February is known first for Valentine’s Day, and second for the other lesser known, but widely understood holiday, “Friend Zone Day.” This day typically happens on or after February 15th, when you find out the person that you like doesn’t like you as much, or in the same way as you like them. Though it’s highlighted more in this month of declaring and demonstrating love, the reality is FZD happens to countless people in the months of March to January. Every day, multitudes of people are being cast -gracefully and mercilessly into the imaginary place where the pain and awkwardness are real.
I consider myself an expert on this imaginary place for many reasons. First, my “loner” status in middle and high school positioned me well to learn the ins-and-outs of the zone. I had an 8-year awkward stage, which coincided perfectly with my teenage years. What it looked like was me being told to leave when I sat to eat lunch with the cool kids in middle school, transforming to me eating lunch most days by myself in high school. I know that’s super depressing, but I’m thankful I went through it because now, I’m able to reach out to those students with my example of how I turned into someone who is confident in who they are-awkwardness, flaws and all. Another event I remember that qualifies me for expert status is the memory of having to ask a girl to ask me to the Sadie Hawkins dance. Further cementing my expertise was that the overwhelming majority of my teenage years are characterized by the constant dwelling in the friend zone. I lived there so long, I began to get mail there and eventually received my college acceptance letter and diploma there. Just a couple of weeks ago, a guy moved onto my street who was interviewed by Michael Che of SNL. The experience was not wasted as I became proficiently familiar with the range of emotions central to the friend zone experience: discovery, delight, enchantment, captivation, mild obsession, awkwardness, courage, action, heightened euphoria, creativity, fear, courage, awkwardness, disappointment, questioning, despair, and sadness.
Through my Friend Zone career, I’ve heard so many different reasons as to why I was being banished. “I’m not ready for a relationship,” “My parents don’t want me to date someone who doesn’t look like I do,” “I’m focusing on school,” “You don’t want to be with me,” “I’m guarding my heart right now,” and my all-time favorite “You are too much like a big brother, I don’t want to ruin our friendship.” All great reasons to not be in a relationship I’m sure. However, when you wait to state those intentions after the other party has communicated interest beyond friendship, and also, when you then soon after decide to date someone else, those reasons begin to look a little suspicious. BUT I digress. I’m grateful for being banished all those times because of two memorable episodes. What I gleaned from them changed my life. I’ve changed their names because I truly have no hard feelings for these people and don’t judge them, as this is just where they were at the time.
I first met Lisa in March of 2012 at the birthday party of a mutual friend. We happened to sit by each other that night and by the end of the night, I walked her to her car and left with her phone number. The rest of the month we talked every single night and text constantly each day. Through getting to know her, I realized she had a 4-year-old daughter from her previous marriage. I didn’t even care because I cared about her so much. I got to meet her daughter, probably mid to late March. Easter was in April that year because that was when we had our first kiss. I took her to dinner the night before and we stood in the parking lot talking until the sun came up. I was hesitant to do it because of all my prior experience, but I did it anyway. I liked her and she liked me, so what was there to think about? Needless to say, I was bright-eyed and cheery that Easter Sunday, even though I had gotten no sleep. I had just become official with the girl I liked. We sealed it with a kiss.
I soon learned that sealing things with a kiss doesn’t mean a rosy path ahead-just ask Jesus. Tuesday of that following week, I wanted to talk about what had happened that weekend because I was assuming we were official and wanted to confirm (used to be called “defining the relationship” or DTR in the old days). This is where I was hit with a barrage of red flags, but too blinded by infatuation and low self-esteem to see any of it coming. We were official, but she didn’t want it to be on Facebook. Also, she didn’t want to tell her parents. She was okay with me paying for her food and entertainment on dates and the kiss goodnight, but just didn’t want anyone to know about it.
