Most of the scientific literature exploring how people in western societies find partners for long-term committed relationships tends to focus on dating that started between two strangers. But a recent analysis of studies on ‘romance’ actually found that friends-first relationships are much more common than we’re led to believe by popular media, which seems to be obsessed with the flaws of online dating and the superficial nature of the contemporary dating scene. What’s more, the data suggest that most people would prefer to be in romantic relationships that start off as friendships.
Friends to lovers, an often overlooked pathway to romantic relationships
Canadian researchers from the University of Victoria and the University of Manitoba conducted multiple studies to uncover patterns pertaining to the initiation of romantic relationships. First, they scoured the scientific literature for previously published studies on the subject, narrowing down their search to 85 relevant studies that appeared in influential journals.
Only 18% of these papers focused on friends-first initiation, the vast majority being limited to the romance between strangers. This bias seems to be widespread, as a second investigation that analyzed textbooks on intimate relationships found only 7 out of 38 citations — which neatly represents the same 18% found earlier — concerned friends-first initiation.
“Movies, television, popular media, and most groups of friends abound with examples of strangers striking up a conversation at a social function and then falling in love during a series of romantic excursions, or slow-blooming attractions between friends that eventually reveal themselves in late-night cathartic conversations (and make-out sessions). Yet despite the cultural ubiquity of both of these pathways to romantic love, we have noticed that relationship science focuses almost exclusively on the former, which we call dating initiation. Indeed, in the 20 years that we have been studying these processes, we have encountered only a few published empirical studies in social and personality science that explore the friends-to-lovers pathway to romance, which we call friends-first initiation,” the authors wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Since friends-first initiation of romantic relationships seems to be in the background, it stands to reason that’s just because they’re secondary to the much more common relationships between two strangers. To see if that’s the case, the researchers performed a meta-analysis of seven studies involving nearly 2,000 participants between 2002 and 2020.
The results showed that the percentage of friends-first romantic couples varied from 40% to 73%. Friends-first initiation was even higher among married couples and homosexual relationships. Perhaps even more intriguing was that in a sample of 677 crowdsourced adults who were currently married or in a common-law partnership, 42% reported that they had started off as “friends-with-benefits” relationships, and this proportion was even higher among same-gender/queer couples.
Delving deeper into the nature of friends-first romantic relationships, the researchers asked 295 psychology students from campuses to indicate what was their ideal funnel for finding dates. They were given the choice between school, parties, workplace, church, family connections, bar, social media, online dating, blind dates, and friendship naturally turning romantic.
Friendships turned romantic was preferred by 47% of the participants, followed by meeting a potential partner through mutual friends (18%), and meeting at school, college, or university (18%).
Online dating was one of the least preferred mediums to find a long-term relationship. Nevertheless, this medium seems today the primary way couples first meet. Some 40% of heterosexual couples that got together in the US in 2017 met online, according to a recently released study by sociologists at Stanford University and the University of New Mexico.
This kind of empirical evidence suggests that friendship-based intimacy can precede and even nurture passion-based intimacy. In fact, it’s a more common avenue for meeting partners for a long-term romantic relationship than meets the eye.
But isn’t it the case that in many of these friendship initiations, at least one of two secretly wants more and merely keeps up the front of platonic interest for months or even years waiting for the right moment to make their move? Again, the findings suggest otherwise, in the majority of cases.
When participants were asked about their original intentions for initiating the friendship that went on to evolve romantically, only 30% said they were sexually attracted to the partner from the very beginning. In 70% of cases, neither of the two parties in the relationship originally had feelings, with attraction blossoming at a later time.
In both popular culture and scientific research, there seems to be this assumption that men and women cannot be platonic friends because sexual attraction inevitably gets in the way. However, these findings paint a different story. That’s not to say that getting ‘friend zoned’ is a blessing — it’s just that being friends with someone first could lead to amazing things down the line if your intentions are genuine.