October 2, 2013

KUSSMAN: From Friend Zone to Twilight Zone

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A few weekends ago, I reunited with my old friend, Jake.  He had been my best friend during my first year of college, and I hadn’t seen him since he left to study abroad last fall.  When I walked into his frat’s basement, he lifted me up and spun me around, then whisked me away to the bar to buy me drinks.  We spent the night laughing and catching up, only breaking the conversation to down some pizza at 3AM. It was like nothing had changed between us in the year since I’d seen him last. Except, instead of going home at the end of the night as I had planned, I wound up back at his place, where he kissed me for the first time.

None of my girl friends seemed surprised.  “It won’t be weird,” they assured me, “you guys are best friends.”

The following night, rather than greeting him with enthusiasm, I hung back and watched as he went about his usual routine of getting blackout and putting his hands all over every girl in the room.  It was a familiar scene, and one that I had laughed about countless times in the past.  But something felt different now.  It wasn’t funny anymore.

The dynamic had shifted.  In the past, being around Jake was care-free and easy.  He was someone who knew me inside and out, and who had seen me at my worst: unapologetically devouring an entire box of Cheez-its while agonizing over the number of exclamation marks to include in a text to my freshman year love interest. Now, suddenly, I didn’t know what to say to the one person who it had been safe to say anything to. The weirdness overwhelmed me and I left his frat that night in tears, panicked that I had ruined our friendship.

Some people are able to hook up with their friends without thinking anything of it.  But the reality for the rest of us is more complicated; when you hook up with a friend, you violate the nature of friendship itself.  Friendship is inherently straightforward and unassuming, free of ulterior motives or expectations.  With a friend, you take things at face value.  The moment you start questioning intentions, the nature of friendship is threatened.

When Jake and I first met, we were both dating other people, so there was no hidden agenda on either end.  In my experience, that is an ideal situation for a friendship to thrive; you can relax and be yourself because you are in a safe bubble.  The possibility of being together is not on the table and there is nothing to psych yourself out about.  The moment something bursts that bubble, it is all subject to change.  Where the line between friendship and love interest blurs, the twilight zone begins.

In the twilight zone, the things that we put up with or consider endearing about a friend (like drunkenly flirting with everyone, for example) suddenly become things that get under our skin the most.  The actions we once paid no mind to — like a friend being too busy to hang out — suddenly feel like personal affronts. Our interactions become heavier, more serious. We stop taking things at face value and instead try to gauge what the other person is thinking.  We start second-guessing our intentions and over-analyzing text messages, and, in doing so, we lose candidness.  We find ourselves wondering if things will ever go back to the way they once were, and the next thing we know someone is caught crying in a frat basement.

A few days after my dramatic departure from Jake’s frat, everything seemed normal again. I’d had some time to clear my head, the momentary insanity created by the hook up had passed and I was back to viewing Jake as a friend.  It had been a brief, disorienting sojourn into the twilight zone, and I chalked it up to a lesson on how impulsive our feelings can be: The same person who you would never consider hooking up with one day could be the love of your life the next day, and vice versa.

People are quick to prescribe all sorts of rules, from “never hook up with your friends ever,” to “the best relationships begin as friendships,” and everything in between.  In the past, I had been eager to settle on one of these arbitrary rules.  But what I have since learned is that there is no one answer —  no universal law that we should be afraid to break.  The reason people swear by all of these different theories is because we’ve all had a million different experiences.  Sometimes two friends hook up and go on to get married.  Sometimes one of them develops unrequited feelings and the friendship suffers.  And sometimes — if the friendship is strong enough — it is weird for approximately four days, and then everything goes back to normal.