The only thing crazier than that was, I TOTALLY WENT ALONG WITH IT AND UPPED MY GAME. I figured if I contributed more, or displayed more admiration for her in my actions, that we could transcend our “secret status” and become public. I remember I was chilling with my best friend waiting to watch some Marvel movie. She texts me in distress. I didn’t have a car, so I explained the situation to my friend and he let me use his car. I left the movies to go to her. She needed a listening ear, and a shoulder to cry on and I was there. I consoled her, and after a quick peck went right back to the theater and made the showing. Her daughter’s 5th birthday arrived, and I took off work, bought a plethora of toys, had them wrapped, had custom cupcakes made and happily marched down there to be a part of the big celebration. This was all in addition to giving her rides to and from work, always making sure to have at least one flower to give her every time I saw her, and paying for our “secret dates.” I remember I had planned to go see one of my favorite bands at the Hollywood Bowl. I discovered she also liked said band and the concert was right around the time of her birthday, so I bought her a ticket and asked her to go. She consented (keep in mind the tickets were about 300 for nosebleed seats). She paid for the hotel rooms (we slept in separate rooms because I’m old fashioned like that) and I took care of gas and food. Towards the end of the trip, I had no money left and asked if she could chip in for gas. She LOST IT. Screaming and proceeding to have an EPIC meltdown. That was the last time I talked to her. Then a few months later, she texts me after seeing me at a local show saying how much she missed me, but then would take days to text back. Soon after, she didn’t text back at all.
Around late May of 2013, I met Linda through a mutual musician friend. Linda was also a phenomenal singer-songwriter and I quickly became a fan of her work. We lived in different states, so I reached out via Facebook messenger, and over the span of 6 weeks, hundreds of messages were exchanged between the two of us. We even got creative and would leave 15–45 second voice messages via Facebook. It was so much fun and so exciting to see the notification pop up and read/listen. Around the 7th week, I amassed all the courage I had to tell her I liked her via FB voice message. I waited for the longest 5 minutes EVER before seeing a voice reply. I clicked it to hear the shocking news that SHE LIKED ME BACK. Instantly I went to beyond cloud nine where we upgraded to SMS text, daily late-night phone calls, and Skype sessions. Things were awesome.
I distinctly remember the moment in our relationship when I felt that I had finally broken my apparent friend zone curse and this could be the real thing. I had a show opening for the biggest artist in my genre. It was at a theme park and there were over 7,000 people there to see him and we were opening. This was the biggest show of my career. I’m perhaps 3 minutes in and as I look in the crowd, I see HER. She’s so pumped to see me on stage doing my thing and I’m over the moon that she’s there. She was taking a road trip back to her hometown and adjusted her plans so she could make it. The best night ever. I got to meet the artist I had looked up to, and she and me, along with my DJ, his wife, her mom all went out to eat afterward. When the meal was over and we were saying goodbye, I gave her some unique and thoughtful gifts before she left.
We had to drive 13 hours back to Phoenix, but I was so high I couldn’t sleep. This was such an incredible feeling. I’m leaving the friend zone and I couldn’t be happier.. But again, it was short-lived. I immediately went on tour from that show for a week and as the week went by I noticed a change. We went from texting back within minutes, to hours. From hours to days. Talking every day, to being sent to voicemail more and more. I had planned a trip to go see her in her hometown and take her to an NFL game, but when things started to go cold, I instinctively pulled back and just stopped texting. I would then receive texts from her pulling me back in, only to be left alone when I would start pursuing her. I had to move on because I was tired of being on such a roller coaster. I had to delete her on Facebook, as well as her number. I still remember her text “DID YOU DELETE ME FROM FACEBOOK?!” I don’t even remember if I replied.
Looking back, I see that these two stories, as well as scores of others I experienced, all mirrored some 3 act tragedy. Act I: We become friends, and I am doing things I wouldn’t do for another friend to show interest, while an emotional connection develops. Act II: I decide to go “all in” and put my cards on the table and let my feelings be known. Act III: Watch her distance herself, but still reach out for emotional connection. Now, this is where some would say “she doesn’t owe you anything. Quit trying to criticize, ridicule, or blame her for not consenting to sleep with you. You’re disrespecting her physical & emotional boundaries while contributing to a culture that normalizes this type of violating women!” While I denounce the instances in which this takes place and think it’s fundamentally wrong to say someone friend zoned you because they wouldn’t sleep with you, I think it’s equally as wrong to be emotionally reckless by not being upfront, honest and confident that both parties are on the same page about the state of the relationship.
