“It felt as if someone had gutted me and left me to bleed on the pavement”

Khomotso (32), an accountant from Johannesburg, was appalled when he finally worked up the courage to confess his feelings for a close friend – and she responded by spurning his advances.

“We’d been inseparable friends for two years, even though she was in a relationship. I suppose I lost myself, focusing on our friendship and leaving my own life to wither. I knew from the start that I loved her, but when I eventually worked up the courage to tell her so, she rejected me outright. I was firmly in the friend zone,” he explains.

The “friend zone” refers to a platonic relationship where one party has unrequited romantic feelings for the other. Embedded in pop culture, it’s seen as a sort of purgatory, marked by constant temptation without any prospect of consummation.

The term is thought to have been coined in a 1994 episode of popular TV romcom Friends and still carries negative connotations almost 25 years later.

The zone can take a number of forms, including one party being willing to have a “friends with benefits” sexual arrangement and the other party wanting that to develop into a serious relationship. Khomotso and many others like him fall into the snare of making themselves available to their special friends around the clock, playing the “nice guy” to a sickly sweet apex and coming off as needy. They neglect to spend time on their own development, including their sex appeal, and end up being continually unhappy and unfulfilled.

Relationship therapist Paula Quinsee says that while the advent of social media and online dating sites has led to people “moving on far more quickly than before and a new generation who are more fluid in their dating and open to adventure”, the value of friendship as a basis for a more intense relationship can’t be discounted.