Friends First: Falling in Love Without Dating

4 min read

Friends sometimes become friendlier over time, leading to budding romance in some cases, and awkward conversations in others. But as I have previously discussed regarding how friends fall in love[i], it happens frequently, often leading to healthy relationships and happy marriages. Many of us remember the growing attraction depicted in the movie When Harry Met Sally, which inspired some people to question whether they should nourish a cross-sex “crush” with the potential of fanning the flame. In many cases where friendship grows into love, there are indeed many ways in which good friends make good partners.

Interestingly, research often focuses on romance that is sparked between strangers, when in a significant number of cases, it is relational insiders, not outsiders, who become romantic interests.

Source: 5688709/Pixabay

Source: 5688709/Pixabay

Dating Strangers, or Fanning The Flames of Friendship

D.A. Stinson et al. (2022) examined how romance develops, as well as how studies have covered the progression in a piece entitled “The Friends-to-Lovers Pathway to Romance.”[ii] They begin by recognizing that although there are multiple pathways to romance, the science of relationship study does not reflect this variety; instead focusing primarily on romance that builds between strangers as opposed to friends. They note that this type of concentration might make sense if friends-first romances were atypical or unfavorable, but note that their research reveals the opposite.

Conducting a meta-analysis of seven samples of university students and crowdsourced adults, Stinson et al. found that two-thirds described being friends first, which was also the preferred method of initiation among university students. Taken together, their studies affirm that although overlooked by relationship science to some extent, being friends before the initiation of a romantic relationship is not only prevalent, but preferred.

Pathway From Platonic to Romantic

Stinson et al. note that relationship scientists recognize at least two kinds of intimacy. One is friendship-based,defined as “a cognitive and emotional experience comprising psychological interdependence, warmth, and understanding, related to the companionate love that nurtures long-term intimate bonds.” The other is passion-based intimacy, defined as “a primarily emotional experience comprising romance and positive arousal, related to the passionate love that typifies novel, and often sexual, relationships.” Stinson et al. also note that the dominant dating script proposes men’s passion as the sensation that sparks initial interaction between potential paramours, after which time passion-based intimacy and friendship-based intimacy develop concurrently. But does this reflect reality? Apparently, the answer is a matter of perspective and perception—of the individuals involved, as well as interested observers.

Romantic Rumors

Many cross-friendships spark more than romance; they spark rumors. Researchers have found that celebrity websites often promote the idea that men and women cannot be “just friends.” Andrea McDonnell and Clare M. Mehta (2016) explored this issue in a piece entitled “We Could Never Be Friends: Representing Cross-Sex Friendship on Celebrity Gossip Web Sites.”[iii] They note that although psychological scholarship is mixed on the topic of cross-sex friendship, media representations often reflect the homosocial norm, which asserts a preference to spend time with members of one’s same sex, implying that cross-sex relationships are necessarily sexual in nature.

Regardless of individual views on the homosocial norm, many employees can relate to McDonnell and Mehta’s observation that cross-sex friendships can spark suspicion and scrutiny by others who assume such relationships are romantic or sexual. This is true even in a day and age where they are not only common in general, but commonplace in the workplace.

For coworkers, neighbors, or “just” friends who find themselves wondering if there might be the potential to move a relationship to the next level, slow and steady positive development of trust and common interests often evolve not just in the presence of friends and family, colleagues and coworkers, but with their full endorsement. As demonstrated by many couples who have successfully navigated this “dateless” path down the aisle to the altar, easy, comfortable, relationships often develop into healthy romantic, lifelong partnerships of love and respect.

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