It was never about wanting to sleep with the other person, but always about being together-to see her in the crowd and think, “That’s my girl!” and be so overwhelmed by that thought and for her to see and think the same about me. It was about courtship and companionship. Many of the people who come up to me saying they relate to the song I wrote on this subject on so many levels feel the same way. They are looking for something more lasting than just a one-night stand.
Which brings me to the point: How do you find that lasting relationship while avoiding the Friend Zone trap? I’ve taken all my bumps, bruises and lessons learned along the way and condensed it into 3 steps.
1. Start Small
It’s incredibly tempting to just bring out the big guns when you like someone. DON’T FALL FOR THAT TRAP. Start small. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. Little things, and spread them out over time. I’m tempted to list examples, but as a rule of thumb, take that grand thing you were planning on doing and cut it back by 75%. Now, do one or two of those things a week or so for a couple weeks, then increase in percentage or frequency BUT NOT BOTH AT THE SAME TIME. Keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint and also if it works out, you have the rest of your relationship to be as extra as you want, and it will be more appreciated. Appetizers until it’s safe.
2. Speak Up
The only way you’ll know if it’s “safe” to bring out bigger guns, is IF YOU SAY SOMETHING. Now I hear you right now shouting me down “BUT GOSPEL WHAT IF SHE SAYS SHE ISN’T INTO ME LIKE THAT??” It’s simple: she isn’t into you like that, you know where you stand, and you can move on. This is undesirable because of the pain that will be experienced, but this pain is momentary and is infinitely less than being strung along only to find out after wasting time, money and energy you could have devoted to ANYTHING ELSE. Speaking up means that you’re okay with knowing the truth, even if it’s not what you had hoped. It also means there’s a chance that the other person could be TOTALLY into you, but didn’t know if it was mutual. You really have nothing to lose and all the clarity and non-complexity to gain. An awkward couple of days is better than being strung along in ambiguity for an extended amount of time only to find out that your fears were legitimate. Take the guesswork out and speak up.
3. See Your Worth
This is perhaps the most important. The reason why I was content to be strung along in some of these episodes is because I didn’t have an accurate assessment of my self-worth. I was riddled with rejection and blinded by my insecurities. I one day realized that I am a wonderful person who has a lot to offer the world. I have things about me that are great and things that aren’t so awesome, BUT there is someone out there in this world of over 7 BILLION people that will love me for who I am, great and not so awesome. I need you to understand that YOU are an amazing person with so much to offer the world. Yeah, you have things you need to work on/work through, but so does everyone. SOMEONE EXISTS to love you, appreciate your good and walk with you through your bad. Someone exists. They are real, and they are smoking hot and they will be crazy about you. That is what you deserve. If the person in front of you isn’t in a position to see how awesome you are, or doesn’t want to walk through your issues with you, they aren’t it. Be cordial, but excuse yourself from that situation. In doing so, you free yourself up to meet the person who sees and loves you for who you are. I can tell you these three steps work as someone who has made it out of the friend zone FOREVER. Shortly after Linda, I met the most amazing woman who still gives me goosebumps. I still feel shy and awkward in her presence because she is so pretty. She is the kindest, most thoughtful, heartfelt woman, I’ve met. She supports my deepest dreams and has seen me in some of my worst moments and has chosen to stick by me. I’m able to look back at my friend zone career with so much gratefulness because it brought me to her. Also, I got a really cool song out of it that I get to use to encourage people and as I say in the song, the friend zone is “a great place to start, but not the place to stay. If they keep you stuck at start, you can choose to walk away.”