Should you sleep with your best friend on valentine’s day?

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Psychologists report a surprising finding on link between friendship and romance:

  • There may be more than one pathway to romance beyond just two strangers meeting each other
  • Two strangers meeting each other tends to be the plot of romcoms, but real life may not be like this so much
  • Perhaps people can start as friends and end up romantically involved more than previously realised
  • Perhaps we don’t need to slavishly follow ‘dating scripts’ as prescribed by romantic films

In the 1989 hit romantic comedy movie, ‘When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, an argument is advanced that truly ‘platonic’ or non-sexualised friendship between men and women is never really possible.

The contention is proposed throughout the hilarious film but particularly, perhaps, most famously in this interchange between the two main characters:

Harry Burns: You realize of course that we could never be friends.

Sally Albright: Why not?

Harry Burns: What I’m saying is – and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form – is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.

Sally Albright: That’s not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.

Harry Burns: No you don’t.

Sally Albright: Yes I do.

Harry Burns: No you don’t.

Sally Albright: Yes I do.

Harry Burns: You only think you do.

Sally Albright: You say I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?

Harry Burns: No, what I’m saying is they all want to have sex with you.

Sally Albright: They do not.

Harry Burns: Do too.

Sally Albright: They do not.

Harry Burns: Do too.

Recently psychologists waded into the debate with a study entitled, ‘The Friends-to-Lovers Pathway to Romance: Prevalent, Preferred, and Overlooked by Science’.

The authors of the study, based at University of Victoria, and the University of Manitoba, Canada point out that there are two main ways to initiate romance. One involves dating, referred to in the research paper as ‘getting dressed up and having adventures with strangers’.

The other is a ‘friends-to-lovers’ pathway, involving sleeping with your best friend and eventual marriage.

Have Psychologists been blind to love?

The authors, Danu Anthony Stinson, Jessica Cameron and Lisa Hoplock, contend that academic psychology has focused exclusively on the former, ‘dating initiation’, but their study finds that psychologists may have been blind to the most prevalent and indeed what may be the very best way to kick romance off, which is instead, they argue: ‘friendship initiation’.

According to this scientific review, not only can men and women be friends, this is, even perhaps how they should start romance.

The researchers suggest that maybe psychology has been blinded by the ‘When Harry Met Sally’ syndrome, which is that academic psychologists assume that men and women cannot be platonic friends, because sexual attraction inevitably gets in the way.

If researchers assume that everyone desires and prioritizes romantic relationships over friendships and being single, then maybe even psychology as a discipline found it difficult to conceive of the possibility that heterosexual men and women might maintain a platonic friendship for months or even years, before romantic feelings start to flower.

Yet these researchers found this is common.

Another problem with the scientific study of romance is that the initial spark of attraction is difficult to investigate scientifically.

You kind of have to be there to observe it, and most researchers aren’t studying romance that way.

Instead, academics have devoted considerable attention, according to this criticism, to studying the spark of attraction that kindles when someone views a photograph, reads a brief biography, or views a list of traits that may be possessed by a potential romantic partner.

Is there a dating script?

According to these researchers, the Western ‘dating script’ is a sequence of predictable actions that are performed to initiate romance.

According to this ‘script’, relationships start because sexual attraction prompts men to deploy intrepid and daring actions to interest women, while the contrasting feminine strategy is to focus on making themselves nice-looking, waiting instead for men to “make a move.”

These researchers argue that this traditional understanding of how to spark romance is basically heterosexist, prioritizing heterosexual relationships while stigmatizing and marginalizing non-heterosexual ways of being, there is also no equivalent script for ‘friends-first’ initiation.

Is there more than one kind of intimacy?

But, according to this assessment, it appears there are at least two kinds of intimacy.

One friendship-based, which is an intellectual and emotional experience comprising psychological interdependence, warmth, and understanding. A companionate love that nurtures long-term intimate bonds. The other is passion-based intimacy, primarily comprising romance, related to the passionate love that typifies novel, and often sexual, relationships.

But even though sexual desire can precede and even nurture friendship-based intimacy, the opposite can also occur.

Two people can become friends, develop a deep friendship-based intimacy and then begin to experience sexual desire at some future point in time. Now, the dating script might suggest that such friendships are not truly platonic, concealing passionate desire as the real yet hidden motivation.

Some 30%–60% of (presumably heterosexual) cross-sex friends report at least moderate sexual attraction for one another, according to one study quoted by these authors.

Yet these researchers contend that friendship-based intimacy can precede and even nurture passion-based intimacy. When this happens, the friends may decide not to act on their passion, or they may form a “friends-with-benefits” relationship, where they engage in sexual activity with rules limiting emotional attachment.

Yet while ‘friends-with-benefits’ relationships are very common among young people, only a very small proportion ever transition to a traditional romantic relationship, according to the research on the subject.

Most friendships that eventually transition to romance appear to follow a different path.

A few studies examining the path of early romance suggest that people often know one another for months or even years before they officially enter a romantic entanglement. These authors quote studies of romantic relationships between men and women report that a meaningful proportion began as friendships.

How to transition from friendship to romance?

But just how does the transition occur between friendship and romance? Some friendships stay that way while others move into romance – what decides which is the eventual outcome?

Maybe one answer is suggested by the film ‘When Harry Met Sally’, where the two protagonists seem to hurdle the ups and downs of life over an extended period of time, and perhaps begin to realise that it is only the other person who really knows them best. The plot of the movie suggests that these two maverick characters initially don’t even like each other, but by tolerating each other’s faults they come to a deeper understanding of each other.

Then, over an extended time, they seem able to be truly themselves with each other, more than any other person, maybe because they were ‘just friends’ at the start, despite the fact both are not the easiest of characters to endure.

We shall leave the last line to the film as an example of this:

Harry Burns: “Had my dream again where I’m making love, and the Olympic judges are watching. I’d nailed the compulsories, so this is it, the finals. I got a 9.8 from the Canadians, a perfect 10 from the Americans, and my mother, disguised as an East German judge, gave me a 5.6. Must have been the dismount.



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