Most couples today meet as friends first rather than dating

David Ludden

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If you’re looking for love in your life, what do you have to do? The answer, in Western society at least, is that you have to date other people. We even have clear rules for playing the dating game.

The Dating Game

According to the rules for the dating game, the role you play depends on your sex. If you’re a man, you need to be constantly on the lookout for attractive and available women. Once you’ve found one, you’ve got to screw up the courage to charm her and ask her out on a date. Then you have to plan an evening of excitement (or several) in the hopes of winning her heart.

If you’re a woman, you need to always look your best, and you have to act flirty whenever you’re in the presence of an attractive and available man, hoping he’ll take the hint and ask you out. While on your date, you need to act enticing, but not too much. After all, you don’t want to give away the goods before you’ve got some kind of commitment from him.

This dating script developed in the 1950s as Westerners started attaching greater importance to marrying for love. It’s also highly sexist in the way it assigns the male the active role and the female the passive one. Still, it’s held as a cultural ideal some seven decades later, despite advances in Western society regarding gender equality.

Both online dating sites and online dating advice are quite popular destinations on the internet. But how many people nowadays actually find their intimate partners through good old-fashioned dating? That’s the question that University of Victoria (Canada) psychologist Danu Stinson and colleagues explored in an article they recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

How Do Most Couples Meet Nowadays?

The researchers begin with the observation that psychologists still work under the assumption that dating is the standard method for forming intimate relationships, and they found over a hundred published studies on the dynamics of initial attraction and dating. At the same time, they also noticed that there’s been much discussion on social media in recent years about a different pathway toward forming intimate relationships, namely by being friends first.

Thus, there seem to be two routes to intimacy in Western society—dating-first and friends-first. But how common are these two methods?

To answer this question, the researchers surveyed 1,897 Americans involved in a romantic relationship, including a mix of both college students and older adults. They were asked whether they had been friends with their current partner before becoming lovers, and if so, how long they’d been friends before they became romantically involved.

Overall, about two-thirds of the respondents indicated that they’d been friends with their current partner first. Furthermore, that friendship had lasted about a year on average before they became intimate. In other words, the dating-first pathway to intimacy may be the cultural ideal, but friendship-first is the cultural reality.

Demographic Differences

However, when the researchers divided the participants into different demographic groups, they found that the ratio of dating-first to friends-first pathways varied considerably. Among heterosexuals, those over 30 were more likely to have found their partner through dating than were those under 30, suggesting that the friends-first pathway to romance may be a growing trend in American society. Still, friends-first was more common than dating-first in both groups, with 69% of the over-30s and 84% of the under 30s reporting that they had gotten to know their current partner that way.

The dating script is inherently heterosexual in its assignment of different roles to men and women. Thus, it comes as no surprise that few respondents in same-sex relationships reported meeting their partner through dating. Rather, friends-first seems to be the standard pathway to intimacy among sexual minorities.

Stinson and colleagues also found that a large minority of those who got to know their intimate partner as a friend first went through an intermediate stage of being “friends-with-benefits” before becoming an “official” romantic couple. In recent years, there’s been discussion in the relationship science literature on the likely outcome of friends-with-benefits relationships, with many researchers doubting they can develop into lasting and satisfying intimate partnerships. While these data don’t answer the question of how frequently friends-with-benefits move on to committed relationships, they nonetheless show that such transitions can often be successful.

Friends First as a Growing Trend

In a follow-up study, the researchers asked college students to indicate their preferred method of meeting a romantic partner. Overwhelmingly, they said that a friendship turned into a romance was the best approach (47%), followed by meeting at school or through mutual friends, both tied for second place at 18% each. Very few (less than 1% each) said they thought looking for a romantic partner in a bar, through an online dating service, or on a blind date were good approaches.

The results of this study by Stinson and colleagues show that dating is not the most common way for people to get to know their romantic partners. Dating is a game that some play well, but it’s far from the only way to find love in your life, nor is it even the most common.

If the dating scene isn’t working out for you, perhaps it’s time to follow some home-spun advice. Instead of trying to up your game, just be yourself. Go out, get to know people, let them get to know you. And instead of looking for love, let love come looking for you.

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David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. As the author of two books and a popular blog for Psychology Today, he mainly writes about communication in relationships and the things couples can do to have more satisfying interactions.

Lawrenceville, GA
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