I remember, when I was a teenager, the kindly encouragement from older mentor figures to remember that being ‘friends first’ with a guy was a good idea. I see now that it’s good advice to give a teenager, who might be prone to leaping head-first into an intense relationship totally inappropriate to her maturity level.
Then I went to a university where the predominant wisdom amongst my social circles advised serious and responsible dating. That, in practice, seemed to mean that guys did a lot of thinking about whether to ask a girl out, meanwhile pursuing a friendship with her while they waited for some particular timing or level of confidence. So, even though we were older and a bit wiser, in practice the model was still ‘friends first’.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but before meeting my husband these messages shaped my vision for how the ideal relationship would develop. The dream of falling in love with a friend is a powerful one, but as I got older I discovered it was more and more unrealistic for the real possibilities my life presented. My husband and I eventually met online and our first relationship status went straight from a short phase of ‘question mark’ to ‘in a relationship’. We learned that not having the chance to be friends first made it a different kind of relationship for both of us.
The draw of the ‘friends first’ relationship
Theoretically, at least, I’ve never believed that being friends first was a mandate. It doesn’t really matter how you meet, so long as it’s the right person, and ultimately it’s the marriage that’s important. So what’s the imaginative draw of being friends first?
This was my vision: after months or even years of shared interests, shared banter, and shared experience, a ‘first date’ with an old friend would have the security of familiarity and a basic knowledge that the guy was good and trustworthy. Then there would be the joy of discovering, together, that our friendship could be the foundation of a lifelong partnership. There would be the flattery of knowing that someone who knew me as my natural self found me attractive. There would be the awkward but happy acknowledgement to our mutual friends that we were now together. People would be happy for us. We would already have a shared world that we could now explore, together, with fresh eyes.
I see now that this vision incorporates a few obvious advantages of a friends-first relationship. When romantic involvement is preceded by a genuine friendship, it means that person is safe. You don’t wonder whether they are a liar or are putting up a false front. You have the balancing opinion of mutual friends to confirm you’re not crazy for dating him. And, as you walk through your newly formed romantic relationship, you already inhabit a shared world of social connections and meaningful activities that bond you together and include you in one another’s lives. You may even be able to think back over nostalgic memories and realise, ‘He was there all the time’.
The problem is that this kind of relationship is hard to form once school or university years are over. It depends on forming opposite-sex friendships without pressure to decide on the nature of the relationship, and indeed without requiring too much initiative. The university context provides daily ready-made opportunities for spending time with others without even trying. So you could talk to an opposite-sex friend nearly every day without either of you ever deciding you care enough to call each other.
I found that, as I got older, my life didn’t provide this context for forming friendships naturally. Even when I did meet men my age, a lot of the time there wasn’t much guarantee of seeing each other again soon unless one of us made the effort to pursue the relationship. In effect, the choice increasingly became: dating or nothing.
That’s why I finally let go of my vision of the friends-first relationship and joined an online dating site.
What we learned
After a few weeks of emailing, followed by a few weeks of Skyping, my (future) husband and I met in person and the same day decided we were ‘going out’. Even before that decision, we both knew we were interested and were serious about seeing if the relationship was viable. There wasn’t much of a period of natural friendship forming, because the unspoken goal of testing compatibility was present even before it became spoken. Additionally, we lived in different cities and thus there was nothing in our daily lives that naturally overlapped, and no context for friendship other than our specific efforts to communicate with each other. The way our relationship began had its good and bad points.
My husband says that the start of our relationship was much more romantic than if we had already been friends. He and I have both had the experience of trying to transition a friendship into a dating relationship, and it’s a transition that can be awkward and in which the habits of comfortable friendship and ‘hanging out’ predominate. In contrast, because Mike and I got to know each other in the form of dates, from the start our time together was focused and one-on-one. We carved out time to devote to spending together, planned interesting outings, and had long meals and talked. We also put in plenty of nervous effort into looking our best for each other! Because we were dating from the very start, instead of continuing the casual hanging out of friendship, our time together in those early months was exclusive, special, and exciting.
It’s also easier to be honest about important things if you haven’t been friends before. This is counterintuitive, but if there’s no pre-existing friendship to be made awkward, it can be easier to discuss important topics like values, beliefs, and life goals. It’s easier to be pragmatic with someone with whom you have less personal connection, because there isn’t as much fear about what they’ll think about you, and potentially you aren’t even sure yet what you think of them. It’s also easier to be honest because there is less fear about the consequences of breaking up. There isn’t a friendship to lose or a social circle to make awkward; very likely you won’t have to see the person much any more.
It’s easier to give the relationship an honest evaluation because your emotional attachment is still growing. The risk in dating a friend, especially a good friend, is that your friendship and shared history can create an emotional bond that makes it harder to consider serious questions of compatibility. But when you start dating someone whom you don’t know well, your friendship with them essentially develops in tandem with your romantic feelings and your assessment of compatibility. With Mike, by the time we had any amount of ‘shared history’ of more than a couple of months, and by the time my feelings for him were developing into real love, I already knew that we were highly compatible. The different aspects of our relationship were in sync. This also meant that there was no long-standing emotional attachment to skew our judgment about compatibility; we weren’t trying to cling to the security of an old friendship by pretending to be compatible as marriage partners.
The downside is that it may take some time and effort to develop the friendship aspects of your relationship. Despite the many benefits to dating without being friends first, the result is that even though you are falling in love and growing certain about marriage, it may be that your ‘friendship’ with your potential spouse is quite young. For example, though you probably share many values, you might not have many shared interests or experiences; you might not have any mutual friends; and depending on your age you probably have plenty of life experience in which the other person played no part. This was certainly true of us, and I went through a period of feeling very insecure as a result. I had an engagement ring on my finger but sometimes felt that I was the least important and least close of all my husband’s friends. Even though I had a privileged place in his life, I felt I was missing out on having a long-term friendship with him. We’ve had to be patient in allowing shared interests and experiences to develop, and purposeful in making mutual friends and developing a shared world. Indeed, in some ways, I think the main emphasis of the first months of our marriage has been ‘catching up’ on the aspects of friendship we didn’t have time to develop before: watching TV shows together, hanging out, and having shared projects and a shared social life.
Relinquishing the vision
It’s only now, in retrospect, that I’ve been thinking about how my vision of the friends-first relationship has shaped my expectations of the real relationship I had with my husband. For a while, though I had friends who had success with online dating, I refused to join because I said to myself that ‘I ought to be good enough to meet someone in real life.’ I had to overcome that mindset even to be willing to try online dating. After that, once I was going out with Mike, I sometimes felt a sense of regret or of being short-changed as I realised that I had missed on the friendship stage that I perceived to be natural part of a romantic relationship’s development.
I now wonder if, in a more general sense, having to relinquish this vision is a practical part of what it means to leave the university world still single. We have to learn to navigate the world of relationships without the help of safe opposite-sex friendships; that means having to be more intentional, more clear, and willing to meet someone even in a way that doesn’t reflect whatever vision we had when we were younger.
I know plenty of people who had the friends-first relationship. Sometimes I do feel a little envious of them because they can remember meeting each other their first week of university, or met through a church ministry in which they worked side by side, or shared the early drama and joy of their relationship with the mutual friends who already cared about them as individuals and not only as a couple.
Everyone has their own path, though. If I’m honest, when I remember my university days, there was a lot of drama partly due to the friends-first relationships everyone formed, and I’m grateful for meeting my husband in a way that was clear and purposeful from the start. We now have plenty of years of marriage to become better friends.