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The friend zone: tricky territory to navigate.

Summary: Experts, perpetrators and victims alike muse on the delicate issue of unrequited love.

BEIRUT: It can be the glass ceiling of relationships -- where someone sees the object of their affection before their eyes, but can't figure out how to reach them. The friend zone can certainly be frustrating, but getting out of it can be downright scary.

On top of fear of rejection, the pursuer has to struggle with the questions: Will I appear creepy? Will I lose my cool? And ultimately: Will this ruin our friendship?

Supposedly, the term "friend zone" has existed for around 20 years, and has become so common it landed itself a place in the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year. The golden standard of English reference defines it as "a situation in which a platonic relationship exists between two people, one of whom has an undeclared romantic or sexual interest in the other."

Almost everyone has been there in one way or another, but despite humans' wealth of experience in the friend zone -- either as the object or the pursuer of affection -- the best way to cope continues to be a source of frustration for many. And these days, social media and instant modes of communication have given strangers and friends alike more ways than ever to interact and blur the line between friends and more than friends.

Lynn al-Bizri, an American University of Beirut architecture student, says she has been on both sides of that dreaded place.

Describing how the friend zone scenario can start, she says, "What tends to happen is the guy will come on strong, or be overly nice, or message every day and start using terms of endearment far too early."

Her response to the unwanted advances: "That's when I usually try to hint that I'm not interested. Usually they get the message right away, which usually ends up in the friend zoning -- especially if I know they're someone I'm going to see often, or have mutual friends with."

Her two main techniques for dropping the hint are turning a possible date into a group outing or mentioning another guy that interests her. If the guy is mature he takes the hint and they're able to stay friends, she says, "unless the guy is a creep."

On the other end of the friend zone, she says, "Being a girl it hurts, especially if you like the guy."

She says she believes women are much clearer and nicer than men when it comes to rejecting someone. But some men would beg to differ.

The friend zone is such a touchy subject, Rami asks to use a fake name so his story won't give him away.

Rami, on his way back from a date -- one he's not sure the girl knew was a date -- describes being friend zoned as "emasculating and castrating."

In some instances, he says, he has been hanging out with a girl in the hopes of winning her over, only to realize two months later that she has been stringing him along. He believes some women enjoy the attention of men without wanting the responsibility of a real relationship.

He has no qualms about ending such a friendship when things don't go the way he wants, because for him, "It was never a friendship from the start. I see it as trying to develop a relationship with someone, and if my attempt fails, that's that."

Michael Oghia, author of the blog LOVEanon, says people who develop a friendship with the object of their affection for the sole purpose of romance are being unfair both to themselves and the other.

"Be honest with yourself. Are you friends with this person because you really like them? Or is it only because you feel attracted to them? I think your own sincerity is the first step to reflect on," he says. "I often think many of these kinds of personal relationships are really fueled more by lust and attraction than by real love."

Oghia acknowledges that his views come from his own hard lessons in the field. "My experience in the past was very much one governed not by rationality or real concern for the other, but was really driven by my own feelings and my own desires. I definitely think men and women can be just friends, but it's not necessarily easy."

Nizar Najjar, a freelance software developer from Tripoli, agrees that honesty is always the best policy, even though he hasn't always practiced it.

In some cases he has befriended a recent ex, hoping to win her back. But he says he was still a genuine and supportive friend, noting it would have been immature to do otherwise. On the other end of the friend zone, he says he recently rejected a girl by having a mutual friend break the news to her, leading her to end their "friendship."

In defense of himself and everyone else who has problems gracefully rejecting or pursuing their friends romantically, Najjar says, "People don't talk about their feelings because relationships are fluid. Nobody says: 'What is your five-year plan?'" He believes that friendships can turn into romances if people just allow their feelings to develop over time.

Not true, says a physician and author who has studied relationships extensively, but who asked to remain anonymous because he didn't want to be associated with the friend zone.

He believes that it's next to impossible to get out of the friend zone, which is why the first impression is crucial. "If you have to reveal your feelings you're doing it wrong. Usually people have interest from the beginning," he says.

"If someone is interested in someone they usually speak to them in a comfortable, casual and cordial way. If you start speaking in a different way, you've moved out of someone's comfort zone. You've activated a different transmitter. The body and mind are attracted to danger and uncertainty. That's the universal appeal of bad boys," he says.

His advice: "Consider the ones you already have crushes on to be a sunk cost. Move on. Get it right from the beginning."

But there's at least one person who can happily report that he had the strength to break through the seemingly impermeable friend zone barrier.

For an entire year, Nazih Fares believed he was the best friend his crush, Sarah Mallat, could possibly have. He was there for her when she had rough patches with her boyfriend. Then it came to the point that he couldn't take it anymore.

"I knew I was going to lose her eventually if we never broke this friend zone," he recalls. As much as he hates macho behavior, he says, "I felt it was the right thing to do, to set things straight once and for all. I guess the dormant territorial DNA that was in me woke up."

He told her: "It's either him or me." Now the two are engaged to be married.

His advice for everyone out there trying to break the friend zone: "Just go for it, blindly. It might be scary to think that you might lose one very good friend, but then again, you might live with the regret of losing the greatest love of your life and -- as cheesy as it might sound -- these only come once."

Copyright 2013, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Apr 8, 2013
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