We’ve become so used to the notion that sparks of romance only fly when two strangers meet — as we’ve seen so many times in movies. In reality, couples are actually much more likely to start their journey as friends. In a new study by Social Psychological and Personality Science, two-thirds of romantic relationships are shown to start out in a place of familiarity. We break down what this new study means and how it impacts the way we develop relationships moving forward.
Surprisingly, the research revealed that researchers will often overlook the friends-first approach to romance. According to a sample of earlier studies on how relationships start, the authors were able to conclude that almost 75% paid attention to relationships that take root between two strangers. Meanwhile, only 8% focused on the kind of romance which develops between friends.
Danu Anthony Stinson, lead author and psychology professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, says that “there are plenty of people who would feel extremely confident that they would be able to tell how and why people will choose a particular person as their partner, but this research proves that this is not the case.” The research also confirms that while we might already have a good understanding of how strangers can become attracted to one another and begin dating, this isn’t how most relationships are established.
After analyzing data from crowdsourced adults (677 of which were in a partnership or marriage) and almost 1,900 university students, the team was able to conclude that 68% of these subjects reported that their most recent or current romantic relationship started with friendship. They also found that there was little variation in the data across gender, ethnic groups, or levels of education. However, the rate of the friends-first approach was much higher among LGBTQ+ communities and those around the age of 20, with 85% of these couples getting their start as friends.
When it comes to university students, starting a relationship on a “friends-first basis” involves being friends for a year or two first before engaging in a romantic relationship. However, researchers also found that most of these participants explained that they didn’t enter the friendship due to attraction or with the intention to start a romance. Furthermore, Stinson noted that the average length of time it took to transition from being friends to being a couple is an indicator that they were truly platonic friends first before becoming romantically involved.
Almost half of the students in the study reported that they prefer starting a relationship as friends first, making it much more popular compared to the other options available such as meeting online or at a party. Because of the prevalence of romantic relationships which start from friendship, Stinson is looking forward to seeing more studies that examine this type of relationship initiation. Moreover, she hopes that this new research will encourage people to change their preconceived opinions on friendship and love.
Stinson also notes that society is often taught that friendship and romance are two different kinds of relationships that have distinct needs that have nothing to do with another. However, Stinson confirms that this research shows just how blurry the line between romance and friendship is. She continues, “I think this forces us to reconsider the assumptions we have over what makes a good romantic relationship and what makes a good friendship.” The distinction between friend and lovers, along with how a platonic relationship turns romantic, however, is still very much unknown.
Unfortunately, the study participants’ written accounts were disorganized and at times, confusing. While some described family introductions, holding hands, cuddling by the fire, and having sex as friendship, others classified the exact same behaviors as romantic. As a result, there is a huge, blurry, and messy line between romance and friendship, which just confirms how no one can truly define what friendship and romance is for someone else.
Further, into the study, around 300 university students were also asked how long they lasted as friends before becoming a couple and if they preferred to be friends first before revealing romantic feelings. On average, the “friends phase” lasted almost 22 months before initiating a romantic relationship, while around half of the total participants thought that it’s better to be friends first before getting into a relationship.
“Unfortunately, you’ll get people complaining about how they got ‘friend-zoned’ based on the idea that the relationship between a man and a woman is somehow sexual by default,” said Stinson. However, when people are actually asked, they say that they make friends with all kinds of people, and all kinds of genders, knowing that they could be potentially attractive to them one day. We can only be certain about one thing though; sometimes we act on those attractions, and other times, we don’t.