality girls who might actually show romantic interest.
  • Her falling for you romantically and you not being interested in her. You’re now friendzoning her and putting yourself in an awkward and risky spot (if she doesn’t take your rejection well and decides to try to get revenge).
  • Committing sexual sin, with the potential effect of destroying your marriage if you are a married man, getting her pregnant, etc.
  • Getting into a major fight that ends the friendship, and also forces you out of your mutual circle of friends or even your church.
  • Getting into a major fight and getting falsely accused of sexual harassment, etc. (Even if you are innocent, in a #MeToo world merely to be accused is to be convicted).

Some of these may be remote possibilities. But if one of these “black swan” events happens to you, it could be life-destroying. Given the instability of male-friendships as a “just friends” situation, a negative outcome of some sort appears to be the most likely scenario. Very bad outcomes are not uncommon.

Finding an Actual Girlfriend: Sapping of Motivation

One potential negative outcome deserves its own heading. When you have a friend of the opposite sex, your motivation level to find a girlfriend (then hopefully wife) is reduced.

Consider a simple and common case: you need a date for an event. If you have a female friend you can bring as your +1, this dramatically reduces the level of motivation you have to go ask women out on an actual date. Being just friends in this case gives you an easy out from the difficult task of overcoming low self-esteem and focusing on asking a girl out.  Or allows you to avoid making the self-improvement and life changes that would make you more compelling as a romantic partner.

Male-female friendships can make it so comfortable to be single that people don’t take the steps to end up in a real relationship and towards marriage.

How to Get Out of the Friend Zone

How to get out of the friend zone is a popular question. Truthfully the best way to avoid the friend zone is to not get friendzoned in the first place.  So if you find yourself getting in the freind zone, I put together a flowchart that shows a possible way to get out of the friend zone.

Friend Zone Flow Chart

Your options are very simple.

  1. You apply the Kathy Keller Rule by either asking her on a date or giving her an ultimatum. If she says Yes, congratulations. You are now out of the friend zone and dating.
  2. You exit the friend zone by terminating the friendship.

In all other cases, you are stuck in the dreaded friend zone, with the asymmetry of intent, probably in a state of being exploited. 

It’s possible that at some point she will express interest in you the way Kathy did for Tim. But don’t count on it. To repeat, in situations where a man and woman are dating and she wants to move towards marriage but he doesn’t, the man is almost always aware of her desires. Similarly, if you are friends with a woman and interested in dating her, you can be virtually certain she already knows about your interest at some level and is taking active measures to manage the relationship to keep you engaged without having to take that leap. If she had wanted to date you, she probably would already have done something like what Kathy Keller did.  If you want the situation to change, it’s highly likely you are going to need to be the one to make a move. And besides, if you are so scared that you have to wait for the woman to ask you out, you’ve got much bigger problems than being in the friend zone.

On Being A Nice Guy

After you’ve revealed your true feelings, don’t feel compelled to be the great guy, and still be friends. Most women once they have friendzoned you will not be interested in taking things to the next level. She’s revealed she’s not into you. Sticking around after being friendzoned and trying to get a romantic relationship is how “nice guys” work. It also shows a level of neediness. Don’t do this to yourself. She doesn’t view you as boyfriend material. Terminate the friendship.

Society and the Church have pushed male-female friendships, but you truly have no obligation to continue. You’re setting yourself up to be exploited and become a doormat. This goes back to the asymmetry of intent. She’s getting many of the benefits of having a boyfriend, without actually having one. You don’t need to be a good guy in this situation. A lot of times she’s doing this to get validation. It’s the asymmetry of intent. You’re putting yourself in a bad situation.

For whatever reason, we don’t see this behavior as often in women. A “nice gal” isn’t a thing. This is mostly a male phenomenon.

My Rules on Opposite Sex Friendship

To put my own cards on the table, I’m not a relationship expert, but I will tell you the personal rule I follow for friendships with women. It’s very simple:

Never have a 1:1 personal friendship with a woman.

I am married, but I followed the same rule while single. It’s not about the appearance of impropriety or the risk of having sex or any of that. Rather, it’s the bad things that happened in the past when I had tried to be friends with women. After enough disasters, I finally said enough’s enough. No more throwing pearls before swine or good money after bad. The results of that change and following the rules above have been incredibly positive and I’ve never once regretted it.

Note that I said personal friendships in this. I do maintain professional friendships with women. I do meet women professionally for coffee or have business lunches with women. But these are not personal friendships that exist outside of the professional context unless my wife is involved.

Speaking of which, while I will not have 1:1 personal friendships with women, my wife and I do have friendships with them as a couple. This includes other couples obviously, but also singles.  We make a point of inviting single people, men & women, over for dinner.

I also have a handful of women I would classify as personal acquaintances. I see them very rarely so it’s hard to really say there’s a friendship. For example, there’s one colleague of mine who works remotely who I go to an opera dress rehearsal with once or twice a year. There’s a significant age gap between us as well. I see no reason to militantly cut this off.

Then there are familial relationships that I am very firm about not classifying as friendships: my mother, my stepsisters, and my wife. A lot of men like to call their wife “my best friend.” I think of mine as my wife – which I think is a much deeper and more significant relationship.

That’s what I do.  Again, you must do what you feel is right for yourself because the harvest will be yours.  You are all big boys. Just remember that if you end up in the friend zone it’s your own fault.

Does the Bible Require Male-Female Friendships?

I always stress that I’m a cultural critic, not an authoritative Bible teacher.  In this case, I think I have to at least address the theology because if the Bible requires men and women to be friends, that overrides any other consideration. My analysis may well seem perfect, but as we know, there’s a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof is death.

Does the Bible require men and women to be 1:1 personal friends? Good luck, I have not seen an even halfway convincing argument to this effect.

My pastor, who is very sharp, did an entire sermon series on friendship and I don’t recall him referencing this at all.  My takeaway from that is that the Bible doesn’t speak to it, meaning it falls into the category of our general call to be wise.

I read Aimee Byrd’s book.  It was thoroughly unconvincing. Jen Wilkin’s Gospel Coalition piece linked above references only one verse of scripture (Mark 3:35) that doesn’t even contain the word friend.  In Matt Chandler’s sermon, he does not refer to any scripture to justify his discourse on imaging headship. They all seem to rely on the idea of Christians being sisters and brothers to justify these kinds of 1:1 personal friendships. I’m not buying it, and as I noted above, I consider familial relationships fundamentally distinct from friendship. If not, why ever talk about friendship as a distinct entity?

If someone has a compelling theological argument to the effect that men and women must be 1:1 personal friends, I would love to read it.

If you’d like to learn more about the friend zone check out Masculinist #25 where I go into more detail.

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