It’s a topic that has been the subject of numerous Hollywood rom-coms: can men and women be friends and nothing more? For the most part, films will depict that no, they can’t be. You need only watch When Harry Met Sally to be reminded of the fact, with Harry asserting the “sex part always gets in the way”. While there have been other notable films that also showcase the fall into love and out of friendship between two people, many still maintain that platonic friendships are healthy and vital to our daily lives. We don’t need to be romancing our friendships to simply enjoy them for what they are. Still, researchers aren’t quite convinced and as one new study points out, perhaps friendships are actually the better building block for a lasting romantic love.
Research has shown that two-thirds of couples start out as friends and maintain this platonic relationship for an average of 22 months before sparking a romantic connection. Danu Anthony Stinson, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Victoria, Canada, wanted to investigate how individuals choose a partner that’s going to work for them. Stinson and her co-authors examined the experience of nearly 1,900 university students and crowdsourced adults, all of whom were asked whether they were friends with their current romantic partner before they became romantically involved.
68 per cent of respondents said 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 per cent of these couples saying their romance began as a friendship.
But while it’s interesting to note friendship can turn romantic, the line between the two is incredibly blurry. These days, some consider casual sex in keeping with their friendship, while others would consider holding hands and kissing as romantic. “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 romance is,” said Stinson. “They define it for themselves.”
Asked how long their “friends phase” lasted, it appeared those who were “friends first” remained so for nearly 22 months before things turned romantic. Those involved in the study also suggested that they believed the friends-first initiation to be the best way to start a romantic relationship, compared to things like meeting online, at a party, or being set-up.
“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.”
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