sex machines

In the famous movie When Harry Met Sally, there's a scene where Harry says, "Men and women can't be friends because sex always gets in the way."

The implication is that opposite-sex friendships necessarily lead to opposite-sex sexual attraction -- they eventually become friends or interested lovers.

Of course, sexual attraction doesn't always appear in these situations, and not every friendship follows the same path. But it's true. Friendships often turn into love, as was the case with Harry and Sally.

A recent set of studies tried to explore how often people follow the romantic path from friend to lover, because that's something relationship research rarely focuses on.

As part of the study, published in the Journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the authors reviewed 143 articles on the initial stages of a relationship and found that only 18 percent focused on relationships between couples who started out as friends.

Given that most research on relationship priming has focused on relationships that develop between strangers, this might give the impression that the idea of friends priming first is rare in the real world.

But that's not true.

To explore the prevalence of friend-first relationships, the authors conducted a meta-analysis of seven studies involving about 1,900 adults in the United States and Canada. Results showed that, on average, 68 percent of participants said they had been friends before they became lovers.

When looking at different sexual orientations, the percentage of people in same-sex and/or queer relationships (i.e., two women, two men, or one or more cross-/ non-binary relationships) was even higher than that of people in heterosexual relationships (85%).

So "friends first" initiation ceremonies seem to be common, especially for gay and queer couples.

It also seemed a satisfying way to start a relationship. Researchers also asked 298 young adults online what they thought was the best way to start a relationship. Nearly half (47 percent) said friendship comes first. By contrast, participants were less likely to think it was wise to meet through an online dating service or at a bar.

The study is not without its limitations. First, the results were based largely on college-age, Western and educated participants, who are not necessarily representative of the broader population. Relationship research should further investigate relationships initiated by friends of different cultures and age groups. The way people develop relationships can be quite different, depending on cultural norms and the stage of their lives.

That said, these findings are important because they tell us that people who are studying love initiation would do well to expand their approach. Most research on relationship formation has focused on encounters between strangers. When you consider that mentoring from friends is actually the most common and desirable way to start a relationship, we miss an important gesture by focusing so much on strangers.

The study also raises provocative questions, such as whether relationships born out of friendships develop better over time. To the extent that they have better communication and a closer relationship, they may.

Have you ever been in love with a friend before? How was your experience? Let us know in the comment section below.