One of the best emails I ever read was to my friend Kelvin to the lady friend I was attempting reconciliation with. Before she and I or she and someone else got back together (she was choosing between exes), he threw his hat into the ring. He declared his love for her in some of the most eloquent and engaging prose I have ever read. At the end of it he made one request. She could choose him and they could live happily ever after, she could choose someone else and things would (eventually) return to normal… but the one thing that he absolutely, positively, did not want her to say was “Maybe” and leave him twisting in the wind.
To which she responded, over the next few months, with a series of proclamations of “Maybe”.
A while back, Megan McArdle put her finger on something rather important to young men or, at least, young men like I used to be:
There’s a phase most women probably go through in high school or college, when they realize that they have extraordinary power to get men to do things, and they see how many people they can get to chase them at once. Most of us, though, I think quickly realize how pointless it is. There’s something terribly lonely about interacting with someone when you know what’s really going on, and they don’t.
The notion of a “Friend Zone” is often fodder for sitcoms. It often goes like this: Guy is interested in girl. Girl might be interested in guy or might have been interested in guy, but they become friends and since they’re friends, she doesn’t want to wreck it by pursuing something more. Thus, he is in The Friend Zone. In the TV show Friends, Joey warns Ross in the first episode that he needs to make his move or he will be in the Friend Zone. In Scrubs, a corrolary is added that any aborted kiss must be rectified within 24 hours or you are relegated to the place where her shy or goofy Asian-American tutor in high school ended up… I don’t think they said The Friend Zone, but they might as well have.
I’ve heard it suggested by some that The Friend Zone (TFZ) is actually a myth. If a woman is interested in a guy, she will be interested in him. The fact that he’s her friend would make it more so rather than less so. the Myth of the Friend Zone exists because women say “Let’s be friends” or “I was interested in you, but now that I’ve gotten to know you I see you only as a friend” when they really mean “Ewwww…” and they don’t want to hurt the guy because he is nice and it’s not good to hurt nice people any more than you have to or they don’t want to hurt him because he’s not nice and they fear retaliation.
Women that say this are… well… correct much of the time. Sometimes guys are left with the impression that they might have had a shot but the friendship got in the way when in reality he never, ever, had anything resembling a shot. Maybe it’s the vast majority of guys that think that they’re in TFZ or maybe it’s just true some of the time. But it’s not true all of the time. Not completely as such, anyway.
It’s true that if you become genuinely close with a girl that would otherwise be interested in you, it’s unlikely or impossible that this will negatively affect her interest except in the outlier case where she’s just cruisin’ for an emotional bruisin’ (in which case the guy shouldn’t want to go there anyway and if he is he’s cruisin’ for the same bruisin’). But there is something else that does happen that young men ought to be on the lookout for.
There very frequently seems to be a time limit between the point where a guy says that he is interested and something actually happening. It’s not the 24 hours from Scrubs, but it’s not indefinite and this is true even if you are otherwise appropriate dating stock for the girl and not searching out of your station. You can glide your way out of this if you immediately start dating someone else or can accurately (and it must be accurately, faking is easy to spot) demonstrate that you have other options that are worthy of pursuit.
One of the worst positions for a guy to be in is to declare his interest and simply not be given any sort of definitive answer. Hearing “no” hurts, of course, but if you’re well-adjusted life goes on. Hearing “yes” rocks. If you get anywhere in between, you are effectively put on Reserve Status. You’re on a shelf. You’re a bone in her collection. This is what McArdle puts her finger on that I find so worthwhile. A lot of young women do this.
I have in the past called this Bone Collecting. The shorter version is that being a human her ego needs regular watering and having a guy interested in her helps supply that and having more guys interested supplies more of that. Logically, she can only be going out with one person at a time, but if she can manage to have a guy or two that are in the ballpark of worthy of her on stand-by, it can help keep her going in pursuit of the best guy that she can get. McArdle focuses squarely on the things that the guy will do for her, but one of the biggest such is emotional validation. That he may completely revoke this if she tells him it’s unlikely to happen or will only happen in the absence of any other immediate alternative provides incentive for her not to say anything even if he’s actually annoying her with his affections.
Note: This isn’t the same as saying she is not and never could be interested. If she feels nothing for the guy than his emotional validation actually means little. She feels (or has the capacity to feel) something, just not enough to forego all other opportunities.
For a lot of girls, once they have that emotional validation, they’ve already gotten everything they need from the romantic transaction. Foregoing other opportunities or engaging in romantic physical activity are costs that she doesn’t even have to bear. A lot of young ladies want more than validation, of course. A lot of young men want more than sex. Nonetheless, there is a not-insignificant portion of each population that is more singularly-minded and both genders should keep this into account.
The reason I can write with such confidence that the girl is interested in the guy and it’s not all a smokescreen for lack of interest is that various times when I’ve seen it happen the two do eventually get together. Importantly, though, this only happens after he has revoked his validation. Evangeline and Kelvin dated for two years before I ruined it. Tracey threw herself at my feet and for years said (to me and to others) that letting me go was the worst mistake that she had ever made.
I am not saying that these women are evil. Sometimes they don’t realize what they’re doing. Sometimes they do, but she just can’t seem to leverage any perspective with him hanging by so closely even as she doesn’t want him to go away.
Whether she admits it or not and whether he wants to or not, it seems to me that the best thing for the guy to do when he finds himself in reserve status is to go on his merry way. Do whatever it takes to move on. Stop seeing her, stop talking to her, find new friends. Whatever. She generally puts up a lot of resistance to this idea, partially because she loses that validation and partially because she likes him in some capacity (even if she’s unclear what that capacity is) and it hurts to see someone you care for go away and possibly hate you.
Prior to that worst case scenario, it really does pay for guys to be circumspect with their romantic intentions until they get some sort of reciprocation. I don’t mean never expressing interest, but I do mean never expressing interest more than one step ahead of what she has expressed and never stay on that limb for too long.