First Comes Friendship, Then Comes Marriage
Every famous love story takes us on a journey. Look closely and you'll notice that most romantic stories follow one of three common journeys, or "pipelines."
You only have to look to the movies. There's the classic enemies-to-lovers pipeline, where a couple begin their relationship as rivals before falling in love—think "Pride and Prejudice" or "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." Then there are strangers-to-lovers, where two people lock eyes for the first time across a crowded room, like in "Romeo and Juliet." Then there are friends-to-lovers, with a couple insisting their relationship is platonic before they eventually fall in love, as in "When Harry Met Sally" or "13 Going on 30."
Even though the friends-to-lovers pathway is a frequent trope in literature and film, it's not usually considered a cultural norm. However, while a 2021 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science states the friends-to-lovers pathway is rarely included in scientific studies of relationships, researchers found friends-first initiation is a prevalent and preferred method of romance.
It happens a lot more than we think
Annie, 28, and Carl, 28, who requested their full names not be used, are a couple from Wisconsin who began their relationship as college friends. After spending three years in the same friend group, they began to develop romantic feelings for each other.
"I guess it just kind of happened," Annie recalled. "At first, I was scared that it would make things awkward or that we'd have to stop being friends. But when I finally told Carl how I felt, he was so relieved and said that he had felt the same way."
Many of us may find ourselves ignoring or pushing away romantic feelings for friends out of fear of ruining the friendship. But according to a survey in the 2021 relationship study, roughly 68 percent of romantic relationships stem from an initial friendship.
In fact, two-thirds of the almost 1,900 participants claimed to have been friends with their partners before becoming a couple. The pathway was also found to be exceptionally popular among university students. "Not only is friends-first initiation the most common type of initiation, but it is also a preferred method of initiation among university students," the study stated.
Studying a friends-first romantic initiation
As the relationship study explained, there seems to be a gap between how scientists approach the topic of romance and the reality of actual romance. In fact, 80 percent of studies into romance focus on the strangers-to-lovers pathway, even though friends to lovers seem to be more common. As the study put it, "Psychologists have largely overlooked the most prevalent and desirable form of relationship initiation."
Instead, most studies focus primarily on the concept of men approaching women they barely know.
"The script of a heterosexual man pursuing a woman, driven primarily by sexual desire, excludes all sorts of possibilities," explained Amy Duvall, a relationship expert from South Carolina. "These possibilities may include a romantic relationship developing among same-sex friends or even a platonic relationship evolving into a romantic one between a heterosexual man and woman. A friendship-first approach to dating is becoming increasingly prevalent and should be studied in greater depth."
The benefits to the friends-first path
For Annie and Carl, starting off as friends meant they had built a rock-solid foundation before starting their romantic relationship.
"Obviously, we still had to learn things about each other," Carl said. "But I already knew her worst habits, her favorite foods, her pet peeves. It definitely made the day-to-day relationship stuff easier to deal with."
Even though things were a little awkward when they began dating, having a friendship meant Annie and Carl already knew how to communicate.
"Friends-first can be beneficial as you develop a secure base of trust, warmth and understanding," Duvall said. "You're likely to have developed good communication patterns and be able to easily resolve conflict in order to progress the friendship—skills which are sometimes lacking in passion-based intimacy."
'The hormones exchanged through sexual intimacy which creates attachment can often blind partners to potential issues.'
For Annie and Carl, their romance was also based on deep feelings rather than pure physical attraction.
"I guess I did always find Carl attractive, but it wasn't until I saw his personality and got to know him on a deeper level that my feelings really became stronger," Annie said.
As Duvall explained, this type of attraction is usually stronger than raw sexual attraction.
"You're typically able to make a more thorough assessment of your level of compatibility when you're not immediately engaged in physical intimacy," she said. "The hormones exchanged through sexual intimacy which creates attachment can often blind partners to potential issues."
It's clear the friends-first approach to dating is far more common than relationship studies would have us believe, and it may have a better success rate, too. Maybe it's time we stopped worrying about ruining our friendships and started thinking about how going from platonic to romantic could be the best decision we ever make.