The Shades of Rejection: Friend-Zoning, Sex-Zoning, and So Much More

Rejection is more complex than you think, but thinking about it in a more nuanced way will help you process it better

My Ex-Lover

I used to have a great lover. She was hot, fiercely smart, and joyfully adventurous. This one time, we were horny on the way to a party, so another lover lent me her flat keys so we could have a cheeky bonk on the way. It was all sorts of awesome.

I introduced her to my girlfriend and friends, went clubbing, invited her to a New Year party. We were all into open relationships, so half the people there became friends through sleeping together first. And I certainly wanted to be friends with her.

But she, not so much.

As months went by, I was becoming more and more bothered by the one-sidedness. She didn’t invite me to meet her friends. Or to go out together.

One day, she all but disappeared. Later, I found this was because she wanted to date this other guy who was clearly monogamous.

I knew this would spell the end of the sexual relationship we had — but I thought she was a great person and would have gladly stayed just friends. She didn’t give me that chance. She didn’t even explain herself much. She just disappeared.

It felt horrible. Was sex all she ever wanted? I didn’t feel used — the times we had together were awesome either way — but I certainly felt abandoned and a bit cheated.

I know she had her reasons. She thought her friends wouldn’t understand. She really wanted this other guy and didn’t feel like she could navigate an ex-lover friend + new partner dynamic. I just wish she had told me instead of just disappearing.

Not what you wanted

I suppose this isn’t the sort of story you expect from a man. Straight guys are much more likely to complain about being friend-zoned than sex-zoned. But there you go, it happens.

I think my story shows how multifaceted rejection can be.

We tend to think of rejection in all-or-nothing terms. A offers B a relationship and B says no. Rejection.

But there is more than one kind of relationship people can have. You may want to be partners. But you may want to be friends. Or lovers. Or, as was the case with me, friends and lovers. If you’re asexual, perhaps you want to be partners but not lovers. All kinds of configurations.

And although I am ambivalent about ‘situationships’ (it’s a catchphrase often used by immature people who don’t know what they want or want to cover up something dodgy), I think people should be free to negotiate any relationship deal that works for them.

She wanted to be just lovers. There is nothing wrong with it if that is what both people want. I’ve had a bunch of just lovers. We’d rarely meet outside of sex parties, or if we did, it was always clear that the dinner or gallery or club night are just a corridor leading us to the bedroom.

But I wanted to be friends as well. She didn’t reject me as a lover, but she did reject me as a friend.

Let’s get complicated

You can see that rejection need not be wholesale. It happens when one person wants a certain type of relationship, but the other does not want this type. They might not want any relationship at all, but they might just want a different type.

Rejection happens when one person wants to be partners, but the other doesn’t. Maybe they are enjoying the sex but don’t want the commitment. Maybe they are enjoying the friendship but don’t want the sex that would come as part of a partnership. Maybe they’re just not in a place where they feel ready for a partner.

Rejection also happens when one person wants to be lovers, but the other doesn’t. Maybe they like being friends and don’t want to complicate things. Maybe they don’t fancy the person. Maybe they only want sex as part of a partnership. Maybe they just don’t like sex.

Likewise with friendship. People have their reasons. My friend’s disappearance left me in a limbo. I continued to think what’s wrong with me. Turned out: nothing. Instead, her situation has changed and she didn’t communicate it right. Once I knew, I could move on.

But the main lesson here is: it’s not all-or-nothing. Rejecting one type of relationship doesn’t mean rejecting them all. And we even have names for some of those detailed cases.

If person A wants some form of relationship that involves sex but B doesn’t and suggests sticking to friendship only, that’s friend-zoning.

Similarly, if person B wants to be friends, but A doesn’t and is set on focusing on a sexual relationship, that’s sex-zoning.

Let’s get even more complicated

1.Not only can rejection take all those different forms — it can all happen simultaneously. Friend- and sex-zoning are a case in point. They typically happen at the same time: B is rejecting A as a sexual partner but wants to be friends, and A is rejecting B as a friend because they want a sexual partner.

It’s useful to remember that, but it’s also difficult. People who feel hurt by being rejected rarely stop to think that in fact, they are rejecting, too.

2.Rejection might also happen because people only want different relationships in a bundle. Often, they would rather become lovers only once you’re friends. Or perhaps they see sex as something reserved for a partner.

Thus, it might seem that people reject you as a lover or partner. But if they don’t feel able to be lovers or partners before you become friends, this will simply never be an option until you establish a friendship.

