When I was seventeen-years-old my heart was well and truly shattered for the very first time by my high-school love. The end came like running into a glass wall, painfully and without warning (I was stupid), after about six months spent in a hazy (and wildly ignorant), teenage bliss.
I was broken.
This is a story that will sound all too familiar to many of you. I mean, who among us hasn't felt the sharp sting of unrequited love? And we all know that the first time is the worst. But, this isn't really a story about my broken heart, as much as it is about some of the events that followed, which have only recently been brought back to mind.
In my post-breakup devastation I couldn't stand to be alone. Alone and without distraction my thoughts reigned, sending me into a spiral of adolescent negativity and self-loathing. I needed out, away from the terrible non-peace-and-quiet, and so, as is surely common, I sought refuge in my friendships.
One friendship that was particularly strengthened during this time was that between myself and a younger, male peer, who I had known for a little over two years. We were both heavily involved in our school's theater program (nerd alert!), so we spent a lot of time together, mostly in group settings. During his freshman year a girlfriend of mine and I had taken him under our wing, taught him the techie ropes, and become rather fond of him.
After my breakup, I felt magnetically drawn to this friend. For one reason, he had spent a lot of time with both me and my ex-, and I felt that he understood the situation better than most people. I also felt safe and comfortable with him. He was like a younger brother to me, a nice person who I was sure would treat me with delicacy and understanding during the difficult time.
But, the main reason that I chose to spend time with him was for the simple fact that he was my friend. My breakup had distorted my world. Everything had changed. Suddenly the people that I had been spending so much time with were off limits, because they were friends with my ex-, but with him things could stay the same. Places that I used to visit with my boyfriend, things that we used to do together had all taken on a horrible tinge of sadness and regret. Not so with my friend.
With him there was a "before", a standing relationship and a list of activities that had been taking place pre-boyfriend and that, therefore, didn't remind me of my heartache. To be fair, this mainly involved chilling at my friend's house, eating whatever food was in the refrigerator, and watching one of our favorite episodes of Family Guy for the fiftieth time, but that was all I wanted. Stability. Familiarity. Reassurance that all was not lost and that I could become the person that I was, happy, "before."
I had never really considered that spending so much time with this friend might be sending him some kind of subliminal message, especially considering how much of our time together involved me dissolving into an annoying mess and whining to him about the end of my relationship (real attractive, I know). Apparently, though, it did, because a couple of months later, when I began dating someone new, I learned that my male friend was unhappy with me. Rather than speaking to me outright, he had confided in a mutual friend - telling her that he had been hurt by my choosing someone else to date. He said that he felt like he had spent all of that time with me after my breakup to no avail.
That he felt used and tossed aside. Like a dirty rag.
Another man unexpectedly, and unfairly placed in the friend zone.
Writing those words now, and re-reading them, I am surprised at how much they hit me. I am surprised to find that they actually anger me a little.
At the time, of course, I was shocked. I hadn't had any intention of leading my friend on and I felt bad. It was my fault. Clearly, I had done something wrong. In fact, up until very recently, whenever I revisited this experience (which, truthfully, wasn't often) I always viewed it as a mistake that I had made. The eventual loss of my friend, the lesson that I had learned.
As I said, this isn't a memory that I regularly rehash, but it surfaced with a vengeance when I stumbled across a recent article about male entitlement. I don't remember perseverating on this particular experience, but I know now that it had a huge effect on my interactions with men and on my self-perception.
I know because for a long time, moving forward, I was very careful about how I behaved toward those around me, lest I give them the idea that I was coming on to them. During my first couple of years in college I kept a certain distance from most men, unless I had designs on dating them, missing out on what could have been many potential friendships. I did my best to make it clear when I was uninterested and simply accepted that when I never saw or heard from someone again it was because they didn't want to waste their time on my friendship.
And that was okay.
With those that did manage to grow close to me, I constantly worried about my behavior. Was that considered flirting? Were we spending too much time together? Would he get the wrong idea? I put myself in charge of maintaining the boundaries, and blamed myself when a "friend" walked away.
My platonic time just wasn't worth it.
This is an experience that I think most women will have had at one point or another in their lives. Each experience is individual and yet, all were influenced by a sense of male entitlement - the idea that a man is owed something from a woman, based on his perception of her actions. It perpetuates the notion that a woman's time and friendship is worthless without access to her body.
The term 'friend zone' is so well-integrated into my lexicon and social experience that it is not one that I have ever felt the need to examine. It is so much a part of my generation that even I - a woman who is practiced in picking apart social construction, who has considered herself a feminist ever since she understood the real meaning of the word - just accepted it as normal. I readily allowed it to taint my experiences, to define my actions, and to mold my understanding of myself.
Needless to say, I feel a little duped.
It isn't all bad, though - my social awakening. It is always good to have your eyes opened. To begin with, this particular experience has reaffirmed some of my previous misgivings about the value and realities of being "nice". The male friend in my story was incredibly nice, which is why I chose to spend so much time with him in the first place, but it turned out that the whole time he had a hidden agenda and when that agenda wasn't addressed, he didn't even value our friendship enough to talk to me directly about it.
Reconsidering my views on this aspect of my socialization has also reminded me that (surprise, surprise) I still have a lot to learn. Despite my best efforts (after years of self-deprecation in the name of being "cool") to acknowledge, and then promote my own self-worth, some things have slipped by, and it is in my best interest to educate myself and to reassess my way of thinking.
What this most recent exploration has done for me is provided me with an entirely new perspective on my past experiences. What I knew already was that, in the end, I lost a friend. This was due in part to reasons that went far beyond the 'friend zoning' incident, although I was never able to think of him in the same way after hearing how he truly felt. I already knew that I lost him, but now I also know, as I have never considered before and because I can finally see my own value, that he also lost me.
Some related links:
Men aren't entitled to women's time or affection.
Dudes, stop putting women in the girlfriendzone.
I'm the guy that gets friend zoned...
Why the friend zone is actually dangerous for women.
And a little, only slightly related humor.
Feel free to add your own.