Study explains why it's so hard to escape the 'friend zone'

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I've always had a lot of male friends. This means that I have both put men in the "friend zone" and been put in the zone myself. I've uttered the words "I just don't want to risk losing the friendship," and I've had them shoved back in my face. Regardless of which side of equation I was on, however, the result was always the same: None of these friendships turned romantic. Ever.

From When Harry Met Sally… to Jim and Pam's will-they-or-won't they relationship on The Office, we've all absorbed the cultural message that transitioning from friends to romantic partners can be difficult. And unlike in movies and TV, in real life, dating your friend doesn't always have a happy ending. Why? Perhaps the simplest reason is that, in most cases, friends are "just friends" for a reason—even if one party is hopelessly in love, the other simply isn't interested and will look elsewhere for romance.

But for a group of researchers at Pennsylvania State University and University of Virginia, they wanted a deeper analysis of the transition from friendship to dating. The team recently conducted an entire study on the topic, which focused on high schoolers—the age at which many folks learn about the bitter pill that is unrequited love for the first time.


Their study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, looked at longitudinal friendship data for 626 ninth-grade heterosexual dating couples. The researchers believed they would observe one of two trends: Either opposite-sex friends would easily transition from friendship to dating, thanks to their close proximity to one another—or that proximity would actually work against them, and the teens would have to look outside social networks for romance.

Turns out the latter proved to be true. Friends stayed "just friends."

"Less than one-in-ten newly formed dating relationships in the ninth grade were found to be friends at the prior wave," write the authors. For you math nerds, that's less than 10%. Which means if you're pining away for your BFF to become your BF (or GF), there could be a less than 10% chance that will actually happen. Like Ducky in Pretty in Pink, you'll be forced to watch your friend date everyone but you.

According to the research, there are several reasons teen friends fail to become boyfriend-girlfriend—a major one being fear of rejection, which can be especially daunting in high school. "An adolescent’s decision to aim a romantic gesture at a friend is likely made under conditions of uncertainty, with potential rejection being a substantial cost," explain the authors. "Romantic rejection would not only elicit group sanctions and public embarrassment, but also threaten a valued opposite gender friendship."

As the the study's lead author, Derek Kreager, explained to me, students often live in a "fishbowl," in which everyone knows what everyone else is up to—which means that making the leap from friends to more than friends would inevitably become a public move. Which is, in a word, TERRIFYING.


"Peer groups in adolescence are powerful influences on dating behavior and adolescents are unlikely to disrupt their group status by changing relationship statuses with group members," says Kreager.

But for anyone reading this story who is out of high school—well, the findings resemble how adults end up the friend zone, too. After all, adults find ourselves in fishbowls, too—in college, grad school, work, or even social groups—and we, too, fear rejection. Which helps explain why many people would rather log onto Tinder and get turned down by 50 strangers than ask our one opposite-sex friend if he or she is into them.


Indeed, this uncertainty of reciprocation plays a major role in the friend zone dilemma. Studies have shown that both genders consider "confusion over the relationship status" as a downside to having opposite-sex friendships. And this makes sense, considering both men and women are really bad at judging when a friend is actually into them romantically. Consider the fact that study after study has shown that men often overestimate how much their female friends are attracted to them, whereas women underestimate this attraction, assuming that if they're not interested in pursing a relationship, their guy friend isn't either.

Making matters worse, men and women often enter opposite-sex friendships for different reasons. A study conducted by April Bleske and David Buss, published in Personality and Social Psychology, found that while men and women do form friendships based on companionship, good times, conversation, and laughter, men are more likely than women to initiate an opposite-sex friendship with the intention of having sex at some point down the line.


"Both single men and mated men judged sexual attraction as a more important reason than did women for initiating their most important opposite-sex friendship," wrote the authors.

In a different study, Bleske and Buss also found that men are more likely to view attraction to an opposite sex friend as a "benefit" to the friendship—and are more likely to report having sex with an opposite sex friend than women (22% compared to 11%). Men are also more likely to dissolve a friendship because sex didn't pan out. It's not to say a guy's only motivation to becoming friends with a woman is sex, but it's definitely on the list.


Women, however, are more likely to view attraction from a male friend as a burden—only 3% reported it was a benefit, while 47% said it was a cost. That's not to say women aren't ever attracted to their opposite-sex friends, because they are—but their motivation is slightly different. According to Bleske and Buss, women are more attracted to male friends when they view them as potential longterm mates, not just hookups.

This difference in motivation—short-term sex versus longterm boyfriend—explains why many pairs who become friends with benefits find the benefits to be short-lived. It also explains why so many women find themselves confused and unsatisfied when a friendship turns sexual but never blossoms into a committed romantic partnership.


The reality is that opposite-sex friendships between two heterosexual individuals force both parties to address their feelings for the other person in a more direct way than with same-sex friendships. And if one party wants "more," being honest when communicating desires, needs, and expectations is important.

If you do end up with unreciprocated love, don't fret. As Kreager, the lead author on the high school study, told me over email—being friend-zoned doesn't have to be a negative. In fact, it can teach you how to be a better partner in the long run.


"Even though the friend zone may be stressful because one or both of the friends may want to transition to dating and not want to take the risk, each person continues to benefit from learning about the opposite gender. Having an opposite-gender friend provides a great opportunity to learn about and take the perspective of the opposite gender, [and] having an opposite-gender friend may make adolescents better future boyfriends and girlfriends."

Good advice for all ages.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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