What is the “friend zone?” Is it a place of punishment for the lovelorn suitor, or a space for comfort and platonic companionship?
In a recent piece for the Federalist, Hans Fiene treated it as the former. But back in 2014, Leah Libresco argued for The American Conservative that we abuse or ignore the friend zone to our own detriment:
The friendzone [sic] is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signaling. Pickup artists teach their pupils (not inaccurately) that taking someone’s hand, touching a shoulder, or even moving into one-on-one conversations are indications of interest, and a signal to keep escalating, in the hopes of transitioning to a hookup.
Due to the hypersexualization of our culture, true friendship has become an endangered practice. Same-sex, “straight” friendships must remain relatively aloof and barbaric (if one is to read Fiene’s description of male friendship as literal), to set participants apart from rumors of same-sex attraction.
Meanwhile, straight female friendship—especially among singles—has increasingly become fixated on the male eye and interest. Discussions of romance monopolize most conversations, to the detriment of shared interests and activities. And when men and women spend time together, the question of “sex” seems to increasingly hover in the background, distracting from real presence, companionship, and camaraderie. But is this how it should be?
Men Do Often See Friendship As A Door To Romance
We cannot ignore the fact that our sexual natures often influence our perceptions of friendship. For the American male, it is difficult to inhabit friendship without wanting something more. As the Scientific American notes, a study conducted in 2012 found that even where a female thought her male friendship was entirely platonic, most males in the same situation were experiencing sexual attraction and wanted something more:
What makes these results particularly interesting is that they were found within particular friendships (remember, each participant was only asked about the specific, platonic, friend with whom they entered the lab). This is not just a bit of confirmation for stereotypes about sex-hungry males and naïve females; it is direct proof that two people can experience the exact same relationship in radically different ways. Men seem to see myriad opportunities for romance in their supposedly platonic opposite-sex friendships. The women in these friendships, however, seem to have a completely different orientation—one that is actually platonic.
But we must ask an important question here: is this the result of nurture, or of nature? Fiene says it’s the latter. I think it’s a combination of the two. To some extent, a single male will always be on the lookout for a spouse. The same is true of most single females. But women, according to the Scientific American, are often much happier in their friendships than men are. Why?
Our Society’s Definition Of Friendship Isn’t True
While I am not qualified to deny that men feel a deeper sexual pull to female friends, I also think our hypersexualized culture (and its accompanying messaging) fosters this attitude, and for two reasons.
As far back as we can see history, there have been instances of strong camaraderie between male friends. Our culture likes to sexualize these, adding undertones of erotic intrigue. But Odysseus’s band of brothers in “The Odyssey,” David’s friendship with Jonathan in the Old Testament, Hrothgar’s companionship with Beowulf, Socrates’s friendship with Plato and his other followers—these still seem to hint at, and promote, a platonic amity that extends beyond the physical.
Today’s discrepancy in platonic interest seems—at least to some degree—to reveal a discrepancy in male friendship that does not exist in female friendship. Male friendships are not offering something the average single man needs, and something that a lot of female friendships already foster. That is emotional and spiritual rapport.
You may scoff at this. Women are the emotional, sentimental ones, you may retort. Men don’t need that wishy-washy stuff. You’re wrong. Women may need emotional support in more obvious ways. But all of us were born with an emotional and spiritual nature. Sex is important, yes. But sex is a smaller piece in a larger puzzle of emotional intimacy and support that both sexes rely on for happiness. When a single person is receiving a good deal of emotional and spiritual encouragement, they’ll still want sex. But they are less likely to feel it as an empty and gaping hole at every waking moment.
My brother has a friend from across the country who calls him regularly, updating him on his interests, day-to-day life, and romantic relationship. My husband and his brothers regularly meet up for breakfast, or call each other on their commutes to see how they are doing, offering prayer or support. This sort of camaraderie stretches far beyond the burping, scratching gamer-fest that Fiene describes in his article. This sort of mature friendship touches on the soul, the intellect, and the feeling, proffering stability even in singleness or discontent.
Our Hypersexualized Culture Inhibits True Friendship
In today’s culture, however—in which, as Libresco notes, every gesture of friendship becomes a hint at potential foreplay—singles often miss out on the possibility of wholesome, fulfilling, emotionally-satiating friendship. Male friendships are often aloof and simplistic, because they fear the teasing or stereotypes that come with deeper connection. And because today’s men are told (or signaled) that every interaction with women is inherently sexual, it becomes increasingly difficult to foster anything different.
