back to top

The Friend-Zone Trap

Let’s face it, we’ve all been here before, and some of us have even been the culprits. You have this one friend who only thinks of you in a plutonic way, but you are wanting more. Some call this the “friend-zone”, others "unrequited love". Either way, someone’s feelings are not being reciprocated and often times someone is being strung along by the other. Here are some tips to avoid the dreaded friend-zone all together and if you do happen to fall into that trap, how to get out of it.

Posted on



Similarity Hypothesis

When we are attracted to someone, it means that we evaluate that person positively (Bradbury & Karney, 2014). There are a few aspects of life that make others attractive to someone. A big aspect of attraction is the similarity hypothesis: we tend to be attracted to people who are similar to us. Shanhong Lou (2009) suggests that we tend to be more attracted to people who have similar attitudes, values, and interests possibly because these similarities are psychologically rewarding and are easy to find out when you are first getting to know someone. From this, it is easy to see how both friendships and relationships form and where the confusion can set in. Not only do we tend to be attracted to people we are similar to, but we often form friendships with people who are similar to us as well.



Additionally, we tend to like people who express interest in us back. This may seem obvious, but it's true. In a study conducted by Elliot Aronson and Darwyn Linder (1965), they demonstrated how another person’s opinion of us may change our level of attraction to that person. The most interesting find was participants in the study were most attracted to people who initially had negative opinions of the participant, but then were gradually won over as time went on. The people who started out with having an interest in the participant and continued to be interested in them garnered the second highest amount of attraction from the participant (Aroson & Linder, 1965). Aroson and Linder suggest this is because people may perceive that it is most rewarding when our own behavior is the reason for that other person’s interest in us, not just the initial attraction. This may help explain why people who are put in the friend-zone may continue to like the person who does not reciprocate the same feelings because they believe it will be extremely rewarding when they finally win over the affection of the person they like.

Alright, you are attracted to this person...but how does it go from attraction to initiating a relationship?

Mate selection


First, a move has to be made. A study conducted by Aron and his colleagues (1989) asked college students in relationships how their relationships began. The most common answer was the other person behaved in a way that demonstrated they were interested in the other, or they made the first move (Aron et al., 1989). These behaviors may include behavioral synchrony, which is mimicking the behavior of the person you are attracted to by holding eye contact, leaning forward when the other person does (Crown, 1991). Disclosure of personal information seems to really seal the deal. Once you start sharing personal information with the person you are dating, it tends to increase intimacy and solidify that connection (Collins & Miller, 1994). Similar things may happen in friendships, especially disclosure of personal information. Due to this it may be hard for someone to interpret a friend's motives: are they trying to show interest romantically or are they just trying to become better friends?

Mixed-gender friendships


Unfortunately for those that are in the friend-zone, the odds are not in your favor to start being in a relationship with the person you are attracted to. In a study done by Kreager, Molloy, Moody, and Feinberg (2016), they surveyed eighth and ninth graders and looked at out of the people who were dating, how many were friends before dating. They found that those who were dating were unlikely to be friends or even be in the same friend group prior to dating (Kreager et al., 2016). However, they did find that the people dating were significantly more likely to have had mixed-gender friend groups in the past than those who weren’t dating. Kreager et al. (2016) believe this is because those mixed-gender friendships connect adolescent friendship networks and therefore increase the pool of eligibility of people to date. In other words, if you meet someone you are attracted to and want to become friends first, it may not be such a good idea.

Why people get stuck in the friend-zone


The friend who is attracted to the other friend

Baumeister, Wotman, and Stillwell (1993) offer pathways through which these unrequited loves may form. They proposed that these relationships may cause increased intimacy due to the close friendship between individuals. This intimacy may encourage one partner to develop romantic feelings for the other. From what we know about attraction, it’s not hard to see how a friendship could create an opportunity for attraction to occur by one or both individuals.

