Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. As a result, Alex decides to end the friendship.
What do you think of Alex and their decision?
In many progressive spaces, there’d be a lot of derision towards Alex, especially if Alex is a guy and Sam is a girl. Terms like “Nice Guy” and “Friend Zone” would come up, the latter in the sarcastic sense. (“Oh, poor Nice Guy, probably off whining on Reddit about getting friendzoned!”) Alex would be accused of being manipulative and entitled.
Sam themselves might be upset, which is reasonable when you lose a friend. They might claim that Alex only wanted them for sex and now that that’s off the table, there’s no need for them to keep Sam around. They might claim that Alex is obviously trying to get back at them for saying no to a date or hookup.
But just as Alex isn’t actually entitled to sex or romance from Sam, Sam isn’t entitled to friendship from Alex.
I didn’t include any information about Alex’s internal process in that vignette, but many folks might imagine that if I did, it would go something like this:
Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels angry and humiliated. “I can’t believe Sam won’t even give me a chance after how good of a friend I’ve been,” Alex thinks. Alex decides to totally cut Sam off, hoping that maybe once Sam sees how it feels to be rejected, they might change their mind. And if not, at least they’ll be even.
Given these details, I’d definitely agree that Alex is acting in an entitled and manipulative way. Yes, Sam isn’t entitled to Alex’s friendship, but Alex’s reasons for ending the friendship are not about setting their own boundaries or constructing their own relationships as they see fit. It’s about punishing Sam, manipulating their emotions, and controlling their experience.
It’s creepy, boundary-crossing, abusive behavior.
On the other hand, you could also fill out the story this way:
Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels crushed, but respects Sam’s decision. Alex hopes to stay friends, but realizes that they’re heartbroken. Every time Sam posts on Facebook about going on a date or talks excitedly about their crush, Alex feels depressed, sometimes even resentful. It’s interfering with Alex’s life and with their ability to move on and get over the crush. Alex realizes that they’re not in a good place to be a real friend to Sam at this time, and that in order to heal from this heartbreak, they’re going to need distance. Alex decides to end the friendship.
Comparatively few people would insist that Alex is doing anything wrong here. Alex is taking responsibility for their own emotions by setting their own boundaries, and while this may hurt Sam, it’s ultimately what’s best for both of them. Nobody should have to stay in a friendship that’s making them feel depressed. Nobody should have to stay friends with someone who can’t help but resent them.
The problem is that from the outside–for instance, from that first vignette, which I wrote in a way that only gives an outside perspective–you can’t tell the difference. When all we see is someone’s outward behavior, it’s all too easy to use tropes like the Nice Guy to automatically fill in those missing details. Often we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and we end up shaming someone for having boundaries.
Okay, one might argue. Obviously if you’re feeling heartbroken and depressed, that’s a good reason to end a friendship. But if it’s not that bad, you should stay in it.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you can probably guess what I’m going to say about that: there’s no such thing as a “wrong” boundary. But I’ll tack on this clarification: “setting a boundary” means altering your social or physical environment in order to protect yourself or alter your own emotions. If you’re doing it in order to make someone else feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, then that’s not setting a boundary anymore. That’s manipulating.
So, ending a friendship because it makes me sad, or because I don’t feel like being in it anymore, is setting a boundary. Ending a friendship in order to hurt someone or convince them to want me after all is being manipulative.
Here’s another vignette:
Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex respects their decision, and also realizes that with Sam, they were specifically interested in a sexual/romantic relationship. They’re not interested in a platonic relationship with Sam. In order to be honest with both themselves and with Sam, Alex ends the friendship.
How about that?
For some folks, this would be unacceptable even if the previous vignette wasn’t. Even though Alex isn’t ending the friendship to “get back” at Sam or manipulate them in any way, something about it still feels…off. It feels “wrong” to want someone “just for sex” (or dating) and to not want them as “just a friend.”
I can’t grok this, personally, because I’m demisexual and I literally cannot desire someone sexually or romantically if they’re not a friend, or if we’re not at least already emotionally connected in some meaningful way. But even though I can’t grok it, I don’t actually see anything wrong with it.
For instance, I have friends that I enjoy seeing one-on-one, and friends that I enjoy interacting with as part of a group, and friends that I’d enjoy in either context. But there’s nothing wrong with preferring to interact with a particular person one-on-one, or as part of a group. I have friends that I like playing games with, and friends I don’t like playing games with. I have friends I like watching movies or TV with, and friends I don’t like watching movies or TV with. I have friends that I’d happily invite to a loud party with drinking and dancing, and friends that I don’t really want to see in that context for any number of reasons.
Just because you want to have sex with or go on dates with someone, doesn’t mean you must also enjoy having a purely platonic friendship with them. It certainly doesn’t mean you “owe” them that friendship just because they want it, whether or not there’s any unrequited attraction happening.
