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I spent the majority of my college years in the friend zone with “Matt.” We were good friends, felt comfortable around each other, and shared similar interests. We both cared deeply about academics and were passionate about ideas. We could argue about politics and not take it personally (which I enjoy). So it was only a matter of time before I developed a crush on him, and, pretty soon, fell in love.

Through our college years, I kept waiting for Matt to wise up and realize what a good friend I was, and that I could be more than just a friend. I supported him when he was dating his first girlfriend, and I supported him when they broke up. I thought I was doing the right thing for both of us by remaining emotionally available if he needed me.

Waiting for him to change

If I’m honest with myself, I spent our college years waiting for Matt to grow up—to realize that he took our friendship for granted and could be kind of flaky.

For a long time, our mutual friends didn’t even realize we knew each other, because Matt only made time for me when newer, more exciting friends weren’t around. Sometimes, I could have sworn we were flirting—other people had even asked me if we were dating—but at other times, he behaved like we barely knew each other. But I just kept waiting for Matt to change.

Infatuation coming to an end

I did not realize that I needed to give up on Matt until he really, truly hurt my feelings. After several years of will-we, won’t-we (at least, that’s how it felt to me), we were hanging out one-on-one, and Matt was not happy about it. He made passive-aggressive comments about how he would rather be spending time with other people and kept checking his watch while he waited for one of our mutual friends to join us.

That’s when I realized: to Matt, being “good friends” meant that he could take out his negative emotions on me. In my infatuated state, I thought that Matt felt he could be vulnerable with me, because I was trustworthy. In reality, he often took advantage of me. He spent time with me when no one better was around. He could be mean, cruel even, and never apologize because I kept coming back.

When I went home that evening, all my feelings for Matt had evaporated. Years and years of pining for him were over—and I did not know how to make sense of the experience. It seemed like I had just wasted my college years hung up on the wrong guy. Would I ever find someone else who I felt so comfortable around? For years, I had been dreading the emptiness that would remain if I let Matt go once and for all.

I needed emotional distance, which required some physical distance as well. Fortunately, we would only be seeing each other rarely over the next couple of months due to busy summers filled with our respective work responsibilities and travels.

I don’t think Matt even noticed a difference when I pursued some space. However, the subtle changes I made—opting not to hang out one-on-one and a resolution not to initiate any text conversations—gave me the space that I needed to heal.

Eventually, I stopped searching every crowded room for Matt. When our paths did cross, I enjoyed our conversations, but I felt much more detached from our relationship—which felt like a relief after years of overthinking the direction of our friendship.

Learning what I was looking for

This relationship-that-wasn’t was one of the defining parts of my college experience, and until recently, I had written it off as one big mistake. But now I am realizing how much ending this “relationship” taught me.

When I stopped clinging desperately to my friendship with Matt, my expectations from him became much more realistic. I gave myself lots of space to heal and to meet other people.

In the interim, Matt began to grow into the man I always knew he could be. He started dating a wonderful woman who made him laugh and who lights up the entire room with her smile. He was good to her, and I was really proud of him.

And meanwhile, in my life, I realized that Matt was never the man meant for me. To this day, I enjoy talking to Matt about politics because he never takes it personally. But there is a flip side to this quality: Matt rarely takes anything personally. He is not very emotionally in touch, a quality that borders on a virtue for me. While I still enjoy talking to him about ideas, I realize now that we would not have done well talking about all of the emotionally-loaded topics that come with a relationship.

Looking back, I am so grateful we did not work out. I learned that you can’t be in a relationship with the person someone might be in the future. You can only make decisions based on the person who is right in front of you.

I am now much more honest with myself when it comes to dating. While I have yet to find the right guy, what I learned in the friend zone taught me how to rule out guys who are not right for me, saving me a ton of heartbreak.

When Matt got married this year, I was so happy for him, and I told him as much on his wedding day. While I wish that it hadn’t taken me so long to realize we were not right for each other, I am grateful for the lessons I learned from our time in the friend zone.

Taking off the rose-colored glasses about this friendship actually made me much more confident about my standards for dating. I deserve to be with someone who values and treasures our relationship just as much as I do, and I know that I want to be with someone who is sensitive and emotionally intelligent so I don’t end up bearing the full emotional burden of our relationship.

These are priceless lessons, and I don’t know if I would have learned them if I had not been stuck in the friend zone. Our romantic pasts can shed some light on our identities and our needs. No time is ever really wasted; we just keep learning more about ourselves and learning how to love and be loved well.