3.Rejection also tends to happen in a vicious circle. That’s because, amongst heterosexual people in our culture, it is primarily women who friend-zone men and men who sex-zone women.

When guys are continuously friend-zoned and nobody ever wants to be our partner or lover, it gets in our heads. Sex is what we can’t get, so it becomes all we want. And this means that when a woman offers us friendship, we reject it because we’d rather spend our limited time finding a lover.

Likewise, women whose friendship is rejected feel like sex is all they’re wanted for and also feel horrible. They wish guys stopped asking for sex. And when yet another one inevitably does, they reject him, because they’d rather spend their limited time on anything else.

And thus men sex-zone women partially because they feel continuously friend-zoned, and women friend-zone men partially because they feel continuously sex-zoned.

That’s just in case you thought that the world we live in is simple.

You got rejected — so what?

It is perfectly valid to be on the lookout for a specific type of relationship. If you want to find new friends, don’t let anyone push you into being lovers or partners. Likewise, if you just want to sleep around without forming other connections, don’t let anyone shame you for that either.

But it is also perfectly valid for anyone to not want the type of relationship you offer. People are under no obligation to be your or anyone’s lovers, friends, or partners.

They might have a million reasons. Maybe it’s about you. But more likely than not, it’s about them. Perhaps they just don’t want a new friend now. Or they want a rest after their ex-partner. Maybe their new partner is monogamous and introducing him to a poly ex-lover seems like too much.

What all of this means is that rejection is just bound to happen. A lot. It is a part of life and there really isn’t a way to get rid of it. All you can and should do is grow a thicker skin and not get too bogged down by it.

And while it is true that in our culture it is still men who are expected to propose and thus face more rejection, it serves us little to be resentful of the fact.

Yes, it would be amazing if women asked us out for a change. But the other side is just a different kind of hell. Being propositioned by lots of guys you have no interest in is horrible, too. Having your offer of friendship rejected and dubbed ‘friend-zoning’ can’t be nice either.

It certainly makes sense to build a world in which women spend less time complaining about being asked out by guys they don’t want and more on actually asking out the guys they do want. But this world is not built through bashing and demonising them.

It’s built through empowering women to pursue their own desires and rewarding them for it. And most importantly, through making it safe for them to do so and not punishing them for it through slut-shaming, making them feel out of line, or becoming aggressive.

What are the lessons in all this?

  1. Rejection is just a fact of life and happens all the time in all shapes and forms.
  2. You might be rejecting people’s offers of friendship or other romantic or non-romantic relationships, sometimes even without even noticing.
  3. When your proposition of a sexual relationship is rejected, it rarely means: ‘try harder’. But since we bundle sex with friendship, it does sometimes mean: ‘try becoming my friend first’.
  4. Rejection always feels horrible, but growing thicker skin is all we can do. Being resentful, bitter or depressed about it won’t help you. If anything, it will make things worse, since sad, bitter, resentful people are rarely attractive.
  5. If you want a world in which men aren’t facing the majority of romantic rejection, praise and reward women for pursuing men (even if it’s not you they’re pursuing), or at the very least don’t punish them for it.
  6. When you feel friend-zoned or sex-zoned, ask yourself: is being just friends or just lovers, not a relationship worth having? And if in your case the answer is no, be kind in rejecting it and explain your reasons, so that the other person doesn’t feel like sex or friendship is all they’re good for.
  7. Try to kindly and gently inquire into the reasons for being rejected. You can learn to do things better, but also because doing so will help you stop worrying it’s all your fault — because most likely, it’s not.

My ex-lover and I got in touch again, years later. She apologised. We’re kind of distant pals now. She also went on to do a PhD and continues to be all kinds of awesome. I would have loved to be closer friends with her.

This is just one story. I got rejected more times than I can remember.

But I have also been accepted more times than I can remember. I had and have amazing friends, great lovers, and wonderful partners. But I can assure you that not a single one of these relationships happened because I shamed or pushed people into it. I certainly never attracted anyone with the power of my sadness or resentment.

That’s not to say I have never tried or felt that way. We all make mistakes. But it never worked, and even when it seemed like it might, things always fell apart before they properly started.

Don’t let rejection get to you. Don’t let it make you see the others as an enemy or some alien species. We’re all human and rejection is a part of human life, so live with it and learn from it.

Because it might never completely go away, but staying positive and kind is your best bet at making sure you’re rejected less and accepted more.

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