Here’s the problem, though. If you become friends with someone just to see if that’ll lead to what you actually want, which is a sexual/romantic relationship, then that person may reasonably assume that you’re interested in being friends with them unless something significant changes (i.e. your mutual interests fade, you have a fight and don’t want to interact anymore, you move apart, one or both of you experiences a period of growth that leads them to change up their priorities and friendships, etc). On some level, any type of relationship other than a very casual sexual fling is built on that trust. We understand that things may change and the person may decide to end the relationship (well, provided we’re not being extremely idealistic and/or denying others’ boundaries and agency), but we allow ourselves to safely assume that it’s going to continue for at least a while, and that if it does need to end, then that person will be honest with us and will care about our resulting hurt feelings.
So, when you end your friendship with someone who has said no to a romantic/sexual relationship with you, they may perceive that as extremely hurtful and objectifying, because up until this point you’ve been doing a very good imitation of someone who’s interested in a friendship. It won’t seem like too far a stretch for them to assume that you’re trying to punish them, or that you were dishonest about your interests in an attempt to “get” them into a romantic/sexual relationship. And, in a way, you kinda were dishonest.
“But if I approach a near-stranger and tell them I’m interested specifically in dating/sex, of course they’ll say no, because they don’t know me!” Honestly, I don’t really know what to tell you. I don’t think that effective and ethical social interaction means always being 100% open about everything we want–I might ask someone on a date without specifically stating that I’d like to have sex with them, and just see where the night goes–but if getting what you want requires misleading people, that’s not right. Maybe it’d be better to search for what you want in the kinds of places likely to have other people who are also interested in that, such as Tinder or OkCupid.
I also feel that if you do find yourself having misled someone about your interest in a friendship (or any other sort of relationship), you should own that and accept accountability for it. It’s hard for me to suggest what this might look like, though; I’m probably a bit unusual in that I prefer people I’m not super close with to just ghost on me rather than to inflict on me some tortured and patronizing conversation about how I’m totally a great person and it’s not anything I did wrong but you just don’t see us as friends or whatever.
But most people aren’t me and would appreciate some clarity, closure, and accountability. If you know you’ve hurt someone by appearing to offer friendship and then withdrawing it when you didn’t get what you were actually looking for, apologize.
More to the point, I want us to be clearer about what the problem is with being a “nice Guy,” or whatever you want to call it. The problem isn’t having feelings about getting rejected. The problem isn’t deciding not to be friends with someone who has rejected you as a partner. The problem isn’t only being interested in someone as a partner rather than as a friend. The problem is not having personal limits about how much involvement you can handle with someone you have painful unrequited feelings for. The problem is not being unable to magically wish away those feelings.
The problem is believing that anyone owes you any sort of physical or emotional intimacy. The problem is also habitually misleading people in your attempts to find the types of relationships you want.
The problem is also expecting anyone you reject as a partner to simply have no feelings about that and continue being your friend as if nothing had happened. Sometimes that’ll happen; if you’re fortunate/unfortunate enough to be my crush, you’ll find that I feel very little about that sort of rejection because I prioritize sex and romance so lowly, and am almost always happy to continue the friendship unchanged unless you were cruel or awkwardly vague about rejecting me.
But, as with the weird ghosting preference, that’s not nearly everyone.
It must be okay to end friendships that you’re no longer comfortable, interested, or invested in. Otherwise, you get this:
Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels crushed, but they don’t want to hurt Sam or look bad to their friends by trying to get some distance. They continue the friendship, forcing themselves to act happy when Sam dates other people and pretending not to be heartbroken.
Although Alex still likes Sam very much as a friend, it’s impossible to prevent resentment from creeping in when Alex is forced to hide their emotions and constantly put themselves in painful situations (presumably for Sam’s sake). Eventually, that resentment starts bubbling up through passive-aggressive comments or mixed signals that Alex doesn’t even mean to make and may not realize they’re making.
Sam feels confused and hurt. They sense that Alex is deeply unhappy, but whenever they try to bring it up, Alex just says that everything’s fine and of course they’re happy for Sam and Sam’s new partner, what kind of horrible friend wouldn’t be? The conversations get nowhere, Alex is never able to be honest both with themselves and with Sam, and the friendship is never quite the same again.
Rejection hurts. It hurts whether it’s platonic, familial, sexual, romantic, or professional. It hurts when someone you want to date doesn’t want to date you, or when someone you thought was a friend decides they aren’t.
That is a pain to walk towards and through, not to run away from by trying to create rules about what is and isn’t an acceptable reason to end a friendship.
From a personal perspective, I do feel very wary of people who seem to have left a trail of confused and hurt ex-friends in their wake. I see that as a red flag. That they may have had perfectly good reasons for ending those friendships does not increase my interest in becoming one of those ex-friends.
If that pattern seems to describe you, that may be something to explore on your own or in therapy. But the solution isn’t to just force yourself to stay in friendships that don’t fit, harming yourself and probably others in the process.
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