The “Friend Zone” explains so much about our attitudes towards love.

We’ve all heard of it. The Friend Zone. A purgatory more escape-proof than Alcatraz; the average single male would rather die than end up in it. Nobody wants to be in the Friend Zone.

And that’s always struck me as pretty funny, when you consider that it doesn’t exist.

The term “Friend Zone” started out in, of all places, the 7th episode of the TV show Friends. It has remained in popular lexicon ever since, and today has entries in the Oxford English dictionary as well as Wikipedia (whence I got the above bit of trivia).

But what is the Friend Zone, really? Well, to answer that, let’s take a quick look at a typical first date.

Alexis and Bryce are on their first date. They’re at a restaurant — say, Olive Garden (“Italian for ‘Applebee’s’,” as my cousin quipped)— and they’re talking, getting to know each other, over chips and drinks and dessert. Afterwards, Bryce has to decide whether to go on a second date with Alexis. What happens then?

Well, in general, it’s pretty simple. If Bryce still likes Alexis, then it’s time to ask for a second date. However, if Bryce has seen any evidence of major incompatibilities, then a better thing to do would be to let Alexis down easy. No second date. And that’s how the story ends.

Now, we have to add in one more complication: is Bryce the boy in the story, or the girl? Because, if Bryce chooses to ask for a second date, then their gender doesn’t matter. But if Bryce is the girl, and decides to let Alexis down easy, then we have a problem. Because Alexis can turn around and complain that he just got put in the Friend Zone.

And here’s where we start talking about double standards. You see, if Bryce is a boy and he lets Alexis down easy, then no one bats an eye: that’s how dating is supposed to work. You go out with people, and for the vast majority of them, it turns out they aren’t the right one for you, and you just move on. But if Bryce is a girl and it turns out Alexis isn’t right for her and so she turns him down — which, again, is how dating is supposed to work — we use the term “Friend Zone” to imply that this isn’t how dating is supposed to work. By following the script, Bryce has failed to follow the script… because the script is different depending on your gender.

As far as Western dating culture is concerned, women aren’t allowed to turn men down. If a guy asks a girl out, then that girl must be attracted to him. The girl has no agency, she has no standards, she has no tastes of her own: she must be receptive to his advances because he tendered his advances. And when a woman fails to do this, he doesn’t accept the idea that this is simply how dating works; he claims that she is somehow defective or unethical.

Now, the more typical use of the Friend Zone involves a slightly different situation. Alexis doesn’t ask Bryce out, not at first; instead, he lingers, socializing with her, empathizing with her, becoming her… Well, her friend. Then he asks her out. The result is the same: Bryce has learned not she’s not attracted to Alexis, and so she turns him down. And once again, Alexis’s sentiment is the same: “But you’re not allowed to not be attracted to me! You’re betraying your role by turning me down!” The adherents of the philosophy will of course tell you that there’s some sort of magic trait you can have or gold hat you can wear which will cause a woman, any woman, to be attracted to you, but this is pseudoscience bullshit. If a woman is attracted to you, she’s attracted to you whether or not you become her friend first. If she isn’t, she isn’t — whether or not you become her friend first. It’s not that Alexis didn’t get a shot at Bryce. It’s that he did, and he just doesn’t like the results.

The Friend Zone is built on the assumption that women are not allowed to decline male partners. And since that assumption is, in and of itself, bullshit, anything based on it must, of necessity, be bullshit as well.

But it goes deeper than that.

The article on Wikipedia actually mentions almost all of this in the header section: the critiques of the idea, and how it reduces romance to a sort of contractual mindset. And yet, the contractual mindset is one we hear used very frequently in real life. “Of course she has to sleep with me. Look at all the stuff I did! I took her to a fancy restaurant and spent $200 on a meal! Shouldn’t I get what I paid for?” And, ignoring the fact that you are treating your date as though she is a prostitute, we must admit that this fool has a point. In general, you should get what you pay money for.

And yet it’s interesting to me, because reducing romance to this kind of contractual barter displays a complete misunderstanding of what love and affection really is.

I’m sure we can all think back to a time when our parents yelled at us for being ungrateful. “I do so much for you! I work a crappy job, I cook all these meals, I do your laundry, I help you with your homework, I take you to soccer practice and then sit in my car for two hours being bored while you kick a stupid ball around… I do so much! You should be grateful!” Or, if we use the words that the parent is thinking but not saying, You owe me.

