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Online dating is the most common way for couples to meet these days, but sometimes it feels like it’s set up to disappoint you. You swipe right and don’t match. You start a chat and the conversation fizzles. You go on a date and there’s no spark. You meet someone you actually like and never hear from them again.
I have a suggestion: Try dating a friend instead.
That’s what I did—my partner and I were friends for nearly five years before we started dating—and I think we are onto something. Of course, a couple can be happy no matter how long they knew each other beforehand, and love at first sight is a wonderful concept. But love at 1,000th sight can be a special delight, and not just in my biased opinion. Jessica Cameron, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba who has researched the “friends-to-lovers pathway,” told me that she suspects that couples who start as friends have, on average, happier and stronger relationships. She’s currently designing a research project to see if that’s true.
Cameron’s hunch is based in part on the idea that romantic relationships are more fulfilling when they include genuine friendship. “Development of that friendship-based intimacy—all of that trust and support, the warmth and closeness—that is really crucial,” she said. “So when you have that base” of friendship, “theoretically you have a better chance of being in a happier relationship.”
This concept dovetails with the rise, since the mid-1960s, of the “self-expressive” marriage in America—the notion that a committed relationship should be a path to self-actualization and personal growth. Hundreds of years ago, researchers argue, people regarded marriage as a pragmatic arrangement for securing life’s basic needs, and then, starting in the mid-19th century, looked to it as a vehicle for romantic love. These days, people expect even more. The ideal partner is “someone you share a ton of interests with, who you find meaning and fulfillment with,” Reuben Thomas, a sociologist at the University of New Mexico who studies how couples meet, told me.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that many people end up in a relationship with a friend. Exactly how many is unclear; a remarkable two-thirds of respondents in one recent survey said that their current romantic partner was first a friend, but that figure may not apply broadly, because the study polled only college students and online survey-takers and wasn’t representative of the general population.
This statistical murkiness is partially a result of the fact that research on how relationships start has historically focused on chemistry between strangers and overlooked romance between friends. Nonetheless, Thomas guesses that the general trends are that dating a friend became more common over the 20th century, as more opportunities for male-female friendships arose, but then less common in the 21st, as online dating displaced other ways that couples meet.
Dating a friend might feel riskier than dating a stranger—it certainly did for me. When I shared my feelings with my now-partner one evening years after we became friends, I was terrified of messing up a close friendship. This is a common and understandable fear, but I wonder if it’s a little overblown. The transition from friendship to dating is often framed as a binary—you’re not dating, and then you are—but in my experience, it was more gradual. By the time one friend feels compelled to bring up the subject, they may not be taking a gamble so much as responding to a dynamic that’s already been building. This is easy for me to say now, knowing how things played out, but even if my partner hadn’t had reciprocal feelings or if we’d eventually broken up, I like to think that our friendship was strong enough to continue, even if in a changed form.
This pathway to romance can be worth the risk. For one thing, couples who started as friends have the pleasant knowledge that they originally spent time together simply because they enjoyed each other’s company, rather than because of the other, more superficial reasons that some people couple up, such as earning power or physical attractiveness.
In fact, a 2015 study found that couples who were friends before dating differed more in their levels of physical attractiveness than couples who weren’t. The researchers speculated that either the friends-first couples fell for each other’s inner qualities instead of their looks, or they became more physically attracted to each other because of those inner qualities. Either way, it’s a lovely story.
Another strength of relationships that start as friendships is that couples have a fuller sense of who their partner is from the beginning. In my experience, this makes the giddy early stages of a relationship even more enjoyable—with my partner, our preexisting bond served as a kind of tailwind that carried us through the sometimes-awkward moments that arise during the first few dates with someone new. Going through that phase with someone I trusted was more fun than going through it with someone I was trying to figure out if I could trust. In fact, the “after” wasn’t all that different from the “before”—just as we had when we were friends, we talked constantly and vulnerably, and frequently texted when we were apart.
Dating a friend is also nice from a practical standpoint. It means already knowing what someone is like when they aren’t in courting mode, aiming to impress. This can help you make an informed decision about starting a relationship, and maybe spare you from discovering a glaring incompatibility after dating someone for weeks or months.
What’s more, relationships that emerge from friendships start from a place of care and warmth—which can mean avoiding the exhausting game-playing that can arise between two dating-weary strangers conditioned to look out for themselves. In the early stages of online dating, both parties have so little information about each other that they scrutinize (or at least I did) how each outfit or attempt at a joke might come off to a stranger. Dating someone who already knew me brought all the warm, fluttery feelings of starting a new relationship, but added the relief of dropping that self-questioning. It came with its own set of scary questions—Will this relationship work? Will we each come out of this okay?—but those felt like things that we, being friends and not just Tinder matches, could talk about together.
Because friends have this history of mutual respect, Cameron hypothesizes that being friends first has the potential to set couples up for a more egalitarian relationship. In one study she conducted, participants selected more gender-equal scripts in hypothetical dating scenarios—for example, around who plans the date or who pays for it—when the couple in question started as friends than when they started as strangers.
Of course, having a built-in friendship dynamic can introduce problems as well. “A lot of what causes conflict in couples is unmet or mismet expectations, and when you are friends with somebody, you have different expectations of them … [than] in a romantic relationship,” Sejal Barden, a counselor-education professor at the University of Central Florida, told me. For example, two friends may have a different understanding than two partners of how much quality time they should spend together, and Barden says that some couples, to their detriment, don’t discuss what might need to change now that they aren’t just friends.
And in the bigger picture, if everyone were to date a friend, Thomas pointed out, society would probably become even more stratified by race, class, and education than it already is. That’s because people’s friends tend to be more similar to them on those dimensions than other people are. “When couples meet as strangers, they are more likely to cross boundaries,” he said.
That is an argument, though, for making society’s boundaries easier to cross, not for avoiding dating a friend—which, I maintain, can be amazing. The payoffs are abundant, but the challenge, and stress, lies in deciding to broach the subject of dating and initiating a moment you can’t undo. Sometimes, people need a push. It is hard to say why I started that conversation with my partner at the particular moment in time that I did, but I think it’s because I knew that, in a few months, she’d be moving away from the city we lived in. I sensed I’d be left wondering about what could have been if I didn’t say anything and our lives took separate paths.
Life can give you helpful deadlines that way, but maybe we should try not to rely on them. If you have a friend you’ve been thinking about having a similar conversation with, my advice is: Don’t wait for a nudge.