Should You Be 'Just Friends' First?

In the world of dating advice you'll often come across the recommendation that a guy and a girl should learn to be 'just friends' first, rather than beginning with a romantic interest. How real is that?

Goldilocks and the Porridge

When people give this advice I think they mean it something like with Goldilocks and the three bowls of porridge: one was 'too hot', one was 'too cold', and one was 'just right'. So your friendship with someone of the other sex could be: 'too romantically complicated too soon' (too hot), 'no romantic potential at all' (too cold), or 'friends at the moment but with promising undertones of romantic potential' (just right).

Too Hot

In the first case you get caught up in the excitement of romance, but before too long you start to realise you were just not ready for it. Maybe you were not mature enough, and it was simply too much too soon. You decide to back off and cool things down. Maybe you don't handle it well and just end the friendship, not knowing what you feel, or how to deal with it. Maybe the person wasn't right for you, but you feel that perhaps things could have worked out if only you'd known what you were doing and taken it more slowly. But now it's too late.

Too Cold

In the second case you simply assume that if there is no instant 'chemistry' then you will only ever be 'just friends', so you don't pursue a friendship at all. But this might have been a premature judgement. If you didn't know that you could grow gradually into a special relationship you might write off some potentially promising prospects because you didn't feel any immediate 'spark'. A lot of people don't realise that this is a possible way for things to work out.

Just Right

In the third case, whether through luck, good advice, or some innate wisdom you recognised someone who could be 'more than friends' but felt you didn't have to rush it. It's not that you were 'just friends' really, but you didn't complicate things by naming it as 'special', or give it any public status as 'going out together', but there was some mutual recognition of 'something' and a willingness by both parties to give it the space to unfold in its own time.

Is it just a fairy tale?

The 'just right' option sounds ideal: low stress, low angst, and a gentle falling into true romance. But how realistic is it? How often does it happen, and most importantly, is it something you can intend in advance as a strategy? Or is it just good luck interpreted after the fact as good management? Let's go through the three scenarios introduced above and look a bit more deeply at why they happen the way they do.

Too Hot

The thing is, sometimes relationships that start with 'love at first sight' do work out. Not only that, it's the kind of thing that romantic dreams are made of. Isn't it what everyone wants? So it's not surprising that for many, perhaps most people, the 'Too Hot' option is simply assumed as 'Plan A'. And anyway, how could anything be too hot? Early strong attraction is taken as a sign that the two people have 'something', and they can build on that beginning of passion by getting to know each other better, and eventually getting married.

If it works out that way no one's going to complain, but remember, the cautionary tales don't come from the success stories. When people give the advice about starting with friendship rather than with romance, they are thinking of all the other cases, the ones that didn't work out. They are drawing attention to the hurt and unhappiness that can ensue from 'too much too soon'.

Starting with romance is undoubtedly an appealing possibility, but it is aiming very high, and hoping that things will just 'somehow' work out even though neither of you knows what you are doing. It is a high-wire act with no safety net, because it often engages very strong feelings before you've learned how to handle them. It also usually involves a fair bit of ignorance about the opposite sex, so the chances of crossed wires, confusion, and falls from a great height are fairly high.

There is a further difficulty. If this is your 'default' idea of how to go about finding that special someone, if it doesn't work the first time, you'll have to try again, and possibly again, and again. How many falls can you survive? How many times can you have your heart broken, and see your dreams slip away?

Too Cold

Some marriages grew from very unpromising beginnings. There are plenty of stories of couples who at first thought the other was nothing special, and never thought of the other as a 'prospect' at all. Yet somehow they discovered something in each other and love blossomed. Yet I think it's also fair to say that people don't embark on this as a strategy. How many people would say, "OK, Denise and I have nothing in common, and I feel no 'spark' of anything special between us. That must mean we are meant for each other. I'll ask her out next chance I get."

It's no surprise at all that no one chooses to start with the 'too cold' options. It defies common sense. So why does it ever happen? The short answer is that the most obvious 'attractors' between the sexes are not evenly distributed throughout the population. Exceptionally attractive people are, strangely enough, the exception. And yet there is a great power in beauty which is hard to adequately explain. We feel its effects, and it makes fools of us, but when the dust settles, all we ordinary mortals have to find among each other someone to love.

This recognition can be a long time coming, and you might not accept it with any good grace. But if you feel called to marriage you need to come to terms with the difference between dreams and reality. This is not 'trading down'. It is 'growing up'. It doesn't mean abandoning the dream, but realising that the deeper source of attraction lies in the mystery of the person, and this is hard to see until your eyes readjust their focal length, and you start looking for the beauty within.

Like the 'too hot' option, the 'too cold' option can take a long time to clearly reveal its true nature. We tend to pursue the first and avoid the second for quite some time before learning the lessons we need to learn.

Just Right

Now that we've seen why the two extremes are what they are, how do we find a happy medium? Let's look at some of the reasons why the 'just right' option is so elusive. In no particular order, here are some common feelings on the matter:

  • Just being friends is not as exciting. It doesn't give any tangible sense of sexual attraction.
  • How am I going to learn what's special about the other sex if I don't engage with that which is special about them? Like, why shouldn't I have a kiss and cuddle and get some feeling of what these things are like?
  • Why shouldn't I 'go for gold' first? It might work. What's wrong with pursuing the 'grand passion', or trying to find my soulmate?
  • I'm sure my feelings about feeling 'no spark' with a particular person are not just preliminary indications. I feel an inner certitude that we will never be meant for each other.
  • If marriage needs a dimension of passion, isn't it legitimate to want to feel 'something special' to give some indication that you're on the right track? Why wouldn't you make that a prominent factor in your search for 'the one'?
  • How do you get the person to whom you are attracted to realise you are attracted to him/her, while not overtly indicating any special interest? How do you coordinate the timing of two people's unstated assumptions?
  • Wouldn't it just confuse a girl to keep treating her as 'sort of' special but then never go on and ask her out?
  • How long is a guy going to persist if you keep deflecting his interest? Isn't he more likely to conclude that you're just not interested?
  • How do you explain why you are hanging around all the time?
  • How do you avoid getting 'friend zoned' because she expects you to make a move, but you never do because you are trying to allow it to emerge naturally in an unstated fashion?
  • If I keep being 'just friends' someone else will swoop in and I'll miss out.

