Is Friendship the Best Foundation for Romantic Relationships?

Say what you want about love stories, but there’s nothing more heartwarming than witnessing friends finally realize that they’re destined to be together and all that time spent seeing other people was a waste because their person was right in front of them all along.

The friends-to-lovers trope is a tale as old as time—one that’s serving as a major storyline for season 3 of Bridgerton.

The transformation between Penelope Featherington and Colin Bridgerton is an inspiration for all of us hopeless romantics out there and has all of us debating whether friendship is the best relationship foundation for romance. One person who firmly agrees? Violet Bridgerton herself.

But what about in real life? Outside of the context of Bridgerton’s fantastical Regency world, is friends-to-lovers a winning formula?

To set the record straight on this topic once and for all, I tapped two relationship experts and a renowned couple’s therapist for their insight.

Ahead, the answer to whether friendship first is the key to long-lasting love, how the friends-to-lovers dynamic works IRL, and how to take it to the next level with a friend, along with key signs you should move on.

How the friends-to-lovers dynamic works IRL

Nothing’s more exhilarating than realizing that the person you’ve been looking for has been the friend you’ve been spending time with all along—and it’s even better if you put yourself out there and discover that they feel the same.

However, transitioning from friends to lovers is sadly not a seamless process. No matter how well you know each other, taking your relationship from platonic to romantic requires careful navigation and managing the new expectations this change brings. You might find that you now want to have a standing date night, expect them to discuss travel plans with you before booking, and so forth.

“One partner might expect more time and effort than was previously given in the friendship, and if these expectations aren’t proactively discussed, it can lead to miscommunications and disagreements,” Narkiewicz told me.

She then went on to say that navigating sex and romance can also be difficult, especially if you have intimate knowledge of their dating history. You might remember a steamy tidbit they disclosed about an ex while you’re in bed with them or that they took a date to the restaurant you’re at now, and these unpleasant reminders can evoke feelings of jealousy and insecurities.

Hogan also pointed out that you must also learn how to communicate your needs and desires in the bedroom. Baring your body and telling a new partner which move will make you orgasm can feel awkward, but disclosing that to someone who’s seen you ugly cry with unwashed hair and day-old makeup can feel extra precarious.

And in case you were wondering, questioning whether you made the right decision is totally normal. Dr. Tatkin explained that friends-to-lovers often report feelings of disappointment or fear there’s something “missing” from their relationship.

This is because friends who become lovers don’t experience the euphoria from neurochemicals and hormones like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin that accompany the start of a new relationship and spark that initial attraction.

The good news is that none of this means the friends-to-lovers dynamic can’t work IRL—because it absolutely can. Every relationship is different, and the roadblocks every couple encounters and how long it takes to overcome them will vary.

According to Hogan, close friends will likely have an easier time with this, but no matter your level of intimacy, navigating the transition carefully with open and honest communication is key. According to Narkiewicz, the mutual trust, respect, and communication from your friendship will remain; it’s simply just evolving.

… friends-to-lovers will always have their foundation of friendship to fall back on… regardless of whether they make their love story one for the books or go back to appreciating their platonic love.

How to take your friendship to the next level

It’s normal to think about your friends every so often; you care about them, after all. But if you find yourself frequently thinking about a certain someone and getting jealous whenever they discuss their dating or sex life, checking in with them regularly, and wanting to spend more time with them than ever before, chances are you’ve developed feelings for them. Needless to say, these feelings can be confusing and complicated, but there are ways to handle them.

First and foremost, identify whether you want to be physically or romantically involved with them; being physical is one thing—being romantically tangled is another completely.

If you’re in the latter, give yourself some time to digest and come to terms with your emotions; talk about them with a trusted confidant or therapist if needed, and think about what might’ve caused this shift. After taking the time to do this, you can then try taking your friendship to the next level. Here’s how:

Have an open and honest conversation about your feelings

It goes without saying, but having an open and honest conversation about your feelings is the first thing you should do.

This is why Hogan recommends setting aside time to talk one-on-one with the friend you’re harboring feelings for about how you’re feeling first and foremost. Will it be scary? Absolutely—but the best things in life always are. Plus, the potential reward (read: romantic relationship) far outweighs the risk.

Keep in mind that transparency and clarity are key here. “Express your feelings clearly while also respecting their perspective and feelings,” Narkiewicz said.

Casually saying something along the lines of, “I’ve been feeling really attracted to you lately and am interested in exploring these feelings further. How do you feel about that?” would do the trick. Getting everything out in the open will allow them to fully understand how and what you’re feeling.

That said, try your best to go into this conversation prepared for any outcome. Remember that everyone’s entitled to their own emotions, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. However, if your feelings are reciprocated, here’s what you should do next:

Go on a first date

Regardless of how long you’ve known each other, your first date should be lowkey, simple, and limited to 60 minutes (90 minutes max). This will take the pressure off of both of you and allow you to really explore the romantic aspect of your relationship without diving into things too quickly.

