Picture the scene: Two people falling in love – inevitably, irresistibly in love. It’s a beautiful sight.
How do you see it happening? Are they two strangers catching eyes across a crowded bar, then instantly clicking on their very first date?
Or… are they two friends falling in love? Slowly developing feelings, perhaps even to their own surprise?
Movies certainly paint one picture—but new research is shaking the prevailing psychological wisdom to its core.
What’s taught doesn’t match the reality
Led by Dana Anthony Stinson of the University of Victoria, a recent study suggests that psychology journals and textbooks focus too much on romance sparking in a serendipitous encounter between two strangers, when in actual fact most couples start out as friends. What’s more, the researchers also note that many people looking for love prefer the friends-first route to romance.
For the study—aptly titled “The friends-to-lovers pathway to romance: prevalent, preferred, and overlooked by science”—the psychologists searched the online databases of highly influential journals for previous research into how people initiate relationships, using terms like friendship, first date, attraction, relationship beginning, friends with benefits. They found that only 18% of papers focused on friends-first initiation, meaning most instead emphasized romance forming between strangers.
Okay—so maybe this figure just reflects reality. Maybe most couples do start out as strangers. The researchers wanted to find out, so they conducted a meta-analysis of seven studies carried out over 18 years. To their surprise, they found that most couples actually start out as friends.
So what is the best way to find a date?
The researchers conducted a final investigation to learn more about the nature of friends-first romantic initiation. They asked participants (both coupled and single) to select what they considered to be the best way to find a date: on a blind date; through friends or family; at school, college, or university; at work, church, or a party; online; at a bar; or by nurturing an existing friendship into something more. The top 3 responses were pretty insightful:
- nurturing an existing friendship into something more (47%)
- through friends (18%)
- at school, college, or university (18%).
The researchers asked additional questions of participants who were in a relationship and had been friends first. They found that only a small proportion had been attracted to one another from the start (12%) or had always wanted there to be something more to the dynamic (18%). 70% said both physical and emotional attraction only developed later.
Are friendship and dating a two-way street?
To put this new study’s findings into context, Stinson et al. remind us that the prevailing wisdom in psychology has been that the man’s attraction to the woman “sparks the initial interaction between potential romantic partners”, and that only afterward do “passion-based intimacy [romantic interest and sexual attraction] and friendship-based intimacy [feelings of warmth, understanding, and interdependence] continue to develop”.
Yet the researchers’ results don’t support this view. They argue instead that the relationship between the two types of intimacy described above is a “two-way street”. Sometimes the “spark” (passion-based intimacy) then promotes friendship-based intimacy, but quite often the exact opposite happens: People start out as friends, and only later experience romantic interest and sexual desire.
We’ve all been there: If you’ve ever dated a friend or know someone who has, people readily assume these so-called “friends” were always attracted to each other, or else that they became friends simply with a view to becoming romantically involved. The data from Stinson et al. doesn’t corroborate that. They found that only 30% of friends-to-lovers were motivated by romantic interest or sexual desire from the start. For 70%, romance simply grew organically between them.
So perhaps the time has come for psychologists to pay less attention to Hollywood meet-cutes. They’re fun, but they don’t really reflect the reality for most couples! The majority of relationships begin as platonic friendships—and if this new study is anything to go by, that’s the route to romance most people prefer, too.
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