Dating Q&A: When Guys Just Want to Be Friends

This post has been updated for 2024

Do you ever go on a date with a guy, everything goes swimmingly, and then you get the idea that you’ve been passed over for someone simpler, prettier … maybe more accommodating?

Check out this question from a reader:

I’ve been single for nearly two years now. I’m 32, so this feels like a big deal, especially as I am also losing all my friends because they are becoming couply and can’t relate to single people any more. I joined OKCupid and have been on maybe 30 dates, but it never works out. A lot of the guys I seem to attract are under-confident, overweight computer game geeks who come across okay in writing but in person want to treat me to monologues on Game of Thrones and so I’m fine with not seeing them again, but I do occasionally meet what seem to be genuinely nice, interesting men. And the result is always the same. We meet a few times, they seem keen, they tell me what a great time they had – and then they go on to inform me that they’ve met a “nice, pretty” girl online who they can “relax and talk nonsense with”, but still want to be my friend. Seriously, I’ve heard that line so many times I’m starting to wonder what film it comes from and while it’s kind of flattering to be asked to be someone’s friend, it’s also kind of frustrating when you met them on a dating site and you know both of you are looking for more. And having been that girl who would meet someone and talk nonsense and sleep with them the next day, I can say from experience that approach also didn’t lead to lasting, meaningful relationships.

People keep suggesting that I should pretend to be less awesome than I really am (honestly, I think I am pretty awesome. I even have a mint-green dress with walruses on it) and refrain from talking about subjects that guys find interesting in order to avoid being intimidating, but I really don’t feel comfortable with that – in fact, I feel offended that people would think that was something I would have to do as a woman. Haven’t we moved on from such outdated views of what constitutes femininity? So, while I’m pretty sure the problem is with these pathetic cads and not with me, it I also feel like I’ve reached some kind of threshold of rejection where I am getting a little concerned that I’ve lost my magic woman powers of attraction, or something!

What would you suggest for an introvert who is burned out from investing in meeting new people over and over and is getting increasingly frustrated with it never going anywhere? How can I weed out these time-wasters who are clearly only interested in getting laid, but are also clever enough to not be upfront about that?

Yikes! Dating can be truly frustrating, but for an introvert, it can be soul-sucking.

I sometimes have to explain to friends and boyfriends just how introversion works. Meeting new people isn’t inherently life-enhancing. Even if the people turn out to be awesome, I still feel like I’ve just donated blood, slipped back into the line, and donated blood again.

If I was trying to meet someone to date or work with and it turns out that the person was pretty cool but isn’t going to work out as a boyfriend or business partner, I kind of feel like I just ran a marathon to support the wrong charity.

So, we have to prequalify. But before we get to that…

On the topic of guy friends

I’m not a dating expert so much as someone who writes a lot of advice about standing up for yourself and getting the things that you want.

I probably can’t tell you how to attract men in the first place, but I have a lot to say about conducting yourself once you’re in demand. (See Bullish: Picking a Boyfriend Who Doesn’t Hold Back Your Career or Bank Account.)

The idea that you keep dating all these guys who want to stay friends reminded me of something. Years ago at a small networking gathering (see Bullish: The Nerdy, Reflective Person’s Guide to Networking), I met Rebecca Wiegand, co-author of The Gaggle: How the Guys You Know Will Help You Find the Love You Want.

When Rebecca first started explaining “The Gaggle” to me – sure, you don’t have a boyfriend, but you have a gaggle of guys who all like you in various ways, so that’s good – I was horrified. “Wait!” I said. “Some cool, hipster dude all full of literary references wants a piece of you – like sex or emotional support or hanging out plus sex plus emotional support – but doesn’t even want a relationship, much less a grownup relationship? RUN AWAY. You are saying that you should keep talking to those guys?! Time is a zero-sum game! Emotional support is not limitless!”

My whole deal is about cutting the crap. (See Bullish Life: Achieve Goals and Glory by Recreating Like a Total F*cking Badass.) But Rebecca made her point well. Undoubtedly, some of these guys who say that want to be friends are not serious, but some surely are! Maybe they know other guys!