These various objections point to a difficulty with the 'just friends' strategy. In brief, how exactly do you do it?

Can 'Just Friends' be recommended as a strategy?

Although it sounds good in theory, do you still have this sneaking feeling that the 'just right' option is more good luck than good management? I mean, how do you, when you are young, choose that strategy in advance as a way of proceeding? Is the advice to 'just be friends' first before pursuing romance a real option, or is it only what the older and wiser wish had been possible, instead of the path of confusion and heartache they actually took? If that's not the case, what would make it realistic for young people generally to adopt that approach as a strategy? What conditions would have to be fulfilled to make this strategy a real option?

There is an old saying: you can't put an old head on young shoulders. So it's not realistic to expect young people to simply hear this seemingly good advice and implement it, despite the fact that most people can't seem to manage it. You can't just say to young people: grow up more quickly and less painfully. "Yes sir. Right away sir." And if it's more good luck than good management, how can we all get more lucky? How could we manage that? There is another saying: the harder I work the luckier I seem to get. Is there a clue there?

How can we move this inquiry forward? Is there some key to clarifying these things?

How do you become friends with someone of the other sex?

If there is a key I think it lies in the question of how a young single person could actually become friends with someone of the other sex. I'm not talking of being simply a 'friendly acquaintance' or even just 'good friends' in the sense of being familiar with them from doing various non-romantic activities together in a group of such friends. You can be that kind of friends for years without the dynamic ever changing, and without really learning anything significant about that person, or the other sex in general.

This last point is the main practical reason that we have dating in its usual form. It's thought to be the next logical step to change the dynamic. But if you are not going to embark on the usual dating strategy, with its more overt implications of romantic interest, how can you move things forward?

At this point it might be helpful to clarify something about the 'too hot' and 'too cold' approaches discussed earlier. They were drawn in fairly stark opposition to each other. But many people embark on dating without being extreme or unrealistic. They are already acting on a combination of attraction and reason, and see dating as the next step in clarifying their feelings by trying to learn more about particular people. Is this all that is meant by being 'just friends' first? If it is then what are we even talking about?

Is there an alternative to dating?

We have been gradually working our way towards this question: is there an alternative to dating? In other words, is there an alternative to the 'institution' of dating that could provide a strategy for that period of youth when you are not yet ready to begin seriously trying to start a special relationship with one particular person? Why would we be looking for an alternative to dating?

Here's the key. The concept of dating as an 'institution' is modelled on courtship. It could be considered 'quasi-courtship'. This helps us clarify why it has problematic aspects which have long been the subject of cautions and criticisms. Courtship is not a means of 'playing the field' trying to find someone. It presumes you have already narrowed the field down to one person. You have found someone about whom you have serious feelings and intentions, and you now want to enter a period of discernment that you have a reasonable expectation could lead to engagement for marriage.

Here's the problem. If you transfer the prerogatives of courtship to the process of 'playing the field', you are asking for trouble. It means that the kind of closeness and intimacy that is quite proper to those already spending time together exclusively to discern the prospect of marriage, is now extended to a range of people you don't know well, and who could even be strangers.

If dating is to be a viable institution for the period prior to courtship then it needs much clearer definition and widely accepted limits. These limits need to be narrower than those appropriate to courtship. What has tended to happen is that the term 'dating' has been used to refer to an impossibly wide range of phenomena. How much is there, or should there be, in common between some kind of 'friendship date' between fourteen year-olds and that between twenty-four year-olds in the stage prior to courtship?

A difficulty arises from using the same word for both, and even more importantly, from modelling both on the rituals and prerogatives of courtship.

Dating redefined

Now we can clarify our way forward. To resolve these issues I believe we need to work more self consciously towards a greater clarity and demarcation in the ways in which young single people relate so as to get to know each other and the other sex better, with an eventual view towards marriage. I would propose that we need probably four stages, roughly as follows:

  1. 'NON-DATING'  (teens)
  2. 'PRE-DATING' (young adults)

I've used the terms 'non-dating' and 'pre-dating' for convenience, so as to have some way of referring to these phenomena for the sake of discussion. Perhaps these terms could be used in practice. In any case, 'non-dating' is meant to have some literal connotation that it's probably best not to date during this period of life, while also being partly ironic, in that activities that still have some of the form of dating can sometimes be referred to as 'non-dates'. This terminology is already used at times by those who are trying to deny that something that looks to everyone else like a date is really a date. In fact they will protest - Hey, we are 'just friends' - precisely so as to keep people from pestering them about their exact romantic status. It actually makes a lot of sense, for young adults as well.

'Pre-dating' is just an obvious practical reference to the fact that you expect to take up dating at some stage, but for now you would prefer to join in organised activities (if they existed) that may include some of the characteristics of dating but which are portrayed officially as implying no romantic interest. Naturally there will often be undertones of romantic interest but it does everyone a favour at that stage to leave this unsaid.

The major hurdle to developing an alternative institution to dating is that it is not something that can be achieved by individuals. It is not simply a different set of ideas and advice for individuals. It would require a communal approach.