Can't not be friendzoned
March 3, 2012 1:36 PM   Subscribe

(23-year-old straight male) After moving to a new city 2 1/2 years ago and suffering a series of setbacks which I've mostly rebounded from, I've found it impossible to make any progress at all with anyone of the opposite gender. I have my shit together, am well-liked by most despite having always been pretty socially awkward and anxious, and am thought of by my friends as smart, funny and charming, but I just can't get beyond the friendzone. What am I doing wrong? Special snowflake details inside.

Feel free to skip to the boldface bits for the tl;dr version.

I've struggled with social anxiety in one form or another for most of my life. My parents, who divorced when I was 7, are both fairly aloof and not terribly social, and I developed the same habit. Various physical/verbal abuses at the hands of both, which I won't really go into detail about. I moved across the country several times as a result of the divorce, never really settling down into a core group of friends. Spent most of my time buried in books. I also have cerebral palsy, which I had to wear leg braces for as a kid and had me as the butt of jokes consistently until 13-14 or so. My overprotective mother, who I spent most of this time living with, didn't allow me to see friends on the weekends or summers, of any gender, until halfway through high school. I spent the two years before that living with my dad, and although I was allowed to socialize, I did very little of it. I kept to myself and would be extremely embarrassed if any personal details about me (taste in music, books, hobbies) were mentioned to anyone at all.
When I hit 17 I rebelled and against my parents' wishes, started seeing a psychiatrist regularly, and got a diagnosis (and meds) for depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I started to become more comfortable socially, made a lot more friends, and that summer I had my first girlfriend, and several more in the following few years, most of whom I met online. I had a relationship with an American girl for a year and a bit, and would head stateside once a month or so to see her. It remains my only halfway-serious relationship.

When I moved here to transfer into the political science program of a major university, I realize in retrospect that I probably bit off more than I could chew. I ran out of money & into major debts. A big chunk of that from a backpacking trip in Europe that was supposed to be with said American girl, but which I did by myself when she fell for someone else and dumped me right before I arrived. Once I got here a few months later, I generally felt quite isolated and found it very difficult to make friends in classes of 200+ people, and was and failed all my courses. I took a year off to work, and now I'm back at school in a different major that offers much smaller classes and a community atmosphere, and I've made lots of good friends. So I've got my shit together, I enjoy what I'm doing much more and I'm doing pretty well at it. When this past pattern repeated itself, I was feeling confident enough that I was able to date people. (I didn't much like making the first move, but I was able to do it.) But I've been on solid ground for nearly a year now, and with the exception of one drunk/stoned makeout session, I've had nothing. I meet new people on a regular basis (4-5 new acquaintances a month) and am thought of, according to my friends, as smart, funny and charming.

But with people who I'm comfortable--and so less anxious--around, I just can't seem to get beyond the friendzone. Words that get tossed around a lot are "cute" and "endearing." Even though I can appear to be decently confident in everyday life, I can't help but feel that it's a charade. Because I'm 23 but still have a couple years to go on a B.A. I have little motivation to be successful in any of my hobbies (once I'm done everything I absolutely need to do, I have no mental or physical energy left and fall back into the loneliness trap).

To compound this is a persistent fear I have (and not entirely unfounded) of coming across as 'creepy.' Because I'm still very nervous around people 90% of the time, I am either very withdrawn or too talkative, trying too hard to be funny, etc. When I get anxious it's quite visible: I get very tense, my movements are very stiff and my eyes dart around the room. I starting dating online because I had no idea how body language or nonverbal cues worked and was quite afraid by them. It's not something that made any sense to me until I about five or six years ago. I understand better now, but I can't tell friendly overtures apart from sexual attraction. I also have some trouble knowing where boundaries are. I'm petrified that I'll cross those boundaries or be too forceful without meaning to be, and that it would be the end of me in every possible sense--that all my friends would stop speaking to me and that would I would have a protection order filed against me. I realize, at least rationally, that this is absurd, but that doesn't stop me from wasting hours/days completely bummed-out thinking about the worst possible things that could happen. I usually end up digging myself into a mess of loneliness tinged with self-pity.

My online dates (OKCupid/Plenty of Fish) were pretty much 50/50 going for coffee vs. for a beer. Not one of them has led to a second meeting. I usually wait a day or two before sending a "hey I had fun we should hang out again at some point" text/email/message, and don't harangue people after that, so I don't think that's a factor. This has led me to conclude that even when I'm less nervous, there's something very fundamental about me that is repulsing people. Because of my disability I have a very peculiar way of moving around (think Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory) and walk with a fairly pronounced limp. Physiotherapy is not on the table for me right now, unfortunately: the deductibles are way too high.