Going to a trendy hotspot for cocktails, playing mini golf, and going on a hike and getting ice cream together afterward are some date ideas that would work for this.

Tackle projects together and have adventures

According to Dr. Tatkin, tackling projects together and having adventures is also a great way to take your friendship to the next level. Doing this will demonstrate how well you vibe naturally while also fostering the camaraderie, teamwork, trust, and support needed for a strong romantic relationship.

This, in turn, will create feelings of success and accomplishment, which can spark real-world regard, admiration, and earned feelings for one another—all of which are entry points for love.

“This shift isn’t based on fantasy, projectionism, or idealism,” Dr. Tatkin told me. “Rather, experience-grounding regard for a person with whom one begins to see as providing solid proof of something good that can be amplified and expanded to include more than just a friendship. This was my personal experience that led to the happiest and most valuable decision in my life. I married my best friend.”

Check-in with yourself—and them—often

Aside from exchanging anecdotes and tidbits about your day, it’s crucial that you check in with each other about how you’re feeling on a regular basis.

After all, a new relationship brings on a whirlwind of emotions, and it’s important that you both openly discuss how you’re feeling during this new phase of your relationship.

Doing this will allow both of you to understand and process your emotions fully, iron out potential issues before they become catastrophic, and help you get used to communicating as a couple.

Prioritize romance

Friendship is a valuable foundation that can make navigating the romantic side of your relationship easier—but that doesn’t mean you should let romance fall by the wayside.

To prevent yourselves from sliding into old habits, prioritize romance and capitalize on the honeymoon phase by going on dates that foster intimacy and being affectionate with one another publicly and privately.

Treating each other like a true romantic partner is key. Plus, you can still do the activities that defined your friendship by putting a romantic twist on them. Case in point? Elevate your Netflix binges by watching them in bed with one another while wearing some risque lingerie and indulging in some pizza and wine.

How to tell when and if you should move on

Making the switch from friends to lovers might require time and patience, but you can’t waste precious time trying to make something work that isn’t meant to be. And according to Narkiewicz, the signs to move on don’t differ from strangers to friends.

A clear lack of interest, consistent unavailability, and feeling undervalued and like the relationship is creating more stress in your life are all red flags.

“If you find that your feelings aren’t reciprocated or if the other person frequently cancels plans, doesn’t make time for you, or doesn’t show an interest in deepening the relationship, these are strong indicators that you’re both on different wavelengths, and it’s time to find someone more your speed,” she told me.

That said, if your feelings are reciprocated but you’re feeling unsure if you made the right call, Dr. Tatkin encourages you to imagine what your perfect relationship looks like—not your perfect person.

“Make a list of what the perfect relationship would be with person X starting with safety and security,” he said. And because relationships are all about teamwork, he encourages you to start each item on that list with “we.” Think: “We protect each other,” “We are equal partners,” “We want children and enjoy hiking together,” and so forth.

Relationships might be about compromise, but life is too short to settle for less than you deserve.

Doing this will allow you to see whether or not your friend-turned-lover aligns with your overall values and goals for the future.

“If your current partner refuses to get on board with any of the big ticket items and work with you to make these things happen, you should consider looking elsewhere for someone,” Dr. Tatkin told me. Relationships might be about compromise, but life is too short to settle for less than you deserve.

Lastly, no matter how strongly you believe you’re meant to be, Hogan says pining for someone who doesn’t feel the same way you do or is already taken only does you a disservice. It takes away time and energy that could be spent elsewhere and prevents you from meeting someone new.

Instead of closing the door on other romances, accept that your friend doesn’t feel the same. This will make it easier for you to move on and go back to being friends if you agree you work better platonically.

But if being around them is too painful for you and you need to heal on your own, that’s OK, too. Life has a way of working everything out in the end—and that’s a beautiful thing.

So, is friendship the best relationship foundation?

Although most couples develop a friendship on top of their love over time, Dr. Tatkin explained that a friendship built off of love, attraction and common interests shared between partners is not the same thing as true friendship.

True friendship, loyalty, trust, support, acceptance, and vulnerability are present, and these components lay the framework for the mutuality, collaboration, and teamwork needed in a healthy romantic relationship.

Similarly, Hogan swears that friendship can hold a relationship together long after the attraction and lust have faded. After all, physical appearances can change, but the trust, loyalty, and connection that stems from a friendship first can stand the test of time.

Not only do you feel comfortable around them, but the support, empathy, and respect between you extends from friendship first and foremost—not the other way around. And because of this, you’re less likely to call it quits when the going gets tough.

Essentially, based on what Dr. Tatkin and Hogan said, it’s clear that friendship, so long as it’s established prior to the romantic aspect of your relationship, can be the perfect foundation for a lasting partnership. Transitioning from friends to lovers might not be a seamless process, but no relationship is without ups and downs.

When all is said and done, though, friends-to-lovers will always have their foundation of friendship to fall back on, and if you ask these experts, that means they’re already ahead—regardless of whether they make their love story one for the books or go back to appreciating their platonic love.

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