A new study published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that two thirds of romantic couples started out in a platonic relationship.
This “friends-first” initiation of romance is often overlooked by researchers. Examining a sample of previous studies on how relationships begin, the authors found that nearly 75% focused on the spark of romance between strangers. By contrast, only 8% centered on romance that develops among friends over time.
“There are a lot of people who would feel very confident saying that we know why and how people choose partners and become a couple and fall in love, but our research suggests that is not the case,” said lead author Danu Anthony Stinson of the University of Victoria in Canada.
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“We might have a good understanding of how strangers become attracted to each other and start dating, but that’s simply not how most relationships begin,” she said.
68% of romantic couples started out as friends
The team analyzed data from nearly 1,900 participants. About 900 were university students, and about a thousand were older adults.
All in all, 68% reported that their current or most recent romantic relationship began as a friendship, versus for example meeting at a party or online.
There was little variation across gender, level of education, or ethnic groups. But the rate of friends-first initiation was even higher among 20-somethings and within LGBTQ+ communities. In those groups 85% reported that their relationship began as a friendship.
Most romantic couples are “friends first” for a year or two
Among university students, “friends-first initiators” were friends for one-to-two years before beginning a romantic relationship.
Researchers noted that the vast majority of these participants reported that they did not enter their friendships with romantic intentions or attraction.
Stinson also noted that the average length of pre-romance friendships means it is likely that the couples were genuine, platonic friends before transitioning to romance.
“Friends first” preferred over meeting at parties or online
Nearly half of the students reported that starting as friends was their preferred way of developing a romantic relationship, making it far and away more popular than other options presented, such as meeting at a party or online.
Given the prevalence of romantic couples who that begin platonically, Stinson would like to see further studies examining this kind of relationship initiation.
She also hopes that this research will push people to revisit their preconceived notions about love and friendship. Stinson notes that we are often taught that romance and friendship are dissimilar types of relationships that form in different ways and meet distinct needs.
“Our research suggests that the lines between friendship and romance are blurry,” says Stinson, “and I think that forces us to rethink our assumptions about what makes a good friendship but also what makes a good romantic relationship.”
Related: New study finds not knowing how to flirt is the main reason behind “involuntary singlehood.”
Study: “The friends-to-lovers pathway to romance: Prevalent, preferred, and overlooked by science”
Authors: Danu Stinson, Jessica Cameron, and Lisa Hoplock
Published in: Social Psychological and Personality Science
Publication date: July 12, 2021
Photo: by Karen Warfel from Pixabay