Is It Common For Friends To Become Lovers?

The friends-to-lovers pathway to romance is more common than you think, says a new psychology study.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 15, 2021

A new study published in the academic journal Social Psychology and Personality Science suggests that romances where partners start out as friends rather than strangers or acquaintances are more likely to be the rule than the exception in romantic relationships — and that this fact has been overlooked by decades of research in relationship science.

"There is more than one pathway to romance, but relationship science does not reflect this reality," say the authors of the study, led by Danu Stinson of the University of Victoria in Canada. "Our research reveals that relationship initiation studies published in popular journals and cited in popular textbooks overwhelmingly focus on romance that sparks between strangers and largely overlook romance that develops between friends. This limited focus might be justified if 'friends-first' initiation was rare or undesirable, but our research reveals the opposite."

To be exact, the researchers estimate that 68% of romantic relationships start from a place of friendship. This is based on self-report data from seven separate studies in which 1,897 people were asked to respond to the following question:

"What was your relationship with your partner before you became romantically involved?" (a) friends; (b) a friend of a friend; (c) acquaintances; (d) worked together; (e) had never met before (strangers); (f) other

However, the researchers also found that approximately 80% of published research focused on the "dating an acquaintance or stranger" pathway to romance while only a small fraction of studies explored the "friends-first" romantic pathway.

"This means that the field of close relationships has only a partial understanding of how romantic relationships actually begin," state the researchers.

To better understand the dynamics of the friends-to-lovers pathway to romance, the scientists asked research participants to evaluate some of the qualities of their friends-first romantic relationships. They found that the friends-to-lovers pathway was overwhelmingly rated as the best way to initiate a romance — better than meeting through mutual friends, better than meeting at school or college, and better than meeting at work. Interestingly, people viewed romances initiated online or on a blind date as two of the worst ways to start a romance.

Ways To Initiate A Romance, Ranked From Best To Worst (Stinson et al., 2021)

  1. A friendship turning romantic
  2. Through mutual friends
  3. At school/university/college
  4. At a social gathering or party
  5. At a place of worship/religious community
  6. Through work
  7. Through family connections
  8. At a bar or social club
  9. In an online community/social media
  10. Through an online dating service
  11. On a blind date

The scientists also found that only 18% of people reported that their friends-first partner intentionally became friends with them because they were romantically attracted or interested. It was much more common that people became friends naturally and then became attracted or interested in one another after getting to know each other. On average, friends-first partners were friends for almost two years before becoming romantic partners.

Other research suggests that physical attractiveness may play an important role in the friends-to-lovers pathway to romance. A 2015 study found that the more dissimilar couples were on ratings of physical attractiveness, the longer the couples had known each other prior to entering a romantic relationship. In other words, couples who knew each other for less than a year prior to dating tended to be equally physically attractive (attractive men with attractive women, not-so-attractive men with not-so-attractive women), but couples who had known each other for more than a year prior to dating showed no evidence of similarity in physical attractiveness.

"Studying friends-first initiation may be a fruitful enterprise that not only promises to expand extant theories of relationship initiation, but which also promises to shed light on new aspects of relationship initiation that could shift our understandings of how romantic relationships begin and progress," conclude the researchers.