Most Romantic Couples Begin as Friends
When Harry met Sally, How I Met Your Mother, Friends. These popular stories share a common theme: Friends become lovers. Is there any truth to these dramatic plots? Do friends become romantic partners in real life?
The answer is yes! In our research, conducted at the University of Manitoba, University of Waterloo, and the University of Victoria, we found that not only are romantic couples platonic friends before they become romantically involved, this path to romance is common.
We asked almost 2,000 Canadian university students and American and Canadian adults if they were friends before they became romantically involved with their current partner.
Two-thirds said yes, they had started their relationships as friends. People of varying ages, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, and ethnicities were more likely to start their romantic relationship as friends than not.
Were some people more likely to be friends before they became a romantic couple? Yes. Younger married people and people in queer relationships were more likely to start their relationships this way.
But Were They Really “Friends” First?
Maybe they had ulterior motives for forming the “friendship” and wanted it to become romantic all along. Our studies suggest that is unlikely, or at least not common. We asked some students whether they or their partner started the friendship with the purpose of becoming romantic partners and 70% said that they hadn’t! Instead, they were just friends and then became romantically interested after getting to know each other. And on average, that took almost two years for friends to develop and act on those feelings.
We also learned that almost half of these students thought that being friends was the best way to start a dating or romantic relationship. For these folks, meeting online or at a bar was rarely ideal. We suspect that being friends first allows you to get to know the other person on a different level—beyond physical attraction. And this might be a good thing: All the qualities that make a good friend, and the closeness from being friends, strengthen romantic relationships.
Can men and women ever be “just friends” like Harry and Hermione in Harry Potter? Of course! Researchers studying friendships between women and men find that friends often have no romantic interest in each other and even fewer ever act on such desires. Even in our own studies participants were friends for years before things turned romantic.
Why Are We Just Hearing About This Now?
Funny thing—the answer is, researchers really haven’t asked before now. We surveyed existing research studies and the overwhelming majority focus on how two strangers meet, start dating, and become a romantic couple. Cultural assumptions about how relationships begin and the difficulty in studying friendships that turn romantic have probably contributed to this lack of research. By studying friendships that become romantic, we hope to learn more about how most romantic relationships begin. We’ll better understand when Hermione might be just friends with Harry or something more like with Ron.
For Further Reading
Stinson, D. A., Cameron, J. J., & Hoplock, L. B. (2021). The friends-to-lovers pathway to romance: Prevalent, preferred, and overlooked by science. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/19485506211026992
Cameron, J. J., & Curry, E. (2020). Gender roles and date context in hypothetical scripts for a woman and a man on a first date in the 21st century. Sex Roles, 82(5), 345–362. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s11199-019-01056-6
Guerrero, L. K., & Mongeau, P. A. (2008). On becoming “more than friends”: The transition from friendship to romantic relationship. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 175–194). Psychology Press.
Lisa Hoplock received her PhD at the University of Victoria in Canada and now works in the private sector.
Jessica Cameron is a professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, Canada. She investigates the dynamic relationship between the self and interpersonal relationships, focusing on self-esteem, gender, and relationship initiation.