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The Benefits of Being Friends Before Partners

New research examines the phenomenon of romances that began as friendships.

Key points

  • A survey showed that more than two-thirds of romances began as friendships.
  • Almost half of surveyed college students said friends-first was their preferred way to meet a romantic partner.
  • Friends-first romances may have distinct advantages.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

How do most romances start? Is it two strangers meeting and eventually falling in love—starting with a flirtation, moving to dating, and eventually a committed relationship? Or is it two people who are friends first, with no romantic intentions, eventually finding that their feelings for each other have changed (Think Monica and Chandler on the TV show "Friends").

If one were to examine the research on how romances start, one might get the impression that "friends-first" romances are rare, since they receive very little attention in the research literature. But actually, it's not uncommon for couples to know each other for months or years before they become a romantic couple. New research by Danu Anthony Stinson and colleagues, recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, explores just how common "friends first" romances are, and what people's attitudes are toward "friends first" vs. "dating first" relationships.

How Common Are Friends-First Romances?

First, the researchers looked back at seven different samples of survey participants who had reported on their romantic relationships as part of earlier studies. Most were undergraduate students, but two samples were of adults from a wider age range. The researchers found that about two-thirds of respondents reported that they were friends with their partner before they became romantically involved.

Some groups of people were more likely to be friends first than others. Among married couples, those under age 30 were more likely to report that their romances began as friendships than those over 30. People in same-gender romances were also especially likely to report that their relationship grew out of friendship.

How Do People Feel About the Idea of Starting Out as Friends?

While the evidence is clear that friends-first relationships are common, how do people feel about them? Do people think it's more romantic to be swept off their feet by a stranger, meet someone at school or work, or be introduced by a friend?

In a separate study of 298 undergraduate students, the researchers asked them how they felt about different ways of meeting romantic partners. While introduction via mutual friends (18 percent) and meeting at school (18 percent) were the preferred ways of finding romance for some people, the vast majority preferred to be friends first. Almost half of the respondents indicated that starting as a friendship was the best way to meet a romantic partner. This research only examined undergraduate students, so it's still an open question whether older adults share young adults' preference for friends-first romances.

Were They Really Friends First?

You may wonder if these friends-first couples really were genuinely platonic at first. Perhaps one or both parties initiated the friendship hoping that it would someday turn romantic.

In that same study of undergraduate students, the researchers asked 210 respondents who had been in friends-first romances what their intentions were when the friendship began. Seventy percent of the respondents who had a friends-first romance said they just became friends and only became romantically interested later, with neither party having romantic interest initially.

What Do We Know About Friends-First Relationships?

Unfortunately, this incredibly common phenomenon is rather understudied by relationship researchers. We do know that couples in friends-first relationships are less similar in their levels of physical attractiveness. This suggests that looks play a smaller role in attraction for couples who begin as friends. This could be a good thing, given that a romantic partner's physical attractiveness is not what matters for long-term relationship satisfaction—what matters are warmth, kindness, and loyalty, which are also at the heart of solid friendships.

Friends-first relationships are also likely to deviate from standard dating scripts that, in heterosexual romance, tend to follow certain gender norms. In a traditional dating context, the man initiates dating and is responsible for escalating the relationship to a more serious status. Free from the constraints of the traditional dating narrative, friends-first romances may progress along a trajectory that is more gender-egalitarian.

This research suggests that not only are friends-first relationships common, especially among young adults and same-gender couples, but they may also be the preferred method of dating for young adults.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock