Boys in the Friend Zone

How can we mentor boys in dating and relationship skills?

 

I’m a man hoping the peculiarly vicious gender battles happening in America these days can come to some sensible resolution. This has moved me, in part, after eight years in schools as a teacher and sports coach, toward research and teaching on boys’ social and emotional development. A big piece of this, as you can probably imagine, is how they navigate their relationships with girls.

It’s not lost on me that it took until my early thirties to find enough clarity and confidence with women to satisfy me. But I’m also a perfectionist too quick to blame myself, so perhaps my perception of reality was skewed by my own neuroticism. I guess I’m just hoping young men can figure this stuff out a lot earlier than I did with a little guidance from a guy who couldn’t. To paraphrase the parable, a person who helps you out of your hole by jumping in with you is often the one who knows the best way out. Hope I’m right about that.

In my experience working with boys in schools as well as one-on-one, there is one question that comes up more than all others about girls and cuts across race and class. A version of it goes something like: “Why do the jerky guys get all the attention?” The natural follow-up question is so classic that it verges on modern archetype: “How do I avoid getting ‘friend-zoned’ by a girl I like?”

We cannot successfully mentor boys in their romantic and sexual relationships without having first found some nuanced answers to these questions that avoid reductionist gender stereotypes or unethical thinking. They strike at the heart of conundrums that men face and women sometimes can’t fully appreciate: Balancing our biological drives with our duty to be moral, finding our voice without slipping into arrogance and misogyny, understanding the subtle social and biological cues that allow us to feel competent enough with women so we’re not haunted by damning “what if’s” when we choose to commit.

Once we come to some peace about these questions, we’ve got to find the boys struggling with them and help alleviate their suffering through patient listening and guided questioning. This is just as important as making sure young men who have no problem getting attention from girls are acting ethically and respectfully. Here’s why:

I’ve found it’s much easier for adults to notice, and then address, the kids at the top of the social hierarchy, especially in schools. The athletic boys getting the notes passed to them, the packs of girls roaming the halls with boys hovering like gnats trying to impress them with their masculine mischief. Our adult responses to these boys can be more clear-cut and grounded in their actual experience rather than in abstract terms: Don’t be a dick when you’re feeling X and want to do Y. Make sure you stand up for yourself like “this” if she says “that.”

But what about the kid who thinks he’s being respectful and nice, but who’s actually just a pushover needlessly putting girls on a pedestal at the expense of his own desires? Or the kid who’s inundated by an ocean of feelings about a girl he feels is out of reach, so he stuffs his feelings (or more likely turns them on himself), and ten years later is harboring complicated feelings toward women that are at odds with one another?

After looking through the scant but growing research on adolescent romantic relationships, this is where there’s a gaping hole. What about all these kids not in relationships? Being the protective types we often as adults in relation to children, academic research on young people has tended to focus on whether or not bad things are happening. Do boys believe it’s their responsibility to advocate for condom use? What forms of “relational aggression” are happening between partners? Do certain forms of romantic attachments lead to greater risk of depression in teens? I think we should be just as concerned about the teens on the outside looking in, and how this is inevitably shaping their beliefs about the opposite gender. Without guidance, boys in these situations could end up thinking some misguided thoughts later on, about both women and themselves:

Anyone who spends a bit of time reading various “game” and seduction blogs will recognize a similar story for many of the men who arrive there. They find their way to this world, by and large, because they were either a) frustrated by being overlooked in their younger years, b) overwhelmed by the feelings they had when in the presence of girls they liked or c) hurtfully betrayed by a girl they were once involved with.

I certainly experienced a bit of all three before I was 23, so let’s just call a spade a spade here: I admit I read The Game and devoured blog posts for a good five years, and some of this stuff was downright revelatory for me. I can’t deny that without some conscious and difficult personal work during my mid- to late-20s, I never would have been able to confidently walk up to my soon-to-be fiancee at a cafe with so little trepidation. But without strong moral guidance from my parents and early adult mentors well before even reading this stuff, I’m not sure I would have come out on the right side of things.

So I’d say some truths about attraction from the seduction community are essential for men to understand, but I don’t think that any self-aware person can deny there’s an under-current of seriously damaging views going on in this world. Even men who’ve spent a long time in the community would agree.

So is there a way to avoid men getting caught up in such twisted ways? I’d say yes, but it’s going to require conscious effort to guide the sensitive, overlooked boys down a middle path between the two extremes of niceness and narcissism. More on this later.

Here’s a response from a 16-year-old boy to a question on an anonymous, online survey I recently conducted with former students. I think it accurately sums up what many boys silently struggle with:

“I really get upset about this whole friendzone thing. I try to be myself and be really nice to girls and treat them with respect and they end up going for the tools that don’t care about their feelings or anything like that. I don’t want to be like the tools who get girls, but I don’t know how to solve that problem. And when I like a girl or find a girl attractive, something changes. I can’t just talk to them without worrying about every little thing (do i look good? am i boring her? should i take her somewhere else? what should i do next?). I find it harder to keep my composure when talking to attractive girls. Is that the same for other guys?”

