How Can You Tell When You Should Just Be Friends?
Friendship and romance have so much in common that it can be hard to judge.
Posted Jan 14, 2015
Being friends is an important part of any healthy and happy romantic relationship. You’re supposed to marry your best friend, right?
But is being friends enough?
How do you know if your feelings towards someone are truly romantic or if perhaps your relationship would actually thrive best as a platonic friendship?
Where’s the line between friendship and love? Should you be friends or a couple? Which relationship would serve each of you best?
Let’s lay out some factors that people often associate with romantic relationships but are just as important in friendships:
- Attraction. Feeling drawn toward someone is powerful, but not definitively a sign of romantic potential. Mutual attraction is central to friendships: Long-term friends display many of the emotional experiences of longing-for and missing that characterize attraction (Sternberg, 1986), not so unlike the link between romantic partners.
- Intimacy. Closeness matters in romantic relationships, certainly, but it matters in friendships as well. Intimacy is gained through self-disclosure: When people share their feelings, reactions, and concerns with a trusted and responsive friend, they build a closeness that helps sustain the relationship. (Laurenceau, Barrett, & Pietromonaco, 1998)
- Respect. Healthy romantic partnerships are grounded in mutual respect (Hendrick, Hendrick, & Zacchilli, 2011), but so too are friendships. The feelings of admiration you might have for someone do not, in and of themselves, mean you’re well-suited for a romantic relationship. Having friends you admire is a wonderful way to grow and learn, and their respect for you can prove beneficial as well.
- Support. Offering support is the job of both friends and romantic partners. Such support fosters individuals’ ability to thrive (Feeney & Collins, 2014), and is naturally a highly-valued component of a close relationship. Both friends and romantic partners can contribute to your well-being by providing social support.
- Pleasure. Having fun together and enjoying each other’s company characterizes both friendships and romantic partnerships. Just because you like spending time with someone or like someone’s sense of humor doesn’t mean you are on the path towards romance, though it could mean that you have a great foundation for a friendship.
So where do romantic relationships diverge from friendships?
Beyond the sexual component, which is generally a defining feature of romantic relationships and absent from most friendships—one reason “friends with benefits” are often a source of confusion—there are other aspects that can clarify whether two people are well-suited to be joined as romantic partners, not just as friends.
- Shared goals. Romantic partners differ from friends in the extent to which their future paths are aligned. They tend to be inclined toward a similar future and later define with each other a set of shared future expectations that each are able to commit to (e.g., compatible views on religion, gender roles, having kids or not, financial habits). These shared perspectives are not pre-requisites for friendships, but make a big difference in romantic relationships.
- Time and attention. Romantic relationships trump friendships when it comes to time spent together and attention paid to each other (Fazio, Effrein, & Flander, 1981). This is, in many ways, a cognitive-affective component of a partnership, meaning people decide to focus on each other and feel comfortable with the level of attention given and received. When one person is ready to give their time and attention, while the other is not, it could be a recipe for an unbalanced and unsatisfying romantic relationship.
- Interdependence. Rusbult (1980) proposed that a defining feature of romantic relationships is their potential degree of interdependence. Yes, friends depend on each other, but the lives of romantic partners tend to be netted together. When developing a romantic relationship, individuals become increasingly reliant on each other, and this is considered a healthy progression from a “me” and “you” to an “us.” The depth and richness of romantic interdependence differentiates it from friendships.
- Positive illusions. In healthy romantic relationships, individuals are enchanted by their partners. They hold heightened views of the partner, in terms of his or her behaviors, skills, attitudes, perceptions—the list goes on. Such illusions are healthy (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996), and help define romantic relationships versus friendships, as we tend to have more grounded views of our friends.
- Influence. Sure, our friends influence us, affecting our goals, preferences, and perspectives, but our romantic partners have a much stronger pull on who we are. People actually incorporate their romantic partners into their own sense of self. (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991) In other words, people’s self-definitions include their romantic partners, much less so than their friends.
- Commitment. Often overlooked, the role of commitment is arguably the most important factor in deciding whether a relationship will be a friendship or a romantic partnership. The decision to be in a romantic relationship predicts stability (Rusbult, 1980), and reflects an intentional choice to work on creating a romantic partnership.
Deciding the future of a relationship is a weighing of costs, benefits, alternative options, expectations, and investments already made into a partnership (Rusbult, 1980), but such weighing should reflect an appreciation for the work that goes into maintaining a partnership. While many friends could be good partners, it is a decision and commitment toward a life with someone that promotes relationship success.
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Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 241-253.
Fazio, R. H., Effrein, E. A., & Falender, V. J. (1981). Self-perceptions following social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(2), 232-242.
Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2014). A new look at social support A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Advanced online publication.
Hendrick, C., Hendrick, S. S., & Zacchilli, T. L. (2011). Respect and love in romantic relationships. Actas de Investigación Psicológica, 1(2), 316-329.
Laurenceau, J. P., Barrett, L. F., & Pietromonaco, P. R. (1998). Intimacy as an interpersonal process: the importance of self-disclosure, partner disclosure, and perceived partner responsiveness in interpersonal exchanges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1238-1251.
Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 79-98.
Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(2), 172-186.
Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological review, 93(2), 119-135.