Early in life we learn what it means to like someone. When we’re wee toddlers, we call it friendship. Later we learn we sometimes like people as more than friends. We call this love - or, more often, some watered down derivative.
For the first few months after we stumble into romantic bliss, or perhaps longer - think cafeteria lunches with your crush sitting at the end of the table - we may confuse friendship and love. We love to hang out with both friends and lovers. We want to share secrets with them. Both excite us - but in different ways. Soon, either through trial or heartache, we learn not to mistake these two concepts as synonyms. Friendship may be given without caution or preamble. Love, or similar affection, is far less awarded and comes packed with nuance and people’s ghosts, demons, and spite (my own especially).
People can graduate from friendship to love. This is a well-worn path and does work, but we also learn fast that this treads the border of being friend zoned, which the Friend Zone is the Elephant Graveyard of relationships. It’s a barren plain of despair and shame. Tell a person you like them early and the feeling isn’t shared, and you’ll be relegated to an eternal prison. Friendship is everlasting unlike love. If someone doesn’t like you, the general go-to (after “it’s not you, it’s me”) is, “I think we’re better off as friends.”
This is a valid sentiment and may very well be true, but no one seeks to find themselves in the Friend Zone. It’s an involuntary destination.
I admit, most early relationships (think 17 and younger) are won and fought on the brink of the Friendship Zone. My first crush was a friend. My first girlfriend was a friend. And many other young prospects I pursued under the guise of friendship. Yet, at a certain age, and definitely by mid-college, I abandoned that trope as a failed cliche with rare success. Far better to never befriend a wannabe lover than to wake up on the other side of “I’d rather be friends.”
I came to like someone last year, and I recognized fast that I had to make a choice: waver for too long and we’d be fast friends or speak up and jump the barrier. I surprised even myself when I declared in her kitchen at 12:30 am on a Monday that I was romantically interested in her. I left no words to be minced.
What followed was something far removed from friendship. Yes, love and friendship overlap, but these two things are not so easily disentangled that you can hold up one strand and say, “This is friendship, and that other piece is love.”
As things do, our dalliance ended. The details hardly matter other than during our time together she brought up this fantasy that she always wanted to remain friends with her exes. I cannot decide if I was foolhardy or a straight fool when I agreed that was doable, but I assured her it was a noble, achievable cause.
Fast forward to our terminus. She spoke of wanting to maintain a friendship and I flat out said, “I don’t know how that will work.” With words that could be minced slightly more than my initial declaration of affection, I said we couldn’t be friends. At least not now.
But we have so much in common. That’s really frustrating to hear. She was disappointed that I’d say that. She sang siren songs of protest. In fact she made me feel guilty and selfish that I’d swear her off even though she swore me off first.
The day after we ended things, a friend told me I was allowed to be selfish. In fact, they encouraged me to be selfish. But how fast I forgot this advice when confronted by her yearning for attention and affection - just not all my attention and not all my affection.
I agreed to a trial. And a trial we did have. We endured periods of silence followed by flurries of texts, friendly dates to the movies, and guarded conversations about what and who we were doing later. (Was I doing anyone? I’d let her decide.) It became a game, which was neither love nor friendship.
I fast grew dissatisfied not knowing who she saw without me, what she thought of the latest Netflix documentary, and why we really ended things. You risk things in love, and one of them is friendship. Friends become lovers; lovers do not become friends.
I resolved to pull the plug. I called out the game. I felt crazy. Was I mean, cruel, vindictive to end a friendship? She was right, we had so much in common, we enjoyed hanging out - but those are all the reasons I liked her as more than a friend to begin with. Friendship is not a consolation prize rewarded to the couple with the nicest breakup. We never were friends.
These things I prepared to say, then blanched. I challenged our contradictions and hypocrisies, but I hesitated to finish off whatever it was we had. Maybe it would die with time?
A friend relayed a similar story. A relationship that crumbled and both spoke of transitioning to amigos as if that’s possible once you know the freckles between their shoulder blades and which neighbors their mother hates. My friend laughed at the idea, but played along because friendship is given freely - but maybe it’s not so free once you’ve been with someone.
The friendship ended when my friend got invited to a party, a very friendly thing to do, friend or not. But my friend did not go and did not RSVP. And I went to Europe and decided my friendship was also over.