I emailed Rebecca, and she and her co-author Jessica Massa replied with the following:

Dating – or online dating, or post-dating, or non-dating – doesn’t always go exactly the way you expect, that’s for sure. Hearing the “friends speech” must be frustrating every time! But if you want it, you have an opportunity here.
At least some of these men probably genuinely want to be friends with you. You’ll be able to tell who they are because they’ll follow up their speech with actions – they’ll invite you to things, email and text you, make an effort to get to know you better, etc. They’ll work to cultivate a real friendship with you. And when it comes to these guys, if you enjoy their company and attention, let them be in your gaggle! Sounds like they might fit the spot of the Unavailable Guy perfectly.
The beauty of having platonic guy friends who are in relationships (aka Unavailable Guys) is that they’re fun to be around, without all the extra does-he-or-doesn’t-he drama of more ambiguous relationships. You can get a guy’s advice on your other romantic quandaries. You have a front row seat to a man’s side of a relationship. And (this is a big one) you have a guy who will happily be willing to introduce you to his SINGLE guy friends. So if you enjoy any of these guys – and they make the effort – then keep them in your gaggle, don’t consider your dating stint to have been a waste of time, and enjoy all the perks of having these guys in your life while you keep an eye out for a more romantic connection.
– Jessica Massa & Rebecca Wiegand
WTF Is Up With My Love Life?!

So, there. That’s something. You now have a lot of guy friends. They might have older brothers.

Let’s just all make sure there’s nothing stuck in our teeth

As I read your letter, one thing didn’t quite feel right. “I’ve met a nice, pretty girl online who I can relax and talk nonsense with, but I still want to be your friend” sounds suspiciously fake. Like the kind of thing you say to let someone down easy. (I have told a guy, “You’re nice, but you’re just not my future husband,” when I wanted to say, “You kiss like a slimy but unusually muscular eel.”)

Do you make aggressively intense first impressions? Do you bring up aggressively political topics a bit too soon after the appetizers? Do your online pictures look substantially different from how you look in real life?

The OKCupid blog (which I quoted in Bullish Life: Online Dating Tips from Professionals and Happy People) recommends deliberately playing up (rather than minimizing) what’s different about you. If you have a big nose, post a profile photo that shows that that is some serious NOSE. While lots of guys are into big boobs, it may be true that more guys are into flat-chested ballerina types than are specifically into medium-sized boobs. Exaggerate.

Bamboo Lunch Boxes

So, please do ask your most blunt female friend, dude-like guy friend, and/or the aunt who says uncomfortable stuff at family holidays if there’s something that everyone always notices first about you, or something that maybe you don’t even care about that others find off-putting. An artist might not think anything of having paint under her fingernails (kind of unavoidable), but among non-art people, this could seriously gross out a germophobe at dinner. Et cetera.

Your dating profile should do this work for you

So, assuming we’ve got the obvious stuff out of the way, it’s time to edit your OKCupid ad. I will write the first line for you!

If you just want a nice, pretty girl to relax and talk nonsense with, I’m probably not her.

I also am not sure what this line is truly about, but if you’re really hearing it that often, go with it. Own it.

Your ad should say a lot of what you’re saying to me, but in a positive way. Your work is really important to you and you’re not interested in pretending to be dumb. Maybe you should mention the mint-green dress with walruses on it. I think it sounds awesome, and so will some dudes (or they won’t care about what you’re wearing at all). But this will make it clear that you are not dressing solely to impress them.

I think you’re intense. I’m intense. I have been told this by men before, thought it over, and decided not to do anything differently. I like people who are also intense. As an introvert, you are probably looking for much more intensity from a romantic relationship than is a more extroverted person – after all, they can get what they need from a rotating cast of hundreds of friends and acquaintances.

I once told a guy on a first date – that “I’m an introvert. I have a best friend and a Mom already. All I need is a life partner. I don’t have room for anybody else.” It was a bit of an exaggeration (I actually have two close friends, and I also like my dad and brother), but an effective one. And it didn’t scare him off at all. And if it had, well, that’s why I said it.

As I wrote in Bullish Life: How I Met My Soon-to-Be Husband on OKCupid, online dating technology can allow you to pre-qualify and save an awful lot of time. My ad specifically said:

  • I am in a “Get those kids off my lawn!” phase of life.
  • I am a serious introvert.
  • I think a lot about class in America.
  • I enjoy enforcing justice on wrongdoers.

