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As a child of divorce (everybody’s favorite way to start off an article about dating), I’ve paid my dues as a skeptic of romantic love. Throughout my quest to gain a better understanding of this powerful, mystic force, I’ve made it a point to seek out long-lasting couples and ask them what they think is the secret sauce to their success. And the most common answer I get? “At the end of the day, we’re best friends.”
Becoming best friends is something that can happen naturally as a relationship progresses, but sometimes the friendship comes first. Some people plant the seeds of friendship many years before romance begins to bloom — unexpectedly, more often than not. And I think there may be something to be said for that approach.
As far as evidence goes, there isn’t a lot of research on friends-first relationships. A few psychologists and sociologists around the world, however, are beginning to stir up the discourse and dismantle the stigma of the friend zone. Let’s get into it.
Professors from the University of Victoria’s psychology department set out to discover more about how romantic relationships start. So they conducted a large study on 1,900 university students and crowdsourced adults.
The study produced an interesting finding: 68% of participants said their most recent or current romantic relationship began as a friendship. In fact, the average amount of time spent as friends before taking the big leap was 22 months.
This can likely be explained by the idea that closeness and emotional intimacy — two of the most important foundations of romance — grow naturally between friends over time. Perhaps even more so if the intent of romance isn’t present.
Why? Often when we initiate a friendship with someone, our goal is to get to know the person for who they are — including all of their quips, quirks, and funky mannerisms. And in this space of authenticity and non-judgment, a genuine connection can flow more freely.
The study mentioned above produced the same results — that almost two-thirds of respondents in couples started out as friends — regardless of gender, age, education, or ethnicity. However, the researchers discovered that the theme of friends-first relationships was more prevalent in one particular demographic: the LGBTQ+ community.
According to the survey responses, 85% of LGBTQ+ couples in their 20s began their love story platonically. A potential explanation for this phenomenon is that gay couples don’t adhere to the same heteronormative dating rules as the rest of society, ones that typically encourage men to prioritize sexual attraction and women to prioritize being attractive above all else.
When people don’t focus on those end goals, it paves the way for more genuine friendships to form. Sometimes a romantic attraction blossoms after this and sometimes not. Either way, the groundwork of friendship has been laid with good intent.
Dating apps and sites are now the number one way American couples connect, but that doesn’t mean that our personal networks don’t hold some significant dating potential.
In fact, according to a study conducted by The Knot, 1 in 10 married couples have known their spouse since their teenage years — and others (4%), even before that. Ultimately, this could have a lot less to do with luck and a lot more to do with the fact that people who went to the same school, grew up in the same town, and had a similar economic status are easier to understand and relate to. Turns out, shared experiences go a long way.
Is there something hot and steamy about the idea of love at first sight? Is meeting someone’s gaze from across the room and feeling an immediate, fateful, almost animalistic attraction to them appealing? Absolutely. But you know what’s also hot and steamy? The slow burn.
The gradual, sometimes unintentional attraction to someone that grows the more you get to know them — and I mean really know them.
Plus, according to a study conducted by the Journal of Social Psychology and Personality, the slow burn may happen a lot more than we think. The results, based on responses from nearly 2,000 individuals, show that 82% of friends-first couples were not initially romantically attracted to each other.
A 2015 study revealed that the more time spent as friends before testing the romantic waters, the larger the discrepancy in physical attractiveness between partners. Both pieces of research point to an idea that our beauty-obsessed culture has been reluctant to embrace: Looks aren’t everything.
Not only are friends-first couples a lot more common than we realized, but they also come with their fair share of benefits. Those include skipping the awkward “getting to know each other” phase, enjoying an established familiarity with their lifestyle and cute (or not-so-cute) habits, and building on a solid foundation of trust and shared experiences.
Another interesting — and, perhaps, overlooked — perk is that heterosexual friends-first partnerships tend to be more egalitarian. Because friendships start from a more genuine, well-intentioned place, friends with a budding romantic interest in one another may feel less pressure to follow typical heterosexual dating rules, such as expecting the man to make the first move or to define the relationship (DTR). Without these antiquated (and, honestly, silly) beliefs bogging people down, true connections can more naturally unfold.
The idea of the friend zone is based on the belief that, if a person can’t serve a romantic or sexual purpose in your life, they aren’t really worth getting to know. Not only is that pretty insulting, but it’s also, according to the results presented here, not always based in reality.
The small body of research that we do have — and, scientists, we’re ready for more when you are — tells us that a significant portion of couples started their relationships platonically. Over time, as trust, closeness, and shared experiences began to grow, so may feelings of love and attraction.
Now, are we suggesting that you should set out to be friends with someone first in hopes that a romantic spark eventually ignites? Not necessarily. In fact, that may be missing the point entirely. Instead, you could simply set the intention to get to know all people from a friendship standpoint and enjoy each individual for the unique light they shine on your life. And if a beautiful, meaningful romance is born out of it, then great! That’ll be the cherry on top of a tasty friendship sundae.