THE BLOG

Holding My Own in the Friend Zone

08/10/2014 06:41 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2016
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In the immortal words passed down from some respected ancient philosopher (I believe it was Whitesnake), "Here I go again on my own."

Despite my best-laid plans to head in the opposite direction, I've been given a one-way ticket back to The Friend Zone courtesy of yet another woman I was interested in. And my initial reaction has been what it was the other (roughly) 782 times this has happened since getting divorced eight years ago - I'm stuck with a romantic consolation prize. The Zone, after all, is the place where women are happy to cry on men's shoulders but never massage them.

It shouldn't feel so discouraging. After all, everyone in a successful relationship says the same thing about the reason for their longevity. They married their best friend. So, having female friendships is a good thing. Platonic pals can show men how to become better versions of ourselves without fear of us storming out to sleep on the couch, whether it's moving our wardrobe beyond t-shirts or clearly explaining the sexual turn-on dishwashing can be.

However, I have to admit that at my age, ending up as a woman's friend before you get the chance to be her love feels a bit, well, emasculating. Particularly when every third television ad seems to feature older guys like me sitting in bathtubs or throwing balls through tire swings, a reminder that I should be having sex way more often than I do. So many of us are coming out of marriages that fell apart because both parties felt like roommates rather than lovers; there's this push to find romance even more quickly than when we were younger.

That's probably why the first few years post-divorce I went kind of overboard on first dates. That meant some serious making out in valet lines after just one dinner. The reaction to my approach was best summed up by the doctor who turned to me with a curious look and muttered to herself as much as to me, "That was... unexpected." The next time we spoke, she explained that I was a really interesting guy who she'd love to get to know as a friend.

So, I opted for the opposite approach. I'd slow things down, trying to build the friendship first and go from there. Which didn't work as I'd planned either. For instance, there was the smart, funny corporate exec that I brought as my date to a work party. We shared a polite goodnight kiss, and when I called the next day to set up another outing, she suggested a friendly lunch.

If "let's be friends" actually meant "let's be friends," I guess I wouldn't have minded this so much. However, I think we all tend to assume it actually means "how can I get out of this?" Which explains why out of all the women who have suggested friendship instead of courtship, there are virtually none I now talk to on a regular basis. With rare exceptions, I've never taken them up on the offer because it felt like failure.

Which brings me to my latest person of interest. She and I shared a wonderful bunch of low-key dinners for about two months, delving into everything from the loneliness of divorce to the questionable science in time-travel movies. You know those nights where you chat so intently, you suddenly look up to see the waitstaff staring at you because the restaurant closed an hour ago and they want to go home? We had that every time. The connection seemed so complete, I felt no need to rush to the physical side of things. It would happen when it was time.

And then I got her text. As it turned out, I'm great. There was no physical attraction. She felt badly that things turned out this way, but I had grown to mean a lot to her and she hoped we could continue to hang out together as often as possible. It was up to me to decide. I was ready to take a stand, to tell her I'd had enough of the Friend Zone, thank you and goodbye.

While all this was going on, though, I took my son on a college tour back east and I signed up for long-term care insurance. Both were very clear reminders that I'm getting older. And with age comes both the need to really matter to people around you and the waning time to actually do that. Certainly physical contact has its moments too. Sex gets some awesome PR. However, you still have to do something with the remaining 23 hours and 56 minutes of your day. I suddenly felt awful, realizing that when women liked me well enough to be friends, maybe I shouldn't have turned into a pouty 7-year-old who got a sweater instead of the Mongoose and Snake Hot Wheels set for Christmas.

Maybe they genuinely did want to keep the lines of communication open. Or maybe they considered checking the occasional "like" on a status update of mine as their way of staying connected. Either way, I never did take the chance to find out because I shut down. That's something I can ill afford at this stage of my life, when friends are like brain cells. When you're younger, you assume you have plenty and that they'll never go away. As you get older, though, you realize you've done a lot of stupid things and lost more than you can afford and need to hang on to as many as you have left.

Especially one whose company I really enjoyed, even if it wasn't to the degree I would have liked. So I did something I'd never dared to do with all the other women who assured me I'd make a great friend. I called the flame with whom I struck no spark and went last week to have another great dinner. I'm sure there are many more in our future. Now, the only problem is figuring out how I can ask her to do something with me that pushes the boundaries of our friendship, something only close friends want to do with each other... you see, there's some furniture I need help moving next weekend...