It also said “I am not amused by any activity that involves wearing a costume in Brooklyn” and “Please act as though you are content with the fact that your youth is over!” This worked very well for me. I even got a couple of messages from guys who were like, “I just wanted to compliment your Monty Python reference in paragraph 9. I know you’re way too together for me. I am youthful and sloppy.” (I politely wrote back, complimented their own clever references, agreed that we were not a match, and wished them luck. It was nice. Good citizenship all around!)

If you’re getting enough messages that you’ve been on thirty OKCupid dates, then you’re clearly desirable enough that you can afford to frighten away some of these dudes upfront.

Weeding out the ones who only want to get laid

I’ve found many, many fewer of these men in real, adult life than I was raised to believe I would find. (See Bullish Life: Let’s All Just Agree on Some Basic Principles of Sexual Ethics.)

That said, I don’t think there’s all that much magic to weeding out these men besides not sleeping with the guy until he’s put in more effort than a person would put in just to get laid. Make sure to ask him where he sees himself in five years. If he’s a total psychopath, none of this will stop him, but if he’s only willing to dissemble so much, you can dissuade a casual-fuck-that’s-no-good-for-you by making it clear that you are assessing him as a good prospect for the future.

On the topic of nerds

I am engaged to a man who plays Dungeons and Dragons, which I have discovered is basically code for “I have a close group of friends and we all have impressive vocabularies and know a lot about world mythology.”

Personally, I have been known to ruin people’s parties by doing math tricks, and I don’t want to accidentally commit myself to someone who is going to want to get cable television in our home and then also watch sporting events on it. So I can hardly complain that our wedding ceremony will probably be conducted at least partially in Elvish. Sounds romantic, really. Elves have pretty hair.

A guy who gives a long monologue on Game of Thrones might just be nervous. Since you’ve been kind of writing those guys off anyway, might as well try, “That show looked fun, but it turns out to have kind of a lot of rape in it, which I found … distracting.” (Not to foist my impression of Game of Thrones on you, but that was totally my impression of Game of Thrones.) See where that goes. Either you can truly write the guy off for saying something idiotic, or maybe you’ll end up in a fascinating discussion about why fantasy, as an industry, could use more diverse voices.

It’s not anti-feminist to show vulnerability

You should not pretend to be stupid to attract a man. But it’s actually a good idea to share at least one thing you’re bad at. This goes for men as well, which is why I can stand by this advice.

While many competent women are like, “Well, I need a man for love and sex! I’m not an island. I have unfulfilled needs!”, for many men, your strictly relationship-related needs are not real and tangible enough for those men to feel needed. They need you to need them to do something.

Don’t make things up. But most of us need a ride somewhere or have a leaky faucet or received a weird appliance as a gift and never bothered to set it up, or always thought it might be fun to learn to play racquetball, or just hate chopping onions and want someone else to do it, forever.

80s 90s Vintage Fun

Personally, while I demand that any man of mine be able to drive long distances, I am also attracted to men who can barely feed themselves – like, without me, it’s Cocoa Puffs and marijuana for dinner. Then I step in and I’m all like, “Yes, you CAN make scallops in your very own home! The yellow stuff is polenta. Why yes, I did whip that butter myself.” (Please try to even say “Why yes, I did whip that butter myself” in a non-sexy way. Try.)

For every two or three things you say that could come across as braggy, throw in something at which you’re a bit hopeless. Why? Because people need each other. That’s not being a bimbo. That’s human. (And beware of any man who claims to be bad at nothing, or only bad at female-gendered chores he doesn’t care to learn.)

Some men really are turned off by competence and emotional health

Some men want a manic pixie dream girl. The more competent you are, the more you remind them of their mom, and thus the more they are turned off.

There’s just nothing you can do about this. You can be super awesome and confident and nice and even beautiful, and yet there are some men who will think you’re a good role model, or they’d like to marry someone like you when they finally settle down, but they really don’t want to fuck any of those things. A lot of men want to fuck a twenty-two year old drunk with daddy issues. This type of man is surprisingly not that bothered by middle-of-the-night phone calls regarding the fact that such a woman is having a breakdown or is presently located in a literal or metaphorical gutter.

Think of these men a bit like your gay friends – they can like you a lot, but it’s just not going to go anywhere. Their sexual orientation just doesn’t include you.

