We tend to see friendship and romance as separate entities, but the two may have more in common than we realize. Psychological research points to qualities such as chemistry, intimacy, and warmth as key building blocks of close, stable friendships (Ledbetter, A. M., et al., Personal Relationships, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2007; Campbell, K., et al., The Social Science Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2, 2015).
Regular interactions with acquaintances—the local coffee barista, for example—make people happier.
“When we view behaviors that create intimacy—being vulnerable, buying gifts, taking someone out on a date—as only appropriate for a romantic relationship, we end up limiting the potential of our friendships,” said psychologist Marisa G. Franco, PhD, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland and author of Platonic, a book about making and keeping friends. “Many of us could really benefit from blurring the lines between the two.”
Conversely, romantic relationships may be more fulfilling if they look more like friendships. An analysis of nearly 8,000 respondents to the British Household Panel Survey showed that life satisfaction was about twice as high among people who said their spouse was also their best friend (“How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness,” NBER Working Paper No. 20794, 2014).
Research also suggests a symbiosis between romantic and platonic relationships, Franco said, suggesting that one can benefit the other. For example, marital conflict can trigger unhealthy changes in cortisol levels, but that harm is buffered when spouses feel they have adequate social support outside the marriage (Keneski, E., et al., Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol. 9, No. 8, 2017). Other research indicates that women who have social support are more resilient to stress that occurs within a marriage (Abbas, J., et al., Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 244, 2019).
There’s also reason to believe that skills developed in friendships can be carried forward into healthier romantic relationships, particularly among teens and young adults.
“Friendships are the first relationships in life that we get to freely choose,” said Melanie Dirks, PhD, a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal who studies peer relationships in children, adolescents, and young adults. “Because of that, they present a really important opportunity to learn how to navigate challenging interpersonal situations before we enter relationships as adults.”
For example, self-disclosure between friends—sharing thoughts and feelings—helps young adults build empathy for others, practice seeking and providing social support, and even solidify their identities, said Rebecca Schwartz-Mette, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychology and director of the Peer Relations Lab at the University of Maine who studies friendship in children, adolescents, and young adults.
Many young adults in the United States are juggling life transitions, stress, and developmental challenges—and friends are typically their main sources of social support, which makes them critical for psychologists to study and understand, said Dirks.
She has studied the types of challenges that tend to arise in young adult friendships, finding that they undergo strain for one of three reasons: needs are in conflict (for example: there’s one spot on a sports team that both friends want); a transgression occurs (for example: one friend reveals private information about the other); or friends have trouble exchanging support (for example: one has a problem with alcohol use, but the other doesn’t know how to help) (Journal of Research on Adolescence, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2021).
In childhood and adolescence, high-quality friendships can protect kids from mental health issues—such as anxiety and depression—that might otherwise result from social challenges, including being bullied (Bayer, J. K., et al., Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2018). But there are also conditions where mental health struggles can harm friendships. Schwartz-Mette and her colleagues have found that between friends, excessive self-disclosure about life’s challenges (known as “corumination”) can trigger distancing within a friendship or even lead to the social contagion of depression, self-injury, and suicidality (Developmental Psychology, Vol. 50, No. 9, 2014; Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Vol. 47, No. 6, 2018).
“Our goal in isolating these different friendship trajectories is to inform interventions for people who are distressed—so that they can keep their relationships and have that crucial social support but not overtax or overstress their relationship partners,” Schwartz-Mette said.