I believe a lot of the “friend zone” concept stems from miscommunication. Guys think they can hide their intentions for a relationship with a woman by being a friendly friend and then magically become her boyfriend somewhere along the line. But then their feelings aren’t usually reciprocated, because the girl was clueless about the guy’s feelings for so long, and she developed platonic feelings as a result.
But I also don’t think people are lying when they say that they were their spouse’s friend first and that they met in a group of friends before things started happening for them.
I think friendship is important to the core of a marriage, but something is obviously amiss, and I’m guessing a balance needs to be found. How do I communicate my intentions for a relationship from the start, while at the same time honoring the process of having a “friendship first” as its foundation?
Thanks for writing. After reading your question, I’m thinking there may not be as much tension between what you’re calling a “foundation” of friendship and openness about a relationship as you think. Let me explain.
If you’ve read my other columns here, you won’t be surprised to hear me say (again) that I largely reject the notion that intimate, one-on-one friendships between single brothers and sisters in Christ are even a good idea, much less a necessary “stage” between two people en route to dating and marriage. To quote a previous column,
I believe it is extremely difficult and rare — as a practical matter — to [maintain godly] close, intimate friendship between two single Christians of the opposite sex. That’s true because intimate friendships between men and women almost always produce confusion and frustration for at least one of the parties involved. The extensive time talking and hanging out one-on-one; the close knowledge of the other person’s hopes, desires and personality; the sharing of many aspects of each other’s daily lives and routines; these all tend to involve means of relating that are appropriate for marriage — but not for relationships with (non-family) members of the opposite sex.
That’s not to say it never happens. Sometimes a man and woman get into a close friendship that just naturally develops into dating and beyond. More often, however, the close friendship route ends up putting someone in a place of awkwardness, confusion and hurt either because one person (but not the other) wants more than friendship or because they call their arrangement “friendship” but treat one another as much more until someone “better” comes along. Whether all that happens because of mixed motives or miscommunication (as you suggest in your question) or just the natural tendency of men and women who ultimately desire marriage, the most common end for close friendships between men and women is a painful one.
Another problem with close, one-on-one friendships between single men and women is this: Such friendships actually tend to discourage marriage because they meet at least some of the needs that are intended to be met only in marriage. People desire intimate friendships for a lot of the same reasons they desire marriage: intimate fellowship, companionship, a context in which we can be understood and cared for. When (at least some) of those needs are being met through a close friendship — to say nothing of the obviously sinful and unbiblical notion of “friends with benefits” — it discourages men in particular from taking on the responsibility and commitment of marriage.
Also, keep in mind that just because a foundation or dynamic of comfortable, friendship-like fellowship is valuable within marriage, that doesn’t mean that such a dynamic has to be fully developed before dating and marriage is pursued. In fact, as I’ve argued above, it shouldn’t be. The “friendship first” mantra suggests that in order to have friendship in your marriage, you have to fully develop it beforehand. Not so. Just like romantic affection, spiritual intimacy and physical attraction, the long-term core of “friendship” between a husband and wife can and should grow in the context of a dating relationship and — even more — after a commitment to marriage.
Does all this mean that your first conversation with a woman has to be to ask her out on a date with intentions of possible marriage? Of course not. Most people understandably feel more comfortable dating someone they have gotten to know (or at least to know of) a little bit first. So how do you strike that balance?
As your question suggests, one great way to proceed is to get to know one another as a part of a church singles ministry or through group activities or simply through serving in the church together. Initiate some one-on-one conversations in those contexts. See how each other serve in the church, treat other people, respond to different situations. That’s the beginning of a friendship — not the hyper-intimate Hollywood version, but a friendship nonetheless. If your one-on-one conversations go well, if you like what you observe and what you hear about each other by reputation in the church (or other contexts if you don’t attend the same church), then ask her out for coffee and have a more deliberate conversation about where you hope things might go. There’s no magic formula here, but I generally think that once a man begins showing a woman attention in a way that is more and different than what he shows to other sisters in Christ, a clear conversation about what he has in mind should happen pretty soon.
Obviously, Christian women — just like Christian men — possess different levels of maturity and thoughtfulness. Not every woman will respond well to this approach. It may also happen that you simply initiate with a woman who for whatever reason is not interested in you. But I have seen many, many marriages happen out of just this type of initiation, and it is a clearer (and in my view, more caring) way to go than the nebulous and often harmful “close friends” route. If you’re interested, you can check out the “Men Initiate, Women Respond” and “Just Friends” articles in the Biblical Dating series here on Boundless for more on this.
I will pray for the Lord to give you wisdom as you try to strike this balance.
Copyright 2015 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.