Two-thirds of couples start out as friends, research finds

When Harry first met Sally, he asserted men and women could not be friends because the “sex part always gets in the way”.

But new research suggests roughly two-thirds of couples start out as friends and maintain a platonic relationship for long periods before sparking a romance.

While the coming together of two strangers – whether through sideways glances at a coffee shop or a swipe of a dating app – is well chronicled in film and the focus of much sociological research, not as much is known about choosing a partner that is going to work for you, said Danu Anthony Stinson, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Victoria, Canada.

Stinson and her co-authors investigated the experience of nearly 1,900 university students and crowdsourced adults (including 677 who were married or in a common law partnership), all of whom were asked whether they were friends with their current romantic partner before they became romantically involved.

Most participants (68%) reported that their current or most recent romantic relationship began as a friendship, regardless of gender, age, education levels or ethnic groups. The rate of friends-first initiation was even higher among 20-somethings and within LGBTQ+ communities, with 85% of such couples saying their romance began as a friendship.

How does a platonic relationship turn romantic and what really is the distinction between friends and lovers is a question that is still being unpicked, Stinson said.

The written accounts of study participants were hilariously all over the place, she said. Some described holding hands, family introductions, going on trips together, cuddling by the fire, and even having sex, as friendship. Others categorised those exact behaviours as romantic.

“So there is a huge, messy, blurry line between friendship and romance … it emphasises how you really cannot define for somebody else what a friendship is versus what a romance is,” she said. “They define it for themselves.”

In the study, roughly 300 university students were also asked how long their “friends phase” lasted and whether they preferred to be friends before taking things in a romantic direction. On average, the “friends first” initiators were friends for nearly 22 months before the relationship turned romantic and almost half of the total sample thought that friends-first initiation was the best way to start a new romantic relationship, versus the other options presented such as meeting at a party or online, the researchers wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“You get people complaining about being ‘friend-zoned’ … based on this idea that relationships between men and women are somehow, by default, sexual,” said Stinson. “But when we actually ask people, they say they have friendships with people – of all genders – that they could potentially theoretically be attracted to one day. Sometimes they act on them and sometimes they don’t.”