I'm seeing a therapist now that's started to delve into some of the roots of the emotional stuff and has put me on Celexa, but more practical stuff is not really the nature of the treatment program. I'm on a waiting list for CBT that I should start receiving in 6-9 months or so, schedules permitting (fingers crossed).

What I'm wondering is what I can do in the meantime? I know that dating is a numbers game, which is why I keep trying to get myself out there time & time again, but nothing has changed despite all the many positive changes in my life.
posted by denmarkstreet to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
But with people who I'm comfortable--and so less anxious--around, I just can't seem to get beyond the friendzone.

I can't tell friendly overtures apart from sexual attraction. I also have some trouble knowing where boundaries are. I'm petrified that I'll cross those boundaries or be too forceful without meaning to be

Can you see the problem here? You assume that the people who like you would never date you, yet you admit you don't know how to tell if they like you and that you are afraid to ask them out.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:47 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

You sound very charming. Here are some guesses and suggestions:

1. You're socially behind people a bit - because you missed out on so much friend-wise, you just don't have the social sophistication to seem quite like a potential equal partner in a relationship. I grew up almost as isolated as you, in a rather unusual family, and with a bout of serious illness that left me not disabled but with symptoms, and I really feel that I've always acted a bit younger than I am because of those blank years. As a straight guy, you'll be hit hard by this until the women around you grow up a bit, because insecure women are less likely to be attracted to someone who isn't at the top of the social heap. Of course, in the long run you'll win out - being a bit youthful in manner has helped me all over the place. To negate this problem, seek specifically for groups where your experiences or tastes will be highly valued - ie, if you're a theory nerd, don't just hang out with smart people, hang out with theory people. Also, forgive yourself a little - you did have those blank years. They don't make you "repulsive". I suspect that in the long run they'll make you interesting and give you an edge socially.

2. Do you have a couple of friends who you can trust enough to ask why you're not getting dates that go anywhere? Preferably these friends can look at your OkCupid profile and the profiles of a few girls you've dated - it might be that you're fatally drawn to people with whom it can never work out. Also, bear in mind that you learned at least some social/romantic patterns from your parents' marriage - that may be tripping you up on an unconscious level. Do you date girls who have commonalities with your mom? Or who are Very Obviously Opposite your mom?

3. I know two very sweet people out east who can't seem to get dates to save their lives. They're both better than average looking and quite charming. I am perpetually baffled and put it down to bad luck combined with their shyness. But the point is that it's not some 'repulsive' quality. If they were not out east and too young for me, I'd be glad to go out with either of them.

4. Anyone who is put off by a limp is either immature or a jerk.

Think about how you conceptualize yourself. Part of my self-concept has always been "funny-looking" and "no one is interested in me unless I do [metaphorical] back-flips to get their attention". This has never really been true; it's just a baseline irrational belief that I hold that influences my tiniest actions, at the level of making eye contact or phrasing a text. What is your baseline self conception here?
posted by Frowner at 2:17 PM on March 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Make female friends. Seriously, the friendzone is a good place to be in. Your friends will help you when you need help. You'll be able and available to help them, which will connect you to your community. What you will learn from them will help you in your further romantic relationships whenever they happen and whoever they happen with. You'll find that your female friends aren't just a means to an end though, but, like your male friends, an end worth pursuing for it's own sake. Nothing you've said here could interfere with this.
posted by wobh at 2:18 PM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

4. Anyone who is put off by a limp is either immature or a jerk.

Before I read this I was about to post to almost say the opposite. It's unfortunate but people aren't immature or jerks for not being attracted to certain things. Do you have it in your online dating profile that you have a limp? I think it would be a good idea to have it in there so that the people who won't think anything of it will continue to not think anything of it, and the people who wouldn't be attracted to you because of it can move on.
posted by cairdeas at 2:25 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Every time someone mentions The Game or something on AskMe it's met with responses of how deplorable it is. Check out Rules of the Game anyway. It's a book of missions that lead you closer and closer to the goal of getting a date. I haven't gone through the missions myself, but they are mostly things like "talk to some strangers today," "ask someone about wearing better clothes," and "practice representing yourself better when you talk to others." Pretty innocuous stuff, but stuff that might help you present (and perhaps better) your best self. It may hold the answer to "what can I do differently."
posted by jander03 at 2:25 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Try reading The Luck Factor.
posted by tel3path at 3:05 PM on March 3, 2012

I have an idea...

First read Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour. This will make you a lot more sure about what things signify politeness and how to make sure you are showing respect to others.