Sometimes it’s easy to think of life as a series of obligations, because it creates order in our chaotic little world. In a purely contractual economy — which, to be fair, capitalism absolutely is — there are regimented rules. If I do this, you should do that in return. If I do this, then you now have an obligation to reciprocate in some way. You owe me.

So why doesn’t this argument work on our children?

You could simply say that children don’t understand obligation. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much false. Children do understand generosity, even if they sometimes fail to display it; and gift-giving, particularly reciprocal gift-giving, is hardwired into our DNA because it’s so useful at forming emotional bonds. You could say that the child does not understand the magnitude of the work you undertake for them; and, to be blunt, that’s perfectly true… But it’s also perfectly unchangeable. None of us had any idea what kind of shit our parents went through to raise us until it was our turn to become parents and do it ourselves. This kind of stuff simply can’t be communicated because its predicated on emotional realities that, as children, we have yet to experience. We lack the context to understand what our parents are doing. (Which is why so many of us, as new parents, turn around to our own parents in wonder: “You guys are saints, this is insane, I have no idea how you did this when I was a kid.”) Non-parents cannot understand parenting; it is really that simple.

But no: the main reason this argument doesn’t work on our kids is because it is, not to put too fine a point on it, also bullshit.

if you stop right now and think about the people you love — your spouse, your children, your friends, your brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers — what typically springs to mind? Well, in most cases, it’s that you love them. Love, like most feelings, demands action, and so you immediately start thinking of ways to demonstrate that love. Oftentimes, these demonstrations are challenging and time-consuming, because such is the magnitude of our love; mere words or trinkets won’t do it. The demonstrations we need are far-reaching and possibly even grandiose. We are, simply put, going to have to do stuff for the people we love… And often, the stuff is big.

As Kahlil Gibran once put it, “Work is love made visible.”

The argument that our children owe us does not work because children understand love. And they understand that when you love someone, that does not make them obligated to you. It makes you obligated to them. Because that’s the only way to express love: work. Spending time and energy on them, doing nice things for them, staying side by side with them until you simply can’t anymore. That’s what love is: taking on someone else’s burdens because you don’t want them to carry those burdens alone.

And I think that most of the world really does not understand this.

And yes, I can hear you contractualists screaming about it now: “But hold on a second! The same principles apply! I mean, sure, you aren’t going to take your Mom out to a fancy dinner with the express intent of getting sex at the end of the night (or at least I hope you aren’t), but you’re still expending resources! if I’m going to give something, I should get something in return!”

And to that I say: that would be true if love were an investment. But it is not. Love is an expense.

As I mentioned a little earlier in the article, love, like most feelings, demands action. We have a feeling, we want to express that feeling; it’s part of who we are. But look at our training. Look at our childhoods. Look at what everybody tries to teach us. The bulk of it is devoted to this one particular lesson: learning how to control our need to express our feelings. “I know you want to punch him, but don’t.” “I know you want to run around shrieking in excitement, but don’t.” “I know you want to stick your hand down your pants right now, but don’t.” We have to learn self-control. And if somebody — say, Brock Turner — fails to learn it, then they go to jail, because for good or ill self-control is the foundation upon which all of human society is built. Our entire civilization is founded on our ability to control how we express our feelings.

And love is a feeling.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Love is a feeling, but we spend our lives learning to control our feelings, to express them only when we choose to. Expressions of love, therefore, are entirely voluntary. You may feel love towards people you care about, but it does not therefore follow that you will automatically show love to them. (I’m sure many of us have direct experience with our parents acting this way — or, rather, not acting this way.) And if you don’t express a feeling, it might as well not exist; that’s why we’re trained to control them. Love may be a noun, but it only matters when it’s a verb.

So if you and I are walking by each other on the street, and I choose to love you — admiration, attraction, devotion and respect, to quote a pretty wise robot — then you have no obligation to respond in kind. How can you? I’m making a choice of my own free will. And in the same way, asking you out on a date, just to see what happens, it does not and cannot entail any obligation on your part. I’m making an expenditure of time, effort and money with the understanding that I might get absolutely nothing out of it. Because that’s not only how dating works, that’s how life works.

If I choose to punch you, you are not required to punch me back. And if I choose to love you, you are not required to love me back.

And yeah: you can sit there and say, “Well, I’m not going to make an effort unless I’m guaranteed to get some sort of return.” And you know what? Fair enough. But if that’s the case, let’s be honest: you also don’t love that person. You’re abusing them. You’re manipulating them. You’re emotionally closed off. Love is an act of vulnerability, not commerce.

