- Two-thirds of couples reported dating someone who they knew as a friend first, contrary to cultural expectations.
- These relationships often existed for years and began with no romantic element.
- Most relationship research is based on an incorrect model of how romance develops.
Think of the typical script our society has for meeting a new romantic partner. It typically involves two people who have never met before getting acquainted, specifically for the purpose of determining whether this person would be a good partner. It’s sort of like an interview. If a friendship develops between them, it only happens subsequently to the romantic connection.
And there’s one big rule: don’t date your friends.
But what if this is wrong? A newstudy published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests it is indeed wrong, with the overwhelming majority of relationships in their survey starting off between people who were already friends.
Romantic comedies lied to me?
The study participants were collected from seven studies conducted between 2002 and 2020. Of the 1897 participants (roughly 900 of whom were university students at the time of data collection), 66 percent reported that they were either in or recently out of a romantic relationship that began as a friendship.
This value held for many different groups and showed little variation across educational, gender, and ethnic categories but was somewhat higher for those who married in their twenties or who identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Though data is sparse, relationships that begin between friends seem to differ from those that begin between strangers. For example, friend-based relationships place a lower value on goodlooks and feature more egalitarian expectations between opposite sexpartners.
How do friendships turn into romantic relationships?
The process of “converting” a friend into a romantic partner appears to be a slow process. Most of the university student couples in the survey reported knowing each other for at least a year or two before becoming romantic partners. They further attested that they began their friendship with no explicit goal of moving onto dating later.
The university students surveyed also reported that “a friendship turning romantic” was by far the preferred way of entering into a relationship. Nothing else even came close.
A major challenge to relationship research
The authors note that most relationship research focuses on the “stranger model” rather than the “friendship-to-relationship model.” The disparity between these findings and the literature is striking. The friendship-to-relationship model is considered in a measly 18 percent of published articles that were examined by the authors. The results were similar for the material that made it into textbooks.
This disparity might not be caused by researchers running with a false assumption. Human relationships are complicated, and it is possible that relationships that began between strangers are simpler (and hence easier to study) than those that began between friends (which could include hidden variables and are hence harder to study).
By providing evidence that the friendship-to-relationship model is perhaps the most common way that relationships develop, the authors hope to provide researchers with a more accurate picture of the subject, which should lead to a better understanding of modern romance. The authors conclude:
“…studying friends-first initiation may be a fruitful enterprise that not only promises to expand extant theories of relationship initiation, but which also promises to shed light on new aspects of relationship initiation that could shift our understandings of how romantic relationships begin and progress.”