THEN read a book like The Game. And the Art of Seduction. Many a socially awkward nerd has read these and postured around trying to be the Alpha Jerk, only to stand baffled as women run screaming from the room. If done wrong, this stuff is flat-out abusive, which is why people deplore it so much. But stuff like that can be played in a nice way or a nasty way. By reading Miss Manners first, then playing any putative Game fairly and with a very light hand, you will be the nicest and suavest guy in the room.

And remember, unless you're actually a sociopath, confidence is an act. It's an act that tends to sell tickets, though. Think in terms of polishing your best self rather than fakery, and remember that most people [1] are sad sacks from which the kittens of insecurity continually wrestle to escape.

[1] except sociopaths, who aren't insecure sad sacks... they're sad sacks who don't know it
posted by tel3path at 3:27 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't get the idea that your experience is beyond the norm. In movies and TV, people go on dates all the time, the dates go well, and they see each other as many more times as they want. In real life, it is hard to get a date, people cancel dates before the first date, people go on what they think is to be a date but it's not, and people don't call after the first date. On TV, people go on dozens of dates for each long term relationship. In real life, you don't have to date 20 people to find someone you click with.

I don't suspect anything is repulsing people. I was a somewhat awkward guy, young looking, short, and had much the same experiences as you for most of my 20's. Exact same fear about coming across too aggressive. Then, while I didn't get any taller or more attractive, I started to get more confident and figure out that line of how to be confident and forward without being aggressive. (Appropriate amounts of alcohol certainly helped with the practice process.) It still wasn't sitcom-easy but I met girls and had dates and had a date with my wife and got married.
posted by ftm at 4:26 PM on March 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

How much of this stuff do you share right off the bat? How frequently do you discuss these things with female friends you are interested in romantically?

I would avoid presenting yourself as someone who got dumped/racks up debt in relationships/faltered academically/is socially anxious and withdrawn/is in need of therapy/all on top of having a physical disability. That list does inspire more cuddling emotions and words like "cute" than it does sexytime and "hot."

To be clear: everybody could create a list like that about themselves that makes them look like not so hot a candidate for dating. And I know you may have just listed it for us, here, so we could better analyze the situation. But if you are sharing this stuff with romantic interests, save it for once a relationship has started to form. Part of dating is trying to be the best version of yourself. You are the smart, funny, charming, possibly-hot-accented? guy who talks about cool topics like what's going on in the world and his interest in sports/gardening/Russian literature. If the topic is appropriate, you may mention a rough patch, but you don't dwell on it.

About those cool topics you should be discussing- I have little motivation to be successful in any of my hobbies should change, if possible. Having passions is so attractive.

As for the creepy stuff: do you have a friend (not a romantic interest friend, but a friend friend) who you can honestly ask and get honest feedback in return? "Legitimately, do I ever come across as creepy?" Either they'll say yes and tell you how to stop, or they'll say no and you'll need to trust that the shit running through your head about that is your anxiety. (And the way you cure anxiety/phobias is through *ideally therapist-guided* repeated exposure without having your irrational thoughts come true and seeing that your anxiety comes down more and more each time.)

If it makes you feel better (it makes most people feel better) you can take a buddy along as a wingperson. Not a Pick-Up Artist type wingman, but sort of a safety zone wingperson. They can help you connect and you'll know that if by some chance you do start veering into bad conversation/etc land, they can stop you. Plus they can tell you whether someone is flirting back or not.
posted by vegartanipla at 5:16 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding what the young rope-rider said. She's 100% right. Realizing that gave me a new perspective on the whole thing (still sucks though).

Think about how 99.999999999999999999% of guys automatically rule-out "fat chicks". This is exactly what the same percentage of women do to guys under 6' tall.

What really drove me nuts about that is that even short "fat" chicks felt the same way. GAH!!!
posted by just sayin at 5:20 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because of my disability I have a very peculiar way of moving around (think Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory) and walk with a fairly pronounced limp.

I have a disability that's very obvious to anyone who sees me. I also dated online and eventually met my husband, but after lots and lots of first dates that went nowhere. Two things I learned: be upfront with people, and don't give a shit.

1) Be upfront with people:

a) Put in your profile that you have cerebral palsy, but it doesn't stop you from doing X, Y, and Z activities. You're a fun loving guy and it just takes you a little longer to get from point A to point B (or whatever). Basically, be honest but don't focus on it. If you do still use leg braces or some other aid, post a full length picture (see #2).

b) Realize that a lot of people don't know what cerebral palsy really is or what effects it has/ will have on your life. I mean, I'm disabled and fairly educated and I don't honestly know. I've seen some people on TV and probably IRL but I don't know what they go through or what their prognosis might be. When my husband first met me, he (much later) confessed that he wondered if I'd have serious medical problems down the road. It's not very likely, but I can understand why he'd think that when he first saw me. Excuse my ignorance, but I wouldn't know what to expect with someone who has CP. Will you need a wheelchair at some point? Is it eventually fatal? Can anything be done? I'm sorry but some people WILL be thinking about this.