The same goes for females. A lot of women second-guess every interaction with men, reading into every comment and glance, seeking out romantic pursuit where there may, in fact, be none. They’ve been sold a bill of goods by Nicholas Sparks and his writing compatriots. They’re made to believe that every interaction they have with a man is romantic, meant to culminate in wedded bliss.
Thus, both sexes miss out on the spiritual and emotional comforts that close, platonic friendship can provide. In addition, they actually make themselves less content (and less ready for actual marriage) than the single person who’s learned to enjoy the friendships he or she has.
Singles Of Any Gender Matchup Should Be Friends
We need friendship. It’s integral to human personality. It’s how God made us. As C.S. Lewis writes in “The Four Loves,”
To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. We admit of course that besides a wife and family a man needs a few ‘friends.’ But the very tone of the admission, and the sort of acquaintanceships which those who make it would describe as ‘friendships,’ show clearly that what they are talking about has very little to do with that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book. It is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one’s time.
Friendship used to encompass much more: it was a meeting of the minds, and of interests. It was a connection that transcended physicality and spoke to the soul of humankind.
As Lewis puts it, friends are those companions who do not just share a common religion, study, profession, or recreation, but who also, often, share a “same truth.” They are those who say to us, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Companionship, writes Lewis, consists in “doing something together—hunting, studying, painting, or what you will. The Friends will still be doing something together, but something more inward, less widely shared and less easily defined; still hunters, but of some immaterial quarry; still collaborating, but in some work the world does not, or not yet, take account of; still travelling companions, but on a different kind of journey. Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.”
Friendship Shouldn’t Be Dyadic—It’s About Community
Lewis also importantly notes that friendship is not often—and even should not be—dyadic. This is what Fiene is primarily criticizing, what the Scientific American identifies as dangerous to the average male: the exclusive, one-on-one, male-female friendship. But Lewis writes that the best friendships are communally inclusive, drawing us into friendships beyond the circle of two—
[T]wo, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best. And the reason for this is important.
Lamb says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but ‘A’s part in C,’ while C loses not only A but ‘A’s part in B.’ In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to all the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves.’ For in this love ‘to divide is not to take away.’
Friendship Does (And Often Should) Draw Us To Romance
Sometimes prolonged companionship between members of the opposite sex, especially when it involves a lot of one-on-one time, will draw people into greater intimacy and spur their hearts toward marriage. Think here of Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley in Jane Austen’s classic “Emma,” or Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Beautifully, it was because these friends had occupied the “friend zone” so faithfully and maturely—for so long—that they were able to then recognize and pursue romantic interest in each other. Friendship formed the foundation of their future marriage. It did not deter or distract them from it. As Lewis writes on this very subject,
When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass—may pass in the first half-hour—into erotic love. Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later. And conversely, erotic love may lead to Friendship between the lovers. But this, so far from obliterating the distinction between the two loves, puts it in a clearer light. If one who was first, in the deep and full sense, your Friend, is then gradually or suddenly revealed as also your lover you will certainly not want to share the Beloved’s erotic love with any third. But you will have no jealousy at all about sharing the Friendship. Nothing so enriches an erotic love as the discovery that the Beloved can deeply, truly and spontaneously enter into Friendship with the Friends you already had.
What C.S. Lewis so deftly points out here is that truly, friendship is such a valuable and important good, it is not worth limiting by sexual inclination. We should seek it out wherever we can find it—with members of the same sex, and with members of the opposite. Wherever we find it, we should embrace it and find joy in it.
Our Culture Urges Us To Objectify Even Our Friends
In our culture, we’ve been taught that attraction must be acted upon. Our physical and sexual instincts are not to be repressed. Yet this leads us to objectify every attractive person that comes across our path, treating them as an item for our own gratification. It turns every interaction (at least with the good-looking and attractive) into a selfish act.
Yet what if we were to treat the good-looking people in our lives differently? What if we saw their beauty as something to be admired and acknowledged, but not selfishly? “God made this person beautiful, inside and out. Not for my gratification—but for my edification. They belong to someone (or Someone) else.”
When we see people as God’s handiwork—with features and form, character and conscience formed according to his divine purpose—we admire them as works of divine art to be admired reverently, not as material possessions for our acquirement.
