My study group had been working non-stop on the end of year class project for several weeks.  Late night trips to Dunkin Donuts for coffee seemed to be our saving grace.  The night before our project was due; I invited everyone over my house for dinner and last minute project changes.  I left work early to run to the grocery store to pick up items for the night’s menu. 

Lisa called me just as I scanned the last item in the self-checkout line.  “Do you need me to come early to help you set-up?” she asked.  “Oh – that would be great Lisa, you know how men can get - great intentions, but unorganized at times, so would you pleeeease come,” I echoed?  I could hear her smiling through the phone as she exclaimed, “yeah, yeah what would you do without me”!

As my classmates slowly begin to trickle into my penthouse apartment, the aroma of baked fish and collard greens welcomed each of them.  Laughter and soft music begin to bounce off the decorated walls, leaving it hard to actually start working on our class project. 

As the last drop of Riesling trickled into the flute glasses, we placed two completed notebooks on my dining room table: one for our professor and the other for the group.  As I grabbed the large heap of coats off of my bed, I exhaled a sigh of relief because we were finally done.  As we all exchanged goodbyes until class on Monday, Lisa tugged at the apron still wrapped around my waist. 

“Dinner was excellent,” she exclaimed.  I managed to smirk gently, “Awww it was ok. I’m not a pro or anything.” “Let me stay and help you with the dishes,” she said.  I looked over her shoulder at the mound of dishes that filled both sinks.  I was exhausted and didn’t want to stay up any longer than I had to.  We washed, dried, and put all of the dishes away in silence – we had both expended all possibilities of “new” conversation. 

We plopped down on the couch, I reached for the remote control and finally found the Major League Baseball highlights on Sportscenter.  Lisa scooted closer to me and she rested her head on my chest.  My heart began to beat even faster.  Lisa and I were just friends.  We never discussed dating or taking our friendship to another level.  A hundred thoughts began racing through my head all at once. 

Did she think that because she helped me prepare dinner tonight that I wanted more than a friendship?  Did she think because I agreed for her to stay behind and help with the dishes that I was choosing her?  Her gentle breathing increased and I could tell she was fast asleep.  I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to wake her, but I feared if the morning came and she was still here…would it be awkward?

The word friend has evolved so much that we have lost the true understanding of what it is.  The dictionary defines a friend as “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard; a person who supports, sympathizes, supports a group, cause, or a movement. 

Although I agree that there is a range of degrees of intimacy in friendship and associations, there is a belief now that it is hard for men and women to be “just friends”.  Women who have attractive male friends are constantly “teased” by their female friends as to secretly “dating” him because he is attractive. 

And the same for men, it is next to impossible for a man to have an attractive female friend without his male friends “teasing” him about wanting more or secretly getting more and not sharing.  I’m not referring to “friends with benefits” – because that is a total different conversation, but I’m specifically talking about men and women who are genuine friends and have a hard time explaining to others that they are just simply friends!

According to Wikipedia, friends demonstrate the following:

1.      The tendency to desire what is best for the other

2.      Sympathy and empathy

3.      Honesty, perhaps in situation where it may be difficult for others to speak the truth, especially in terms of pointing out the perceived fault’s of one’s counterpart

4.      Mutual understanding and compassion

5.      Enjoyment of each other’s company

6.      Trust in one another

7.      Positive reciprocity – a relationship based on equal give and take between the two parties (the giving and taking may not look the exact same, but there is mutual giving and taking)

8.      The ability to be oneself, express one’s feelings and make mistakes without fear of judgment.

Men and women can and do demonstrate the aforementioned qualities, categorizing them as friends.  The pressure to be more than friends is just that: pressure!  I have met countless men and women in my lifetime who have shared that their best friend is someone of the opposite sex. 

I personally have more female friends in my life and I learned a very valuable lesson from my experience in college.  Lisa just wanted to be my friend – nothing more and nothing less.  I allowed the personal pressures of my male friends to build a temporary wall – pushing Lisa out, until Lisa and I finally had a wonderful conversation.  I also thought by resting her head on my chest that she was wanting more from me – when in actuality Lisa shared later that she was showing me how much she trusted me and how comfortable she felt with me.  Today, Lisa and I are still great friends – even after all of these years!

In the weeks to come I will talk about how to stay in the friend zone with damaging the friendship, knowing when to take the friend zone to another level, and the myths about being in the friend zone.  Stay tuned!

Jason Ottley is a relationship expert in the Washington, D.C. area. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonOttley and learn more on his Web site

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