Some think that romance begins when two strangers catch each other’s eye across a crowded room. Others seek it out by swiping right.
But new research suggests that more than two-thirds of all romantic relationships begin as friendships.
It’s a question that Danu Anthony Stinson and her collaborators have been asking for a long time while studying relationship initiation.
“We started asking that question in a lot of the studies that we were running, and over time it became really obvious to us, as we show in the paper, that most people are friends with their romantic partners before they become romantic,” said study author Stinson, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria in Canada.
“And yet we had observed from our own research that we had done and from our understanding of the literature that most theories about relationship formation were not looking at that kind of scenario,” she added.
For the new study, Stinson’s team analyzed data from nearly 1,900 college students and crowd-sourced adults. The investigators found that for 68%, their current or most recent relationship began as a friendship.
Those numbers were even higher among people in their 20s and in people who identified as LGBTQ+, with about 85% of couples beginning as friends.
The investigators said this friends-first initiation of romance is often overlooked by researchers. They reviewed a sample of past studies and found that 75% of them focused on a spark of romance between strangers. About 8% of past studies in the sample looked at romance developing among friends over time.
“Relationships are super important for people’s lives. People want to choose good partners. They want to make choices that are going to help support their well-being, their goals, all these kinds of things,” Stinson said. “Social psychologists want to help them do that. We want to understand how to do that. So, I think we need to start studying this way of relationship initiation that we’ve been ignoring for a really long time.”
Much about how this happens is unknown because there is so little research on it, Stinson said.
However, among university students asked this question by this research team, many were friends for one to two years before becoming romantic. This suggests they were genuinely platonic friends first, according to the study.
Most said they did not enter the friendships with romantic intentions or attraction. Nearly half said they preferred developing a romantic relationship in this way.
Exactly what friendship means can also be wide-ranging and quite different from person to person, Stinson said.
It is possible that proximity may play a role, she said. Also, people who study long-term relationships and what makes them successful have found that those relationships can be built on something called friendship-based intimacy.
“That kind of friendship bond between romantic partners is the foundation of a good romantic relationship,” Stinson said. “I think if we understand that, then you pull back and you say, well, if partners have established some of the characteristics of a good friendship — like mutual responsiveness, like equality, egalitarian values or norms, caring, each person being important — if they’ve already established those things before they become romantic partners, then it could potentially set them onto a good track for having a long-term relationship that’s satisfying to them. We don’t know that yet, but I think that’s a good possibility.”
The findings were published online July 12 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
It makes complete sense that this is how most relationships start, but that also makes it odd that not much research has been done on the subject, said Gary Lewandowski Jr., a professor in the department of psychology at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. He was not involved with the study.
“I think that speaks to our misperceptions of relationships in general, where we focus too much on the passion and the sexual elements of relationships. And that’s actually not what’s best or most important, I should say, for long-term relationships,” Lewandowski said. “And the fact that more relationships, according to this study at least, start from friendships not only makes sense, but it’s also good for relationship longevity in the future.”
When a relationship starts in a bar, on a dating app or a similar context, it is based first on a person’s appearance, he said.
In relationship science, experts often say that passionate love will get people married, but what keeps people married is companionate love, Lewandowski said. Companionate love is two people who enjoy spending time together and get along well. It’s based on mutual respect, trust, kindness and caring, he said.
Stinson would like to further research how platonic friendships shift to romantic relationships, as well as how people decide to pursue the change in their relationships.
“I think how people do that math is really interesting,” Stinson said. “Are some people more cautious about that? Are some people not willing to take that chance? We’re not sure.”
Psychology Today has more on why people fall in love.
SOURCES: Danu Anthony Stinson, PhD, professor, department of psychology, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; Gary Lewandowski Jr., PhD, professor, department of psychology, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, N.J.; Social Psychological and Personality Science, July 12, 2021, online
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