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When Friends Become Lovers (And Why They Often Don't)

It may depend on how realistically you can judge who is 'in your league.'

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

At one point or another, every relationship seeker has worried about falling into the perilous “friend zone”—that uneasy state of acquaintance, far past the initial meeting, from which no romantic relationship can realistically any longer emerge.

But is the “friend zone” real? Are relationships that fail to launch soon after an initial introduction destined to stay in the zone? Or is this just another one of life’s irrational concerns?

New research published in Psychological Science suggests that the “friend zone” might be more real than imagined—but with some important caveats for relationship seekers.

Psychologists at the University of Texas and Northwestern, led by Lucy Hunt, examined 167 romantically involved couples—either married or dating. They measured the length of time the couples had been romantically involved, the length of time the couples had known each other before becoming romantically involved, and the attractiveness of each partner. (Partner attractiveness was determined by having a group of undergraduates rate each partner on seven-point scales of “sexiness” and “attractiveness.”)

What the researchers found is fascinating.

The more dissimilar couples were on ratings of physical attractiveness, the longer the couples had known each other prior to entering a romantic relationship. In other words, couples who knew each other for less than nine months prior to dating tended to be equally physically attractive (attractive men with attractive women, not-so-attractive men with not-so-attractive women). However, couples who had known each other for more than nine months prior to dating showed no evidence of similarity in physical attractiveness (attractive men with not-so-attractive women, attractive women with not-so-attractive men).

What might this mean for relationship seekers worried about falling into love’s perilous “friend zone”? It may depend on how attractive you are, and how attractive your potential partner is. If you're similar, it may be advisable to strike while the iron is hot; if there is a mismatch between you and your partner in attractiveness, entering the “friend zone” might be a wise strategy.

This, however, assumes you are able to make an objective determination of your own physical attractiveness, as well as your potential partner’s—something psychologist and co-author of the study, Paul Eastwick, says is actually difficult for people to do.

“Even if someone could do 'better' in principle, they often don’t think they could because they have a higher opinion of their partner’s attractiveness than the consensus majority,” Eastwick says. “In fact, relationships are often born when people see one another as more attractive than they actually are.”

Whether or not people have learned to use friendships strategically to land a desirable partner is still open to debate, he says: "I guess we don’t know whether people can use acquaintance length intentionally to land an especially desirable partner. That is, it’s unclear whether this reflects a strategy that some people can execute consciously.

"That will require more research.”

There is always a danger in extrapolating a causal message from a correlational study, this finding hints at the circumstances under which entering the “friend zone” might be a valid approach. “If you’re getting to know someone over time, you’re taking a gamble," Eastwick says. "There is a possibility that they could come to like you a lot more than they do right now, but there is also a strong possibility that they will come to like you less than they do right now."

Gabriel Saldana/Flickr
Source: Gabriel Saldana/Flickr


Hunt, L. L., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2015). Leveling the Playing Field: Longer Acquaintance Predicts Reduced Assortative Mating on Attractiveness. Psychological Science, 1, 8.

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