Some of these men feel guilty about their sexual preferences and sort of feel like they should like some other kind of woman. But they don’t. You don’t want one of these men anyway, no more than you would want an ex-gay (as in, “converted” by a Christian ministry!) husband who was trying very, very hard to pretend to be heterosexual.

Maybe you could avoid these men by mentioning in your profile that you’re “emotionally healthy” and “stable.”

(See Bullish Life: Towards a Monstrous Regiment of Women.)

Yep, some men are also intimidated by your awesome job

So, I googled you and you appear to be a scientist.

You not only have a very impressive job, you are good at things that men are “supposed” to be good at (er, science). That is obviously a ridiculous stereotype and basically everybody wants more women in the sciences, but even when men, logically, want more women in the sciences and say that they love strong, smart women or whatnot, they do not necessarily associate these things with sexytimes. I haven’t forgotten that SATC episode in which Miranda did much better at a speed dating event by pretending to be a flight attendant.

Mindy Kaling’s New Yorker piece about female stereotypes in the movies listed “The Woman Who Works in an Art Gallery”:

How many freakin’ art galleries are out there? Are people buying visual art on a daily basis? This posh/smart/classy profession is a favorite in movies. It’s in the same realm as kindergarten teacher or children’s-book illustrator in terms of accessibility: guys don’t really get it, but it is likable and nonthreatening.

I have to say, while MOST of this is sexism, I’m not sure ALL of it is.

Especially in a big city, where everyone is so driven and career-oriented, it’s not unreasonable to want to be in a relationship with someone who actually has time for a relationship. (So, if you have an awesome and important job but also manage to leave at a reasonable hour and not be tied to your phone, maybe find a way to mention this!)

That said, some men actually find “intimidating” jobs really hot. To some guys, it’s a bit of one-upmanship to say, “My girlfriend can’t make it to this family dinner because she’s presenting a paper at a microbiology conference.” You just have to know your market and stop wasting your time elsewhere.

I remember when I first moved to New York and landed this pretty sweet-seeming job as a Director of Marketing. At age 24! I wore basic office clothes and bought some kind of knockoff bag on the street.

Surely, this would not have gotten me a date at a Dartmouth alumni event (see Bullish: Social Class in the Office), but I soon started dating a guy – a smart artist whose day job involved both bookkeeping and rat-killing for a small business – who thought that having a “businesslady” girlfriend was hot. He would ride his bike to meet me outside work, and there he was, all sweaty and malcontent in his grease-stained undershirt and work boots. He had a twenty-pound bike lock for a belt. (He deliberately played it up to look like a guy from the wrong side of the tracks.) It worked for us.

I’ve since been on dates with guys of a more blue-collar persuasion who have been similarly into my job. Your career will be boring to some guys, emasculating to others, and maybe pretty exciting to a few.

Career success is irrelevant to dating

Quoth Tina Fey on being “the thinking man’s sex symbol”:

“What I’ve come to realize is that when people say, ‘The thinking man’s whatever’ — there’s no such thing. The thinking man also wants to fuck Megan Fox.”

It’s true! The thinking man does want to have sex with someone who looks fun to have sex with. Some of this, at least, is just being a human. You don’t have sex with someone’s CV.

I have turned down many very unattractive men who are angry and confused because pop culture led them to believe that ugly-but-awesome dudes always get the supermodel in the end, so why won’t girls who clearly aren’t even supermodels just recognize that some man’s achievements are awesome and thereby submit to being a human merit trophy?

I have also specifically had to tell a long-term boyfriend who was useless at home but amazing in his career that, “Your career doesn’t benefit me! It doesn’t help you be a better boyfriend! We are not married and you do not support me. Very little of my life is related to impressing people by telling them what my boyfriend does for a job. So you can’t use your career as an excuse for being grumpy every single evening and not cleaning up after yourself.”

Having a certain kind of job or education doesn’t make you better or worse at relationships. Accept that you’re just like everybody else in that regard.

When you’re an ambitious sort, it’s easy to get caught up in being ambitious about everything, or assuming you’ll be good at everything just because, well … you always are, right?

It can be freeing to be a beginner. Sure, you have a PhD, but you suck at Latin dance (for instance). When it comes to dating, you’re about where everyone else is. It takes some of the pressure off.

Good luck! And many happy walruses.

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