Most everyone with a pulse has at one time or another been on the receiving end of the “just friends” conversation. It sucks. Really sucks. And it leads us to overthinking, self-doubting, and, more than anything, discouragement. We want to feel wanted. We want to be affirmed that we are attractive enough, funny enough, smart enough, and genuine enough. We want to be enough.
If you ask my college friends about my romantic encounters, they will probably unabashedly tell you that I had mastered the art of getting “friend zoned (the official title for a male and female who will never enter into relationship, but will, you know, totally stay friends).” My school was small and intimate – it had almost a high school feel to it. On campus, many sports teams and friend groups overlapped, which meant that it was incredibly easy to make new friends and develop new crushes. And many times I failed in my efforts to enter into a new relationship. Fortunately, however, because of the amicable environment, I ended up staying friends with former crushes, shortly after allowing my bruised ego to heal. This was a staple of Saint Vincent College. It was a part of what made my school experience so great.
I moved to a new city after graduation, and young women in my demographic were suddenly incredibly difficult to come by. Since moving almost three years ago, I have been on a handful of dates and have developed a few relationships, some of which had more substance than others. All ended fairly similarly to my college encounters, though, something to the tune of, “I still want to stay friends.” But that’s where the similarities end.
See, I had grown familiar with this conversation. Hell, I’d made so many visits to the friend zone I kept a spare toothbrush there. But in my new town, there was such a grave disconnect. It was almost as though the phrase “staying friends” took on an entirely new meaning. In school, “just friends” meant you would largely remain acquaintances, albeit through necessity. I was surrounded by peers, and always had a great network of love and support. Even girls who expressed their desire to be just friends would still go out of their way to be friendly to me. Additionally, there were so many similar-aged girls in similar positions who had interests similar to mine. If one relationship did not come to fruition, there was a good chance that you were a hallway, a classroom, or a dorm’s distance away from a fresh start, a new prospect.
Not only have I been stripped of this opportunity, but the dating landscape has completely changed. Rather, the post-dating landscape has changed. It is certainly not because my companions in the last three years have not been kind, compassionate, genuine individuals. That aspect is no different from school. What is different is the fact that I have transitioned from 1 degree of separation to a million. When meeting new people, it always seems to come out of left field. My encounters have been with store employees, graduate classmates, and a rare bar conversationalist; I have to make a very deliberate, concerted effort to meet girls whereas in school it was so natural.
Meeting people this way isn’t entirely bad, but it’s tough to rebuild bridges after a failed relationship because, usually, no bridges existed in the first place. This leaves a few undesirable options. You can still hang out with one another in group capacities, but when you have no mutual friends, it’s tough to bring someone around and risk speculation. Inversely, spending one-on-one time is a tough call to initiate, because implications still linger when a guy and girl are spending time together in any capacity.
So usually the best way to get the point across is unfailing avoidance. It may not be the ideal for either party, but seems to be the natural progression. We get on with our lives. We continue to pursue career, social, and relational objectives on our own.
So in spite of my complaint-riddled thesis, I want to draw a positive blueprint for moving forward – for myself and for anyone else who has experienced this struggle. My conclusion is this: as a young adult, the best path to carve is to create large social circles, and let things happen naturally. It’s frustrating, because making friends in the real world is much more difficult; but to say “just friends” and to mean “just friends” can lead to greater outcomes, no matter how many degrees of separation.