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How, and How Often, Friendship Turns into Love

Dating apps and blind dates may not be the path to love.

Key points

  • There are two main types of intimacy: friendship-based and passion-based (i.e. romantic). Sometimes one turns into the other.
  • Research has largely ignored friends-first romance initiation, focusing instead on the romance that develops between strangers.
  • A recent investigation finds friends-first initiation of romantic relationships is not only common but also frequently preferred.
Source: fjord77/Pixabay

When you imagine people falling in love, how do you see it happening?

Specifically, do you imagine two strangers falling in love after going out on a few dates? Or two friends gradually developing romantic feelings for each other? More generally, do you think the majority of people who become romantically involved started dating as strangers or after forming a friendship first?

A recent study, by Stinson and colleagues from Canada, suggests popular journals and textbooks tend to “focus on romance that sparks between strangers,” but a large portion of romantic couples start out as friends, and many people looking for love prefer the friends-first route to romance.

The study, in press in Social Psychological and Personality Science, is detailed below.

Previous research on dating initiation

The authors searched online databases for studies on relationship initiation. They used terms like “friendship,” “friends with benefits,” “first date,” “relationship beginning,” and “attraction.” The search was limited to 11 highly influential journals—for instance, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Archives of Sexual Behavior, Sex Roles, and Personal Relationships.

Analysis of data showed only 15 out of 85 or 18% of papers reviewed had focused on friends-first initiation. Simply put, the majority of studies emphasized romantic relationships formed between strangers.

The authors found similar results in their second investigation, which examined the cited literature in two commonly taught textbooks on intimate relationships. Specifically, only seven out of 38 or 18% of citations concerned friends-first initiation.

Do most romantic couples start out as friends?

To learn how common friends-first romantic relationships really are, the researchers performed a meta-analysis of seven studies (N = 1,897) conducted in their labs between 2002 and 2020.

Most romantic couples started out as friends, the results showed, with the percentage of the friends-first romantic couples varying from 40% to 73% (weighted average of 68%). The percentages of friends-first initiation were also higher in married couples (particularly those under 30 years of age) and in same-gender or queer relationships.

Lastly, 42% of friends-first married couples reported having had a friends-with-benefits relationship with the person they later married. Again, this was even more prevalent among queer and same-gender couples.

What is the best way to find a date?

To learn more about the nature of friends-first romantic initiation, a final investigation was conducted. Participants (N = 298; 50% men; 47% in a romantic relationship) were psychology students from one of the samples in the previous investigation. They were asked to indicate the best way to find dates by selecting from a list of options: blind dates, a friendship naturally turning romantic, mutual friends, school, parties, workplace, church, family connections, bar, social media, dating services, etc.

The top three most frequent responses regarding the best way to meet a potential romantic partner were the following: Friendships that turn romantic (47%), getting to know a potential partner through mutual friends (18%), and meeting at school, college, or university (18%).

To compare, only 0.3% chose going on a blind date as the best way to meet a future boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse. In fact, going on a blind date and using an online dating service were the least frequently endorsed responses.

Friendship as a relationship-initiation strategy?

Those in a romantic relationship who had been friends first also answered questions about the length of their friendship and their original intentions for initiating the friendship.

So, what had been the reasons behind friendship intentions in those in a romantic relationship who had been friends first? Only a small portion reported having been sexually attracted to each other from the beginning or intending to use the friendship as a romantic strategy:

  • The respondent being attracted to the partner: 12%
  • The partner being attracted to the respondent: 18%
  • Neither (attraction developed later): 70%

In short, as the authors note, “the vast majority of these university students did not enter into their friendships with romantic intentions or attraction.”

Friendship and dating as a two-way street

To put the findings reviewed in context, let us recall a prominent view of how romance forms, which says:

Men’s passion and desire “sparks the initial interaction between potential romantic partners and then passion-based intimacy [i.e. romantic interest and sexual desire] and friendship-based intimacy [i.e. feelings of understanding, warmth, interdependence] continue to develop over time in tandem.”

However, the findings discussed here provide less support for this view and more support for another view that argues the relationship between the two types of intimacy (passion-based and friendship-based) is a two-way street.

This means that sometimes the spark of romance between two strangers later promotes friendship-based intimacy to develop, but quite often the opposite progression occurs: Friendship-based intimacy develops between two friends over months or years before they start to experience romantic interest and sexual desire for each other.

Source: Pexels/Pixabay


When two friends become romantically involved, some might argue these “friends” were always sexually attracted to each other; or becoming friends was simply a strategy or tactic to achieve a romantic goal.

However, the present data on participants’ intentions when forming friendships show 30% were motivated by romantic interest and sexual desire...but 70% were not.

Therefore, we need to question the view that the only way intimacy can develop is as a result of a man expressing his romantic attraction and sexual passion to a woman (in heterosexual relationships). Instead, friends-first romantic initiation, whether initiated by a man or woman, appears to be quite common. Perhaps more importantly, the data shows becoming friends first is often considered the best way to initiate a romantic relationship.

So, it is time researchers started to pay less attention to blind dates and more to how some platonic friendships turn into love and to why this is the path to romance that many people prefer.

Facebook image: novak.elcic/Shutterstock

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