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“Separate or together?”

My least favorite question of all time. What should be a seemingly simple question often carries the weight of an entire relationship. I cringed to hear the answer.


Of course. Of course he said separate. I smiled and nodded in agreement, and the waiter left to fetch the checks. I pushed around the remaining bites of my pancakes. Suddenly, I had lost my appetite.

I had done it again. Here I was sitting across the table from yet another guy who, after months of witty text message exchanges, casual drinks, and plenty of Netflix marathons, was only interested in being friends. I had hoped things would be different this time. But alas, I was doomed to be “one of the guys” forever.

I went home, cried, and ate a tub of Ben & Jerry’s even though it was the middle of the day—living proof that you don’t have to save “Tonight Dough” for tonight, bro. We weren’t even dating, but I felt as though I had just been through a breakup. I was hurt and tired.

In this moment, during this sad daytime ice cream binge, I knew something had to change. Despite how good it felt to have a guy to spend my time with, I knew I had to kick my guy-friend-but-hopefully-something-more habit to the curb.

Maybe you’re like me: Maybe you’ve spent a lot of time investing in your male friendships with hope that eventually it will turn into more. Or maybe you’ve surrounded yourself with guy friends knowing the odds are in your favor to eventually date. Maybe you’re really frustrated that despite having so many male friends, you still feel really alone. In which case I can say, trust me—there’s a better way.

It took me a long time and a lot of heartbreak, but eventually I realized that if I ever wanted to go from having a guy friend to having a boyfriend, something had to change. Here are three essential steps to saying goodbye to being your dream guy’s platonic best buddy and maybe even becoming his girlfriend instead.

01. Take ownership of your role in the relationship.

It’s really easy to blame male passivity for our relationships staying in the friend zone. But relationships always involve two people. I realized that the only way to get healthier in my male friendships was to take responsibility for my side of the story.

Dr. Brené Brown, a researcher and author on really fun topics such as shame and failure, discusses the power of owning our stories in her book Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution. Dr. Brown says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.”

I wasn’t just a helpless victim; I was guilty of something I now call the “build a boyfriend” technique. Rather than fully commit to another person, I would assemble the perfect boyfriend from a variety of relationships. I allowed little parts of myself to be known by a few different guys and would run to them to meet different needs.

Guys aren’t off the hook either. When we become deeply emotionally involved in a guy–girl best-friendship, we’re enabling them to build a mosaic of a girlfriend as well. They’re able to pick the best parts of their relationships to assemble the perfect girl and never pursue anything further. We’re meeting their emotional needs perhaps, but what about all the other stuff that makes up a girlfriend? Who are they turning to for that?

Kimberly Klages, a psychological doctoral research student at the University of Memphis, studies relationship dynamics and says, “All healthy relationships take continual work and effort to maintain, so it may be beneficial for you to first take a step back and assess your own willingness to take responsibility for your role in the relationship.”

Owning our stories and flaws is really hard work. But ownership of the past is the only way we get to change the trajectory of our relationships for the future.

02. Be selective about your availability.

I thought surrounding myself with a lot of guys would inevitably result in dating one of them. I made myself readily available and invested a lot of quality time into our friendship with the expectation that it would turn into more. There’s much to be said about the fact that I never clearly communicated my expectations for these relationships, but I also was under the false assumption that more guy friendships inherently meant more dating opportunities.

In an interview with Verily, Dr. Katherine Blackney, a licensed sex, marriage, and family therapist, spoke to the preconceived notion about girls befriending a lot of guys with the expectation for more. “Some research has indicated that girls tend to think the more male friends they have, the more desirable they are or will become (hence the expectations are rising and disappointment could be near). This is not actually the truth. You could very easily become the ‘good friend who is a girl’ and stay in this friend zone because they do not perceive you to be anything but.”

Pursuit, mystery, and intrigue are essential to the dating process. Why work for something when it’s already on the table? Dr. Blackney was straightforward about not always being straightforward. She mentioned, “If there is any intention of dating, one must be coy, flirtatious, a bit mysterious, and confident. I am not for playing games, but I am for having fun, building intensity and excitement in the relationship, and being pursued and pursuing.”

It’s not that you should play a game with the men in your life. The simple fact is, by making myself available to guys who just wanted to hang out, I was making myself unavailable to guys who actually wanted to pursue me. Instead of spending my Saturday night inside watching Netflix with my guy-but-hopefully-something-more friend, I should have been out with friends or hanging out in groups. Now, if a guy really wants to get me alone, he knows what to do.

03. Protect your heart with boundaries.

I thought that the fewer boundaries I had, the more attractive I would be. Turns out, this is not the case, and it’s actually a recipe for a broken heart. It’s no wonder my heart was so bruised. I have held it out in the open for far too long.

I have discovered since my Ben & Jerry’s incident that if I want to be pursued for more than a casual bro sesh, I needed to establish some boundaries. Boundaries may seem restrictive and counterintuitive, but they actually usher in a lot of freedom. If there isn’t the safety of a committed relationship, then I need to be even more cautious about how much of myself I share physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I realized that physical boundaries, such as spending time with guys in groups instead of one-on-one and only being as emotionally and physically intimate as I would be in front of a group, helped keep my heart protected from unnecessary rejection and hurt.

Soon after putting boundaries in place, I saw how guys who were interested in a dating relationship pursued me in a clear way rather than in ambiguous hangouts.

All this said, certainly there is no hard-and-fast rule for how a relationship develops. But if you have been stuck in the friend zone more than once, why not try a different tactic and see if you don’t get different results. Hopefully these tools for communication and expectation will allow you to evaluate your hopeful guy friendships and whether it’s time to ditch your dating M.O.

Photo Credit: Xavier Navarro