Dating Tips

Research Shows Most Romantic Couples Started as Friends (Not To Ruin Your Meet-Cute Dreams, or Anything)

Dominique Michelle Astorino

Photo: Getty Images/ Adam Hester
For single folks ready to find a romantic partner, dating during quarantine presented it's fair share of challenges, like overcoming the awkwardness of the virtual date, making sure you're on the same page about COVID safety, and deciphering whether you trust the person enough to meet up in person. But if you're now considering downloading Bumble and Hinge for what feels like the millionth time, or you're perhaps banking on meeting a special someone at your friend's upcoming rescheduled wedding, you may want to pause and instead just scroll through your current phone contacts. That's because according to new research, being friends first before dating is the most common way that romantic relationships begin.

In a July meta-analysis of seven studies published in Social, Psychological, and Personality Science, researchers examined results from 1,900 college students and older adults and found that 66 percent of people are platonic friends with their significant other prior to falling in love and starting a romantic relationship. According to the study authors, these results indicate that “friends-first initiation is a prevalent and preferred method of romantic relationship initiation that has been overlooked by relationship science.”

So does this mean any dreams you may have of a meet-cute romance (a type of first interaction that the advent of dating apps has already largely shifted) are dead? And do you instead need to start looking through your current texts to find your soul mate? Well, no—not quite. According to relationship expert and licensed therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT, these findings about being friends first before dating simply offer an opportunity (not a requirement) to build a new romantic relationship upon the foundation of friendship. And to be sure, that applies to new friendships as well.

Why being friends first before dating can prove to be an excellent foundation for romance

To explain why being friends first before dating can translate so well to a healthy relationship, Wright looks to research from John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Gottman Institute, which focuses on relationship and marital areas of clinical psychology. "If you look at their Sound Relationship House—their theory for long-term, happy, healthy, successful relationships—you'll see that ‘love maps,’ is at the bottom," Wright says. "This term describes how your partner experiences the world; typically, these are things that we know about our friends.”

In essence, the things that make us good friends make us good partners, too. So it makes sense that the components of a friendship would apply to a long-lasting, happy romance. “Understanding our partners as a human is an incredibly important part of any relationship,” says Wright.

Friendship can play into dating in a number of different ways

What these study results don't contend is that you're destined to spend the rest of your life with your pal from nursery school. That is, you can cultivate friendships with new potential partners just as you can date people you're already friends with. What's ultimately important is that at the heart of any romantic relationships is a friendship.

“You can absolutely cultivate friendship among [new] people you date,” says Wright. To help you do so, she suggests practicing a specific exercise in introspection: “Ask yourself what the differences are between your friendships and your romantic or sexual relationships, and make sure that what you have present in your friendships is also present in your romantic and sexual partners.”

And if you're worried that being friends first before dating might ultimately ruin a valuable friendship in your life should the romance not work out, Wright asks you to reconsider those fears. “I push back on this,” she says. “There is no reason why two adults can't try to change the context of their relationship and ‘go back’ to what it was if [the romantic relationship is] no longer serving them or working.

Consider that a friendship is a relationship, a partnership is a relationship, and a marriage is a relationship. "All of our relationships evolve over time—whether we're naming them or not,” Wright says. So feel free to keep dating whomever your heart desires—but don't overlook the friends already in your sphere, and don't forget to cultivate friendships with new potential parters as well.

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