Key Points: Strong and committed romantic relationships often begin as friendships. Partners who fall in love instantly are more dissimilar, personality-wise, than are couples who begin as friends. This is important because on average, people prefer a partner whose personality resembles their own, especially when it comes to traits such as emotional stability and extraversion.
Have you ever known someone for years, only to one day view them differently? Where you once saw a colleague, neighbor, or classmate, suddenly you see a potential romantic partner.
Having a crush on a companion, personally or professionally, is complicated. First, you want to know if your feelings are reciprocated. If you suspect they are, the next question relates to the ways in which romantic involvement could impact your relationship—an analysis that is particularly dicey in a professional context. What if it causes drama in the workplace? What if you break up? You would ask yourself the same questions if your new crush was a neighbor, colleague, or member of your social circle.
But before predicting the disastrous demise of a relationship that has not even begun, consider the fact that attraction to a good friend is not necessarily negative. Research reveals that quality relationships often began as quality friendships.
Friendship Allows One to Gauge Personality, Including Potential Similiarites
Researchers recognize and have studied the overlap between friendship and romance. Dick P. H. Barelds and Pieternel Barelds-Dijkstra studied this issue in “Love at First Sight or Friends First?”[i] Studying a sample of 137 couples who were married or cohabiting, they examined the association between relationship onset, personality similarity, and relationship quality. They found that partners who “fell in love at first sight” developed a romantic relationship more quickly, but exhibited more dissimilarity personality-wise regarding emotional stability, autonomy, and extraversion (although this group did not report lower relationship quality).
Specifically, with respect to personality characteristics, Barelds and Barelds-Dijkstra note that such characteristics influence the quality of marriage, because unlike attributes such as socio-economic background and physical appearance, understanding partner personality differences takes time. Partners who get to know each other gradually are no doubt better able to discern different personality traits and dispositions, and are often in a good position to decide whether a particular friend, colleague, or neighbor would be a good fit.
Friendship-First Relationships May Be More Compatible and More Intimate
In order to maximize relationship quality, potential paramours are well-advised to take the time to get to know each other first, before taking their relationship to the next level. The researchers found that partners who were friends before they became romantically involved had invested more time in the getting-to-know-you phase of relationships development, and demonstrated more similar personalities than those who fell in love at first sight, and lovers who they described as in “in between relationships.”
They conclude that people prefer partners who have similar personalities, but are only able to accurately select such matches when they have the time and opportunity to get to know each other. When they do, the authors note that partners prefer personality characteristics that prior research has found to be related to long-term relational success: autonomy, emotional stability, and extraversion.
But there’s more. Barelds and Barelds-Dijkstra note that friendship-first unions were characterized by higher levels of commitment and intimacy, which prior research has referred to as “companionate” love. They note that couples in what they describe as “in between relationships” reported less companionate love than couples who were friends first, as well as those who fell in love at first sight.
Slow and Steady Dating Sparks Success
Relationships built on good foundations have the potential to grow strong and sturdy. When it comes to informed, intelligent partner preference, it is often within established friendships that we find ourselves in the best position to accurately discern personality traits.
Indeed, we often have the friends that we do because we gravitate towards and enjoy spending time with others who make us feel comfortable, often due to shared values and interests. It is no surprise that some of the most successful romantic unions grow out of healthy relationships of trust and similarity—often based on strong friendship. So spending time getting to know someone as a friend before considering something more appears to be a wise, practical predicate to forming a quality relationship.
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[i] Barelds, Dick P. H., and Pieternel Barelds-Dijkstra. 2007. “Love at First Sight or Friends First? Ties among Partner Personality Trait Similarity, Relationship Onset, Relationship Quality, and Love.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 24 (4): 479–96. doi:10.1177/0265407507079235.