Sunday, April 24, 2016

Into The Friend Zone

friend zone - a situation in which one of two friends wishes to enter into a romantic or sexual relationship, while the other does not.

We're all familiar with the concept of the friend zone. What I want to discuss here is a theory I have on why it exists, and what I think is more interesting, why it's usually the case that we hear of a male being friendzoned by a female, and not usually the other way around.

I don't think anything I'm discussing here is sexist or misogynistic or anything like that. In fact, it's intended to be precisely the opposite, so feel free to unclench your buttocks and take your hand away from the caps lock key before we begin :)

The Inequalities Of Dating

Society has been steadily making progress with regards to gender equality over the last few decades, but one area where our culture is still lagging behind is in dating rituals. In particular, it's still far more common and expected for men to ask women out than the other way around. Most men still assume that they're going to have to make the first move. For women, even if they are willing to ask a man out, there can be social pressure against appearing assertive or too forward.

Even worse, many women have been taught that they should make a man actively pursue them, that the man should "work for it". See terrible books like The Rules and its various spin offs for some of this kind of advice. Not only does this help women to objectify themselves by quite literally setting themselves up as a "prize" to be "won", it sets up a totally unequal relationship right from the start.

So the interesting question is: what kinds of results should we expect to see when we have a dating culture with this role inequality?

One obvious result of this is that if men are the ones who are usually expected to ask someone out, then it shouldn't be at all surprising that the friend zone thing happens to them more often. If the guy has to make the first move most of the time, then it also means that when a man and woman are friends it's going to be the guy who most often ends up raising the possibility of becoming more than friends. Why would we expect it to be otherwise?

The Attractiveness Scale

Another thing to consider is that most people have a rough sense of where they are on the "attractiveness scale" (where attractive means any attribute of interest, not just physical attractiveness) and thus a sense of whether someone else is "out of their league". Everyone has a different idea of what is attractive, of course, so this is a bit grey, but on the whole most people will end up in successful relationships with someone who is roughly similar on the attractiveness scale. If you've ever heard someone say (or said it yourself, you know you have!), "Why is she with him?", or "He must be rich for her to be with him", or "He must be good in bed!", then you know exactly what I'm talking about. We're expressing a belief that the couple appears to be mismatched.

Jealously in relationships is often the result of one person feeling that they are not in the other person's league, basically worrying that they can "do better", and that insecurity leads to feeling jealous when their partner interacts with someone attractive of the opposite sex. So being with someone who you think is less attractive than you can lead you to think that you can do better, while being with someone that you think is far more attractive than you will make you worry that they can do better.

The end result is that people generally find themselves attracted to potential partners who are a little more attractive than themselves (being optimistic but not delusional). So when men ask women out, they're frequently going to try for someone who's a little more attractive than they are, but that woman probably has her eyes on some other guy who she sees as a little more attractive than herself.

Now, if men and women were both in the habit of asking each other out, this difference would tend to sort itself out because both sexes would get to experience more often the feeling of being rejected by someone more attractive, and having to reject someone less attractive, so they would much better calibrate to seeking people of a similar attractiveness. But when asking someone out is more one sided, you end up with women disproportionately "waiting for Mr Right", which means they're frequently getting asked out by someone they see as less attractive, which then increases the rate of friend zoning.

Towards Equality

So in the end, I'd argue that if we shifted culturally towards making it not just more socially acceptable, but actually expected, for women to ask men out just as much as men asking women out, then the friend zone problem would largely go away. When we set up our culture to disproportionately expect men to ask women out, men to pay for women on dates, men to do all the wooing and pursuing, then we set up women to be objectified prizes, we set up women to be passive and wait for a man to ask them out. Equality comes from a thousand little things in our culture, but having our relationships be unequal right from the very start should stand out as being one of the more obviously bad things.

So what should we do about it? We should certainly encourage women to make the first move and ask men out. Men shouldn't freak out or be intimidated by women who take the initiative, and women should support each other for doing that. In fact women should probably treat each other more like men do in this regard, giving each other shit for not having the courage to ask someone out.

The stereotype that women should be timid, demure and passive is a relic. If we want gender equality in our society then we need to take seriously our expectations of the behaviors of both sexes. Whenever we find ourselves expecting different kinds of behavior from men and women, we should examine that expectation and strongly consider discarding it.

Note: I know I didn't really deal with gay, transgender, etc relationships here, and simplified my language to imply I was talking about heterosexual relationships. I would assume that, broadly speaking, everything I've written here applies in those cases too, but I know far too little about behavioral expectations there to know if it's even an issue in those cases.

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