Even once people realize they are in the friend-zone, they often will do nothing about it. The people who are attracted to the friend have a couple of options, keep silent or try to win the other’s love. This offers a wide range of outcomes for this person, ranging from potentially living happily ever after to distress and humiliation from the possible rejection (Baumeister et al., 1993). Additionally, the unrequited lover may continue on with things as they are because they may be misinterpreting nonverbal signals by the other individual, thus confirming what they wish was true, that the other individual may also have feelings for them (Baumeister et al., 1993).


The friend who isn't attracted back

The object of the unrequited lover’s feelings can also contribute to the persistence of the other individual. As Baumeister and their colleagues (1993) put it, putting someone in the friend-zone or unrequited love is a lose-lose situation for the object of the affection. They either continue to spend time and other resources on the friend wanting more, when they know they are just leading the other person on. Or they reject their friend and risk the consequences of a fall-out and the guilt that may ensue over this. Baumeister et al. (1993) also suggest there is a “mum effect”: that people have a reluctance to deliver bad news to others. However, by staying silent, the object of the unwanted affection is only making it harder to reject that person, or there is the risk losing that friendship (that they may actually enjoy) when they reject the other person.


Theory of Polietness

Kunkel, Wilson, Olufowote, and Robson (2003) use the theory of politeness to provide insight into this topic. In this theory, face is the "conception of the self that each person displays in particular interactions with others" (p. 383). Our positive face is our desire to be approved by significant others, and our negative face is our desire for autonomy and freedom (Kunkel et al., 2003). They proposed that people use different strategies when approaching different goals. Those who were wanting to initiate a relationship were highly concerned with appearing attractive and posed the risk of seeming too forward, threatening their positive face. Those who perceived high levels of face threat (those in unrequited love situations) were even less likely to confront the person they are attracted to (Kunkel et al., 2003). Those who may be rejecting someone were afraid of being seen as uncaring or insensitive, which would be a threat to their positive face and would be less likely to try and stop the advances of someone (Kunkel et al., 2003). Thus, those who are in love with their friends may never tell their crush that due to fear of rejection and humiliation. The object of the affection may not make it clear they are not interested because they know it will hurt the other person's feelings.

So what to do if you are in the friend-zone?


This one may be hard to hear, but it's is pretty simple actually: you tell the person that you like you like them. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially for people in the friend-zone since they most likely realize that the person like isn’t going to reciprocate those feelings. However, unless you make it clear to the person you’re attracted to that you like them, they are never going to know for sure and you will never have an absolute yes or no as to if they are attracted to you as well. This is hard because it opens you up for rejection, but this way if you make your feelings clear you will get to move on with your life one way or the other and will never wonder ‘What if I had just told them that I liked them?’.


Aron, A., Dutton, D. G., Aron, E. N., & Iverson, A. (1989). Experiences of falling in love. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6, 243-257.

Aroson, E., & Linder, D. (1965). Gain and loss of esteem as determinants of interpersonal attractiveness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1, 156-171.

Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R., & Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On

heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 377-394.

Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R. (2014). Attraction and Mate Selection. In Intimate

relationships (2nd ed.). New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Collins, N. L., & Miller, L. C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychology Bulletin, 116, 457-475.

Crown, C. L. (1991). Coordinated interpersonal timing of vision and voice as a function of interpersonal attraction. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 10, 29-46.

Kreager, D. A., Molloy, L. E., Moody, J., & Feinberg, M. E. (2016). Friends first? The peer network origins of adolescent dating. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(2), 257-269.

Kunkel, A. D., Wilson, S. R., Olufowote, J., & Robson, S. (2003). Identity implications of influence goals: Initiating, intensifying, and ending romantic relationships. Western Journal of Communication, 67(4), 382-412.

Lou, S. (2009). Partner selection and relationship satisfaction in early dating couples: The role of couple similarity. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 133-138.

Rosenfeld, H. M. (1964). Social choice conceived as a level of aspiration. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 491-499.

This post was created by a member of BuzzFeed Community, where anyone can post awesome lists and creations. Learn more or post your buzz!