2) Just don't give a shit

a) Stop thinking of yourself as repulsive. Just seriously stop it. Do you shower? Brush your teeth? Congratulations, you're not repulsive.

b) By the time I met my husband I was following #1 and sending out pictures of myself so prospective dates could clearly see what I looked like. I went on a lot of dates not expecting much. I told my husband I'd go out with him as a friend.

c) I wouldn't think of people who don't call you back as shallow little jerks. Its not productive. Dont assume its because of the disability (my apostrophe key just stopped working). Dont assume it has anything to do with you at all.

d) I just dont give a shit what people think, and this allows me to be true to myself, which is really, really freeing. Seriously, when you find yourself tensing up, say in your head I dont care about this. Its like flipping a light switch (ugh, the apostrophe key!) from anxiety to freedom.

e) This will get easier as you get older.
posted by desjardins at 5:23 PM on March 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

I don't know, I'm sort of in the same place as you, only female. I think the end of your college years + start of new jobs or grad school + moving around makes your early 20s a pretty weird, hard time to date already, unless you have a very locked-in life plan.

Can I play armchair for a minute? Just reading your question, I get the sense that some positives you've overlooked about yourself include; varied life experience, open-minded, literate, independent, and conscientious. Hey, you can even throw that stuff on your OKCupid profile as a compliment someone gave you, if you want! It’s about framing, to a certain extent.


Impossible to make any progress at all with anyone of the opposite gender.

Okay, not to read too much into your word choice, but “make any progress” with women sounds like you’ve got this belief that you have to make the right moves, punch the right buttons, beat all the levels, and success happens- and if that’s not happening, something’s wrong with your technique. I think that’s not always the most useful paradigm, but more importantly, can be off-putting to women if they get the sense of it being…progress for you. Like straight line, A to B, progress or improvement for yourself sort of thing. I dunno, just be careful to at least present the illusion of it being organic and messy- and also not blame yourself entirely if things don’t click. That also goes for this;

I usually wait a day or two before sending a "hey I had fun we should hang out again at some point" text/email/message,

Seems a little rules-y.

Everyone’s friends say they are funny and charming, but can I be really honest with you? You seem a little too earnest and thoughtful to really go for balls-out funny and charming and have that work for you. Fortunately, earnestness is a key component of charm, so I’d aim more for low-key, sweet and humble charm, rather than like, movie-star charm. It can work more wonders than you would think. If cute is what you’ve got to work with, then be the sweetest, most endearing cute you can be. Be your best self, you know? I find most people who like you usually see right through you and like you for the things about yourself you may not even like or be aware of. Most of it is just getting out of your own way.

I also think a lot of your motivation for wanting a girlfriend probably has to do with your insecurity. I know this is the most frustrating thing in the world to hear, but you have got it backwards- the security comes before the girlfriend, not vice versa. I know, I know, that’s the most annoying advice ever, but even if you think you’ve done everything you can, you can probably work at least a little harder to come to terms with your issues and accept yourself on your own. Good for you for seeing a therapist- really try to be honest.
posted by stockpuppet at 5:45 PM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Think about how 99.999999999999999999% of guys automatically rule-out "fat chicks". This is exactly what the same percentage of women do to guys under 6' tall.

And when you think about that, think about how many women date and marry guys under six feet tall, and how many guys date women who aren't precisely sylph-like.

(One note from my days identifying as straight: I've never been really thin, although I've never been really eye-catchingly heavy either....and back in the day, I knew several shorter guys who couldn't get dates who I would gladly, gladly have dated. In retrospect - and knowing the women they eventually settled down with - I think this had a lot more to do with their anxiety about their height and not wanting to be "the short guy who dates the sorta-fat chick" than about their actual interest in me. So the point is, be clear with yourself about who you're attracted to and why - don't miss out on a relationship because you're looking to date a socially-desirable girl rather than a girl you like.)
posted by Frowner at 6:31 PM on March 3, 2012

