Friends to Lovers? Exploring the Impact of Platonic Relationships on Romantic Ones

Building new relationships is a critical part of the college experience, whether you’re making friends for life, searching for the one, or just need to find someone to borrow OChem notes from every once in a while.

Not all of these relationships are built to last, nor do they all have to be equally important to you. But over the course of your college career, you’ll learn a lot from the connections you make, whether they’re platonic or romantic (or a little bit of both, if you’re into that).

While there’s tons of variety to the relationships you’ll make in your time on campus, there are plenty of similarities between your platonic connections and your romantic ones. The expectations you have for your platonic relationships say a lot about you and often reveal what you might be searching for in a romantic one.

The Marriage Pact is primarily designed to match you with someone you’re romantically compatible with, sure, but the survey would be remiss to not include questions about platonic relationships for the very reason stated above. That, and your best match on campus may not be someone you want to date in the first place. You could be with someone else already, or there just may not be a spark between you and your match. Best to come out of it all with a brand new, algorithmically-approved friend, if nothing else.

The questions we’ve asked over the years about you and your friends tend to fall into three broad categories: your preferences, or your desires for the general makeup of your friends; your behaviors, or the way you engage with your friends; and the platonic/romantic intersection, or questions that measure your boundaries in platonic and romantic relationships. 

Here are a few examples of questions we've asked before:

friendship qs-1
friendship qs-2
friendship qs

To get a deeper sense of where platonic and romantic relationships differ and intersect—and to look at different relationship science theories on gendered differences in relationships and chemistry—I talked to Joy Zheng, a relationship scientist at the Marriage Pact.


When I was creating an overview of relationship science at Marriage Pact, and trying to narrow down what we do here, we found that, yes, we’re focusing on romantic relationships, but romantic relationships aren’t the only ones that exist out there, right? We also look at platonic and familial relationships, and there are plenty of theories and frameworks that consider these different kinds of relationships, like the Greek styles of love. Despite the fact that we primarily focus on romantic matching, we can’t ignore the way that you interact with your friends and family. 

According to Joy, familial relationships between parents/guardians and their children or between siblings are the first loving connections many people experience. The way you’re raised models your expectations for future relationships. This framework is extended to platonic relationships, where the way you learn to treat your friends and the behaviors you come to expect from them influence your future behavior with your partner. 

For example, Joy says, if you’re so passionate about your political views that you would stop talking to your friend if they disagreed, you’re probably going to be just as insistent, if not more so, that your romantic partner shares the same views.


Granted, there are differences between platonic and romantic relationships, because we do put romance on a pedestal and we’re socialized to believe that our romantic relationships are more important than our platonic ones, but there is still a great deal of overlap.

Joy did note that while the relationships themselves are different, the “needs complementarity hypothesis” suggests that people seek out romantic partners whose needs are complementary to their own, while the platonic relationships they develop tend to happen with people who have needs similar to their own. Interpersonal chemistry also suggests that in the absence of attraction, friends need to have more in common to solidify their relationship. We’ll come back to chemistry in platonic and romantic relationships later on.


This is crazy to me! You would think that if you were to pick someone to be your companion in life, you’d have to be very similar, right? But when there’s an added layer of physicality and sexual attraction, you make more exceptions for who you choose as a romantic partner because of your attraction to them.

As opposed to your friend—If you're not attracted to them, what else is pushing you to want a connection with this person? There needs to be more similarities between you two to maintain the friendship. 

Whether you find yourself to be more similar to your friends than your partner or not, one thing rings true for most romantic and platonic relationships: the expectations you have for them can seriously differ. You might expect to be one of your partner’s highest priorities, especially if you’re in a monogamous relationship, but you can’t really force that same qualification on your friends. On the other extreme, you may have a level of trust and emotional vulnerability with long-time friends that your Tinder date isn’t quite ready for. 

No matter how you categorize them, the very bedrock of your romantic and platonic relationships are similar, as they’re based on your values and the similarities you share with the people in your life. The two types of connection begin to differ when it comes to the expectations you have and what your partner(s) and friends expect from you.

Lastly, Joy shared some fascinating research into gendered differences between how men and women perceive friendly and intimate relationships. The paper is pretty dated, and only addresses the relationship dynamics of heterosexual pairings, but still shares some relevant insights.


[Guinsberg] asked men and women how they feel about different platonic relationships versus romantic ones. Specifically, it was males who are friends with females and vice versa. Men would define a woman they were platonic friends with as not only a good friend but also as a potential dating partner.

On the other hand, women define the man they are in a platonic relationship with as a friend and as a confidant that they can have a more honest and open relationship with. So men tend to see their friends as a part of their potential dating pool whereas women see their friends as someone they can have a deep connection with.

But beyond that, the thing that defines a romantic relationship for these men is the aspect of emotional comfort, where they feel like they can be more emotionally vulnerable with their romantic partners than someone they would consider just a friend. This is also different for women, who define their romantic partners as a companion, someone who is honest and genuine. This shows that there’s a gender difference in what people expect out of their romantic and platonic relationships.

I mentioned chemistry before, remember? A more recent paper Joy shared looked at the values men and women associated with chemistry between friends and chemistry between partners. While there were marginal differences between the themes each gender found to be the most important in their different sparks of connection, in general, chemistry between friends was characterized by factors like open communication, enjoying shared company and senses of humor, and shared hobbies and values. Similarly, the themes that underlie romantic chemistry include open communication, physical attraction, enjoying shared company and senses of humor, and, to put it plainly, feelings of love.

While the specific questions we’ve asked in the Marriage Pact survey have shifted over the years, there’s one throughline that remains: the values you hold close and the behaviors you exhibit are critical in establishing strong, supportive relationships, platonic and romantic alike. 

Our advice? Be bold! Say hi to that stranger in your morning lecture! Give your number to the person you always see at the gym! You never know what you might learn about yourself and what you’re looking for in a friend or partner.