“Friends First” Romantic Relationships Succeed When Expectations Align
Romantic relationships, or call it love if you want, start in only one of the three ways:
- You meet, have romantic interest, fall in love and you find yourself shopping for a baby carriage before you know it.
- You have an existing friend of the opposite sex, and by someone’s choice, you are currently sitting in the “friend zone”.
- You meet, both have romantic interest, and you both make a choice to play it cool, develop your friendship first, and let the romance evolve in some natural manner.
The question of whether a romantic relationship can evolve from a “friends first” starting point, or if you can survive the “friends first”, is materially different than migrating up the romance ladder from the “friend zone”. These topics have always been great fodder for tabletop conversations at happy hour, but it important to understand how, and under what premise a relationship begins. For those who have attractive friends of the opposite sex, or simply want to take things slowly in new romantic relationships, the mechanisms for how you start your romantic relationship matter. The issue is really about expectations that both parties have going into the relationship. How should one start a relationship, or is that even within our control? The threshold question, however, is the following:
Do both parties start the relationship, i.e., friendship, with the intention and expectation of developing a romance?
Relationships usually fail when one of the parties has materially different expectations than the other. Boy meets girl. Boy is wildly attracted to girl. He sees love, sex and soccer balls in the back of his SUV. In that same scenario, the girl has different expectations. Girl is interested. He seems like a great guy: stable, good-looking, has a job and a car (bonus points) BUT for some reason, her heart is playing the “cautious card.” She is not ready to allow herself to dive into a full-blown exploration of a romantic relationship. Maybe she is fresh out of a relationship, is having medical or personal issues that she is managing, or her long-time companion and furry-son cat just passed. Regardless of the reason, boy and girl are not at the same starting point on the racetrack. Before you can ask “Where do they go from a mismatched starting point?”
Understanding “friends first” versus the “friend zone.”
A “friends first” relationship is based on a preexisting friendship in which you both know and trust each other. You have history, knowledge and understanding of each other’s good qualities and flaws. You spend time together because you enjoy each others company and you both find value in the exchange of time and effort required to maintain the friendship.
There is little difference between this type of relationship and a “friend zone” relationship other than two important matters:
- one or both parties have different expectations for the development of the friendship
- at least one of the parties is disconnected from creating a physical connection that, in part, defines a romantic relationship.
The real difference for someone stuck in the “friend zone” is that the other party sees no potential for romantic, physical intimacy. Countless dating gurus discuss how one can try to move out of the “friend zone”, but that is an entirely different, and generally controversial thread.
The real issue goes back to aligned, mutual expectations at the beginning of the relationship. Do both parties seek romance, including a physical, sexual component to complete the relationship. After all, physical intimacy is the only difference between a happy, engaging, fun-loving friendship and a romantic relationship. Physical intimacy is often the springboard to find a deeper sense of connection and partnership. When physical intimacy first happens between couples, and provided it happens in a healthy, mutually agreeable manner without reservation, it breaks down the final barrier of emotional separation. This is the turning point at which the couple moves out of simply a friendship model and into a romantic relationship.
Are your expectations aligned?
It is the expectations that both parties have going into the friendship that matters most. Mutually aligned expectations determine whether the relationship will progress to romantic involvement.
I remember telling a love-interest that I had just started seeing, and to whom I was very attracted, that I believe all great relationships start as “friends first”. I purposefully wanted to cool off the passion and intimacy until we had a baseline of understanding, even if we felt fireworks. It seems that premature intimacy creates a built-in, self-destruct mechanism. I wanted more. I wanted to take a long-term view of any relationship so that at the end of our lives when we are 90 years old walking on the beach, we still want to hold hands because were still great friends. When we discussed this in detail, I was surprised at her response because I was met with resistance over our philosophical beliefs over what makes an enduring relationship.
She believed that we had to start off with a passionate love, hot, fast and intensely deep because it was this passion that would define our relationship. We soon fizzled out because she thought that the “friends first” concept was not for her. I theorized that people are simply wired differently in how they view the starting point of a new relationship. I wanted to test my theory in my own dating life with a few data points and examine the receptivity of the “friends first” concept on new dating interests. Of course there are many variable, including age, background and motivations for each person, but it seemed like a fun social experiment. In each case, I opened the door for this discussion in the early stages of several other new relationships. My results were mixed. I found that roughly an equal number of people embraced the “friends first” concept versus those who felt that a relationship had to start with fireworks and passion.
My theory that people are simply wired differently. Some place a high degree of importance on feeling an immediate sense of passion, while others want to develop a base of friendship based on understanding, respect and shared experience. The discussion has become one of “passion” versus “reason.”
Relationships with misalignment of expectations in the early stages are doomed to fail without communication. You can either have an open discussion about expectations, or leave it to chance and wait to see through less direct verbal and non-verbal communication if you are aligned. Most relationship counselors would suggest that open communication is the preferred route to avoid hard feelings, loss of time in a go-nowhere relationship, or getting stuck in the “accidental” relationship.
Should a relationship start based on a strong, enduring friendship, i.e. “friends first” or passionate and fireworks?