I think your dating experience is probably more normal than you realize, even if your life experience has not entirely been. Not to dismiss your anxiety at all, but a lot of people don't date as much as they want (or at all) and feel like they're the only one they know who can't make it happen. You're not. I agree with the above advice to make female friends. Your future partners will be deeply appreciative of the advanced understanding of the female mind you will develop as a result. Also, these girls might be friendzoning you because they're a little spooked by your disability. Not that they're turned off by it, necessarily, but because they don't know how they're supposed to handle it. Your disability is old news to you, but to them it's new, and girls that age are generally so anxious about their OWN social status and the gazillion nuances that they pick up that adding a disability, even a minor one, can be an overwhelming prospect. But they like spending time with you, so they friendzone you. It's not fair, but most of them aren't bitches, they're just young and need to grow up more. Be patient with them, enjoy spending time with them, and let them get more comfortable with you. Maybe something will eventually blossom with one of them, or not. But the extra bonus is that these friends will sort of be role models for other women you might meet who might not know how to handle your disability, which will open some doors down the line. To sum up: Play the long game, not the short game.

Some thoughts about managing your anxiety: Have you looked into meditation? It's a nice way to break the death spiral of obsessive thinking. It's hard to do at first, but it gets easier.

Also, what about exercise? I don't know what your limits are, but it seems like you're pretty mobile. If running or playing a sport is out, maybe you could try swimming? Or maybe weight machines? Regular exercise helps me clear my head.

Another thought is regular massage. If you are spending that much of your life tensed up and anxious, you can create this physical feedback loop, where you get anxious, tense up, and then the tensing up makes you feel more anxious-- getting a massage once a week might help interrupt that cycle. It's not cheap, but massage schools usually offer good deals. (Yoga is also good for this. Talk to your instructor about modifying poses if you have to. Yoga is, no pun intended, flexible like that.)

Finally, do you have other friends with disabilities? Even if yours isn't limiting your life activities (and I'm guessing not if you went solo backpacking through Europe), the social implications are a different animal and maybe talking to folks with similar issues might help. I mean, you probably end up stuck in the role of "harmless friend" or "heroic disabled boy" because that's the social niche that gets carved out for you, and it's tough to redefine yourself, especially when the people who (probably unwittingly) reinforce it are your friends. That's not something I or any non-disabled person could really give you meaningful advice about. I mean, I'd be happy to brainstorm with empathy at you all day long, but I have no practical experience to offer. So if there is a resource group on your campus, it might be worth checking out.

Good luck, and hang in there. There's no science to dating, as much as people wish there was. It all boils down to good manners and intangibles.
posted by elizeh at 10:13 PM on March 3, 2012

Best answer: Insecurity is rarely appealing and usually then only to sociopaths. There are two things you need to be aware of to enjoy success in romantic relationships:

1) You are the prize.

2) The things worth having in life only come to those who reach out and take them. (And it's okay to do so!)

When it comes to confidence, fake-it-til-you-make-it is bullshit advice that only works for people who already have confidence and just need to get through a low period. Real confidence has to be earned. For males, I've found the best thing for increasing sense of self-worth is to become proficient at a skill or trade. (Better still, as many as possible.) Whatever you take up must require work and perseverance but also have the regular payoff of being able at numerous stages to do something that you could not before. Weightlifting and production of tangible goods are good examples that do wonders for most men. There is something about applying effort and reason over time to increase his abilities that also increases a man's respect for himself and the esteem he expects from others. It is only when you have gained a healthy sense of self-worth that it will not surprise nor especially impress you when someone you consider appealing reciprocates (or expresses) interest in you and it is only at this point when you will be in a position to respond in a healthy and productive manner.

You must understand that the most important reason people attain what they set out to possess in life is overriding desire for a particular something. Passivity will get you nowhere. Many people attain nothing because they are uncertain as to what to pursue. Others attain nothing because, though they have an idea of what they want, they are diffident in their pursuit. In romantic relationships, these are particularly disastrous attributes. I advise you to drop the numbers game and instead identify specific characteristics that you are looking for a romantic partner to possess. The idea is to have a means of identifying (or, moreover, eliminating) potential partners in a way that allows you to, over time, focus your attention on a specific subset of the population. This is beneficial in two ways: 1) It will help you become more discriminating and less likely to seek relationships with whomever will have you. 2) When you find that someone possess the attributes you are looking for, you will know that you should pursue them. And you knowing your want to pursue a woman will make your intent obvious to her and it is at this point that you will find yourself either accepted or rejected. For better or worse, no more friendzone for you.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 3:37 AM on March 4, 2012 [14 favorites]

This isn't much help right now, but the early 20s is a tough period for dating. I think a lot of people only get serious about finding a quality partner as they get towards their late 20s. It really helps to have a female friend (or a friend's girlfriend) that you can go to for some honest advice.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:57 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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