A while back, I wrote an article about the ‘new girl/guy effect’ i.e the phenomenon whereby a person who isn’t known to a certain circle of people enters it and suddenly becomes the talk of the town. In the few months since I wrote that post, I’ve been pondering on the opposite of that: to put it bluntly, ‘the old girl/guy effect’. In nicer, more nuanced terminology, this is the phenomenon whereby people feel that they’re a bit too well-acquainted to ever be anything more than just ‘friends’. Many people have a specific rule that they will not consider someone who’s somewhat part of their social circle, as if the pools of friends and potential partners simply cannot overlap. They might ‘use’ their friends of the opposite sex to get to their friends, but the friends themselves will never be potential spouse material.
If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you’d know that I usually try to keep my personal opinions out of the picture. But hey, it is my blog, so once every so often I think I’m entitled to leave them in, and in this case I’ll freely admit that I find the above mentality both puzzling and slightly distasteful. As a lawyer, I’m used to thinking in terms of arguments and counter-arguments, so let’s have a go at the common justifications for this mentality and why I disagree with them:
Argument 1: It’ll be too awkward if things don’t work out, so it’s easier just to not even go there.
Counter-argument: Things are always awkward when they don’t work out with anyone. Plus, there are many bonuses if it actually does work out.
Of all the arguments against considering friends, this one has the most logical validity. I get it; there’s a lot more at stake when we know someone well and interact with them socially than when we don’t know them from a bar of soap. We can’t just walk away if things don’t work out because it’s highly likely that we’ll have to see them again and again and again…and maybe even again.
But getting to know anyone at all requires at least some point of intersection. At least with friends we have an easy way ‘in’, if not an easy way out. We know a lot of basic facts about them and can vouch for the fact that they aren’t clinically insane. Plus, if things do work out, it’s all the more beautiful: there’s already a closely-knit group of people to provide support, advice and lots of duas for both parties. If it doesn’t work out, the pre-existing friendship may provide grounds for mutual respect long after the romantic ardour cools.
Argument 2: I already know them, so if there was relationship potential I’d have known it long ago.
Counter-argument: How well do you know your ‘friends’ of the opposite sex in any case? Not all that well, perhaps.
We all know that there’s a wide spectrum of practices in relation to male-female interactions amongst Muslims, ranging from people who only interact where necessary to people who are happy to hang out in group settings or even one-on-one for a coffee or an outing. But even amongst the friendliest of the friendlies, how friendly are we talking?
For many of us, there are deeply ingrained sensibilities regarding what we can and can’t talk about with people of the opposite sex. Even amongst people we are reasonably ‘friendly’ with, it’s not very likely that we’ll be touching on (lol) very personal topics such as our family dynamics, our struggles with our nafs and especially not our romantic successes and failures. In effect, this means that we don’t necessarily know our so-called ‘friends’ very well at all. Our interactions are probably in group situations for the most part and not one-on-one, which again limits how well we get to know them. We may know a lot about their hobbies and whether they approved or disapproved of the ‘Happy’ Muslims video, but this barely scratches the surface of who they are, or for that matter, who we are, because they will only know the same of us.
This being the case, it hardly makes sense to relegate someone to the friendzone simply because they’re, well, our ‘friends’. We don’t treat our workmates the same way we treat our siblings, so why do we assume that we know what someone will be like in a relationship just because we are superficially acquainted with them on a social level? I don’t assume I know someone well because I see them at events or have seen some of their posts on Facebook, and I certainly hope they don’t think they know me based on these things either.
Argument 3: There’s no chemistry/spark. That’s why we’re just friends.
Counter-argument: Have you ever even tried to see them in another light? Or are you only looking for ‘love at first sight’? (Rhyme not intended, but meh, it’s there, it can stay there.)
I see the same thing happen again and again: someone will have any number of people of the opposite sex that they interact with regularly and get along with really well, but they’re either too busy pining after someone they barely know or looking for some magical ‘click’ to even notice. They may even lament the lack of ‘available’ people, but they know any number of singles of the opposite sex that they just won’t consider.
The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt. In a romantic context, this means that it’s very difficult to maintain a sense of mystery, a thrill, if we’re interacting with someone on a regular basis. This sense of mystery, that slight distance, is an integral part of what many people deem to be attraction. But if, for example, X is working closely with Y on a project, or they’re part of the same wider social group, they’re likely to see each other first thing in the morning. They’ll see each other grumpy. They’ll see all those Whatsapp messages with the stupid memes and hear all the jokes that don’t quite hit the mark. They’ll see them chowing down their lunch, and we all know that nothing kills romance faster than seeing someone with their mouth full. We just don’t seem to want someone who’s seen us sans mystique, which makes no sense whatsoever; the proximity of married life will very quickly and brutally knock the mystique out of the coolest of customers.
The funny thing is that the very qualities we’re seeking in someone are often the same qualities the people in our direct vicinity possess. Why else would we be part of the same sphere as them? But because they’re right in front of us, we just can’t see them. They remind us too much of our ordinary, everyday lives, and what is love but a yearning for the extraordinary? We want to be transported, inspired. Good old-fashioned conversations just don’t cut it; we want sparks and lightning bolts and all manner of natural phenomena. We don’t take note of the fact that our easy, free-flowing conversations might translate well into a romantic context, and we certainly don’t marvel at their intelligence/good looks/good character because we’ve stopped even noticing these things, if ever we did.
Of course, I’m hardly suggesting that people consider those they find repulsive or unlikeable. But if someone is our friend, how likely is it that we find them repulsive or unlikeable in any case?
Argument 4: I’m just not thinking about marriage right now.
Counter-argument: Okay, but if/when you are, you’ve probably already dismissed your ‘friends’ from the equation because they saw you precisely when you weren’t ready to think about it.
It’s the stuff of many terrible movies: someone ignores their best friend in favour of some out-of-their-league hottie, then realises their friend was the right one all along after falling flat on their face. But many Muslims seem to eschew this kind of Hollywood-esque journey. Once we place someone in one category, we seem to find it very hard to re-categorise. This tends to mean that once someone has been friendzoned, they don’t often escape from its confines. If someone wasn’t ready for marriage and decides they now are, they often feel slightly ashamed of their former self. They feel it’s easier to be with someone who didn’t see them in larvae stage; they only want to be seen as they now are, fully formed.
I don’t buy this at all. If someone has seen us progress along our journey, they ought to respect the path we’ve taken and appreciate how hard we’ve worked on ourselves to get there. We shouldn’t feel ashamed that someone has seen us at our formative stages, nor should that person feel that they have the right to look down upon us because they have. (Besides, when can anyone claim to be fully formed? A line in Shantaram describes it well: ‘The fully mature man has about two seconds left to live’.)
Anyway, that’s that. The reality on the ground means that that if we’re interested in someone and want things to work out, we probably shouldn’t try to use friendship as an ‘in’ unless that friendship is simply a transient pretext to get to the next stage. ‘Stay away, or make it happen right away’ seems to be the order of the day. (Not intended either, but I suppose it’s kinda catchy.)