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that I believe all boys who are continually “friend-zoned” or betrayed in middle and high school will automatically end up gravitating toward the seduction community. But regardless of whether they do or don’t, they deserve to be given the tools to navigate their outer and inner worlds with confidence and clarity. They’ll fumble toward these things with or without us, it seems:

Look at the extensive work of psychologist Ervin Staub on basic human needs, for example. I’ll let him explain much better than I could, from his chapter entitled “The Roots of Goodness” in Moral Motivation Across the Lifespan:

“Basic needs are powerful. They press for satisfaction. When they are not fulfilled in constructive ways in the course of normal experience, people will develop destructive modes of need satisfaction. Destructive need satisfaction means that a person fulfills one need in a way that frustrates his or her other needs (if not immediately, then in the long run) or that he or she fulfills needs in a way that frustrates other people’s fulfillment of their basic needs.

 

For example, the need for effectiveness and control is the need to feel that one can influence events and, especially important, that one can protect oneself from harmful events and fulfill important goals. When this need is greatly frustrated … then a child (or an adult) may attempt to exercise control over all events, including the behavior of other people. This leads to constant vigilance, or hypervigilance, which is stressful.

The excessive need for control limits the range of the individual’s behavior and interferes with the development of his or her own self and, thereby, the satisfaction of his or her need for a positive identity. It will also frustrate the needs of other people whom the individual seeks to control … and evoke reactions that will frustrate the individual’s need for positive connection to others.”

If this research is to be believed, then we should recognize that although aspects of the seduction community are extremely problematic, the underlying collective motivation for its existence came out of human necessity. All people, regardless of gender, need to feel some semblance of control over who or what they want in their life (or at least an ability to confidently go after it). For men, “effectiveness and control” in the realm of relationships with women still manifests primarily out of initiating, not reacting and waiting (regardless of how far we think we’ve come in redefining gender roles). The consequences of not being able to initiate with confidence can get real complicated, real fast. Shame, projected anger, beliefs about “all women” that we turn into “truth” to avoid our own deeper deficiencies, what else? Someone in therapy chime in here.

I believe the best response to these questions from boys is to ask some questions right back. The three we don’t ask Mr. Friendzone nearly enough are pretty simple on the surface, but point to an array of inter-connected concepts that I can only gloss over here. These questions are:

1. What are you about other than your attraction to that girl over there?

2. What is she about other than her perceived attractiveness to you?

3. What is the jerk doing that you could still do without being a jerk?

There’s so much here to unpack, but to address the first question, I believe there’s no better way for a young man to start walking the “third path” between the obsequious, silently resentful “nice guy” and the narcissistic, misogynist “asshole” than to have a sense of purpose and life direction to pour himself into every day. It gives him ground to stand on, allows him to avoid obsessing over girls’ responses to him, and it makes him naturally interesting to be around without artificially constructed stories, openers and “negs” to project the aura that he’s got better things to do. If he’s a young man of purpose (and I’m not necessarily talking about the Rick Warren, religious kind), he actually has better things to do.

The second question gets down to fundamental aspects of healthy relationships, but also points to common social dynamics in adolescent social spaces. Many boys, in my experience, end up attracted to the popular, physically attractive girls because so is everyone else. But what about aspects of character or personality that are important too? I’d say it’s foolish and short sighted to tell a young man that looks shouldn’t matter, but there’s a point where the energy expended on a physically attractive or popular girl who’s disrespectful, self-centered or manipulative just isn’t worth it.

So is she also kind, trustworthy, caring and fun to be around, at least most of the time? Does she know what she’s passionate about outside of her romantic and sexual involvements? Is she genuinely supportive of your passions and interests? I’m not talking about her needing to be a passive pushover or some throwback to Fifties housewives. Embodying these traits, regardless of gender, are essential in any relationship where partners will inevitably be sharing day-to-day experiences, experimenting with vulnerability and being intimate.

And of course, the natural end-point for the conversation that might ensue from question number two is clear: If she’s all these great things, then don’t you have to be them too? We can’t forget this piece either. But I suspect the kid in the “friend zone” has little trouble being kind, caring, trustworthy and supportive. He just needs to think about the ways in which he’s embodying these traits in a manner that sabotages his boundaries, voice and needs.

The last question reminds me of a quote from Clarisse Thorn’s awesome book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser. A seduction teacher she was interviewing who goes by the name of Jonnie Walker said at one point:

“Some women may appear to love assholes. But those women are not actually looking for assholes. They’re looking for something that’s most closely approximated by an asshole. Men don’t have to be assholes to get girls, and they shouldn’t. Men should figure out what assholes do right, and do that, without being assholes themselves.”

Very true. I often ask “friend-zoned” boys about specific actions these other boys are taking and then discussing how they might be able to exhibit the same thing in an honorable way.

Say the jerk gets frustrated by a girl’s behavior and then just ignores her texts or phone calls as a way to deal with it. Classic pickup artist move. What about just telling her how he’s feeling, clearly and respectfully, at the time she’s frustrating him? This exhibits both confidence and self-respect, two things the assholes are supposedly exhibiting by being deliberately flippant and selectively interested.

I think young men desperately need to be told that they deserve more than just the erratic consequences of their adolescent horniness, especially if the resulting frustration from feeling inadequate will lead to shame and confusion. Otherwise, who knows how they’ll end up dealing with that once they’re older. Our job is to guide them toward being kind yet honorable, attentive without being smothering, and have a healthy sense of purpose and self-worth independent of what girls think of them. If we don’t, they may be in for a treacherous foray into the cult of seduction or maybe even a full-blown mid-life crisis later on. It’s hard to be a “good man” when you’re struggling with all that.

Image credit: mikebaird/Flickr

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