This takes friendship out of the merely physical and sexual, and opens it up to a realm of admiration and rapport that can exist platonically even between beautiful persons. Yes, constraints and limits must exist. But where there is awe and respect, there is less likely to be selfish exploitation. We are more than sentient beings. Yes, our physical nature is a vital piece of who we are. But it is not everything we are.
Married Couples Should Have Friends, Too
In this conversation, one must also note that friendship is still necessary within married life. Marriage is not just about sex. Though that is, of course, an integral piece to marital intimacy, and perhaps not emphasized enough.
But with the perpetual sentimentalization of marriage through the romcom, today’s couples come to marriage with a set of aspirations and expectations that are often far from healthy. As Libresco put it in another article, “‘You complete me,’ remains a trite and unhealthy declaration, whether you say it to one lover or a full set.”
Our spouses were never meant to be our only friends. They are, indeed, typically our closest friends and companions. But many other people can and should be a part of our lives. Same-sex friendship offers us an emotional rapport that our spouses cannot always offer. Familial friendship can offer an ease of presence and companionship that only time and deep knowledge bring. Friendship grounded on shared hobbies and interests give us outlets for amity and companionship.
The Collapse Of The ‘Friend Zone’ Hurts Marriage
Marriage has not been weakened by the increase of the friend zone, as Fiene writes. Quite to the contrary. Marriage has actually been weakened by a narrower friend zone. As Eve Tushnet has written, “making marriage the only intelligible committed relationship between adults” has not been good for marriage:
When the only way to get devoted love is through romantic love, you might expect romantic devotion to be strengthened. The numbers suggest that this has not happened. Marriage rates are at historic lows (and see also this book) and while cohabitation has increased dramatically, cohabiting relationships are still much less stable than marriage (see Cherlin again for more). As our definition of family has narrowed, our families have destabilized.
… It turns out that the isolated dyad—whether that dyad is the romantic couple, as it typically is for the well-off, or the mother-child pair, as it is for those who aren’t wealthy—is almost as vulnerable as the atomistic individual. Two people can’t always lift a marriage on their own shoulders. Many men, especially, have only one confidante: their wife or girlfriend. This is stressful for the wife, and makes it all but impossible for the husband to know where to turn when the problems he needs to discuss are specifically problems with his marriage.
Man, according to Aristotle, is a social animal and belongs in community. It is not good for man to be alone, Genesis tells us. But when God created Eve, he did not expect the couple to then continue in isolation, with only each other for comfort. He told them to “be fruitful and multiply,” to fill the earth. The Trinity is made up of three persons, not just two. Community is not merely dyadic.
In practice, this is quite simple. Couples can have other “couples friends”—duos, or sets of duos, whose company they enjoy. Married men can also find and foster companionship with other men. I quite enjoy marksman shooting, hiking, camping, fishing, and watching NFL with my husband. But it also makes me happy when he pursues these interests with others. Similarly, he encourages me to join book clubs, to have my friends over for coffee and intellectual conversation, to form March Madness brackets with old college buddies. We seek friends together, to minister to others, and to be ministered to.
Our Culture Denigrates Friendship To Our Own Detriment
When we discuss friendship, we’re not often discussing the sort of deep companionship that Lewis defined in “The Four Loves.” Sitting around watching TV, talking shop at the end of a long work day, or going to the mall on a Saturday afternoon: these are signs of companionship, but not necessarily friendship.
What takes us deeper, what Lewis defines for us, is a sort of inspirational bond that goes beyond mere talk and fluff, and offers us deeper intimacy. It’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. It ministers to our souls and minds. Thus, a person who finds this rare gem of friendship should hold fast to it.
A renewal of a more old-fashioned and vibrant sort of friendship would not hurt marriage. Rather, it would bring men and women into the sort of lasting companionship that would 1) sustain them through times of singleness, and satiate their emotional needs in a way that then enables them to refuse the temptations of casual hookups and meaningless sex, 2) foster the sort of opposite-sex camaraderie that could lead to meaningful, thoughtful romantic relationships, and 3) encourage and strengthen married couples by giving them community and support, within and apart from their married relationship.
This is something we all need, but have lost in today’s culture. So here’s a piece of encouragement to all the lonely folks out there: seek out a friend, male or female. And try to foster a friendship that lasts.