And when the only possible justification for the “Friend Zone” idea relies on love being an act of commerce, it doesn’t exactly stand up as an argument.

And yet the idea is absurdly prevalent in our culture. And what that tells me is not just that we don’t understand dating: as a culture, we don’t understand love.

I was a psychology major and considered becoming a therapist; I’ve been doing peer counseling on the internet for almost 20 years; earlier in life, I was a self-styled romance novelist. (I don’t know if I was any good, but I did get nominated for best new author of the year.) I have studied love. And I can tell you: it isn’t actually that complicated! Love is when you choose to put somebody else’s wants and needs above your own — there, that was easy! You can do this with your family, you can do this with your children, you can do this with your spouse; and I think the kind of relationship you have with those people is defined less by love and more by the other things you feel for them. It’s also why love is typically defined as the greatest virtue: most virtues are, when you get down to it, forms of selflessness, and love definitely qualifies.

I think what’s harder for our culture to get their heads around is interpersonal romance, but this topic isn’t that complicated either. Romance typically starts with physical attraction. What traits do you find attractive in a person of your desired gender? Well, you see someone who you think is hot, or they see you, and somebody ask somebody out. After that there’s a getting to know you period. The first half of romantic love is definitely physical attraction, but the second is personality compatibility. If you find somebody that you want to stay with forever, then it goes without saying that you will need to fit them into your everyday life. So, what is your everyday life like? What is their everyday life like? Sometimes the two lifestyles fit, but a lot of times they don’t. So you persevere, because that’s all you can do. See? Pretty simple.

Except, not quite. There are two questions I asked in the previous paragraph: “What do you find attractive,” and, “What is your everyday life like”. For each and every one of us, these two answers form a unique data set; no two people are ever going to give the exact same answer to both questions. (Side note: with that in mind, stop holding out for a soulmate. You’re going to have to settle eventually. The key is to find someone who is so similar to your hypothetical soulmate that you barely notice the differences between them.) Because we are all individuals, we all want different things in different combinations. There is, and there can be, no foolproof formula that has the exact same effect on Woman #1, but also Woman #2 who is in her exact opposite. I mean, yeah, both women like roughly the same things: physical handsomeness, money, power, humor, integrity, loyalty, humility — but Woman #1 likes them in that exact order, and Woman #2 likes them in the exact opposite order. How can one man possibly have identical effects on both of them? (I guess it happens if his strongest trait is humor… so he’s equally bland to both of them. Which is not a great start.)

And yet so many men come forward with this idiotic idea that they’ve somehow come up with the perfect formula. This man (he claims) (in third person) has discovered the secret to make Woman #1, and Woman #2 who is her exact opposite, both love you. This reveals one of only two things about him. Either he thinks that all women are the same (which is factually false), or he is a sociopathic manipulator and not to be trusted.

So why do so many men buy into these idiotic formulas? Simple: they want to live in a logical, contractual world. “It’s too hard to grow to understand all these individual women! I need a way to reduce all these unique people into one stereotype. I need reductive logic. I’m lazy, is what I’m saying. I’m living proof of that thing Thomas Edison once said: ‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’ ”

And, to be fair: dating sucks. If there was a way to shortcut through all the trial and error, all the rejection, all the waiting, all the heartache, all the existential dread that you’re going to die alone in an apartment filled with cats, then I’d be the first in line to say we should put that shortcut into effect. The problem is that these incels, these redpills, these NoFaps, these pickup artists — they don’t have that shortcut. What they have is lies, misinformation, a desperate amount of self-congratulation, and a side of misogyny. Their formula does not involve understanding women better, but rather understanding them worse — by, again, using reductive logic to transform them from thinking, breathing individuals, with unique tastes and needs, into ATMs that will return sex if you punch in the right cheat code.

Now, I’ll be honest: I don’t know what a real shortcut would even look like. I think the only possibility is greater education around the subject of love and compatibility. People go out into the world and they achieve success with dating, or don’t, and either way they have no idea why, so they make up all this shit that they think is true. What if we were to explain how it actually worked? And then, armed with this new information, what if people were to actually be honest about what they wanted? Maybe I’m some sort of hippie, but I don’t think that casual sex, between consenting adults, is inherently unethical. I do think it very easily lends itself to unethical behavior because one or both parties feels they must hide their true intent from the other. What if we were to — I dunno — not live like that?

Well, I can tell you this much: It won’t happen as long as we think there’s a Friend Zone.