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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Friends Before Lovers?

Quick Access:
Is it best to be friends before lovers?

Should people be friends before being lovers?


My answer is “yes” – but that view is grounded primarily in academics and clinical judgment rather than any religious or moral motivations (although these can be legitimate reasons for abstinence for some people). Finding casual sex partners may be the agenda for some people on online dating sites, but I believe that couples handle the psychological and physical consequences of sex if they’re in a committed relationship where genuine and lasting intimacy is the focus. However, I often see people jump too quickly into “serious” relationships like marriage – and hence into bed – with bad ramifications for both people. Jumping ahead to sex feels great in the short term, but it can distract a couple from actually getting to know each other on deeper, more intimate psychological levels. To me, sex at its best is an expression of intimacy and commitment to another person. But don’t think I’m any prude; while I think meaningful sex is the best, that doesn’t mean sex in a committed relationship should be boring. Indeed, I am pro-sex… and I think couples should have fun exploring and experimenting in the bedroom – sex is an important part of adult play.

But couples will almost always break up if sex is the only thing on which their relationship was built. Couples need to be compatible across physical, psychological and emotional realms – and it’s difficult to assess those areas of compatibility when you’re only having sex or rushing to have sex. Several large national surveys report that the general level of happiness in marriages has actually declined slightly from those of twenty or thirty years ago (2,5,6). Furthermore, national panel data(1) collected between 1980 and 1997 indicated that the second most common reason for divorce was “incompatibility.” And too, it could be that a partner appears to be a soul mate in the courting process or in the first few years of a relationship when there is high physiological arousal related to passionate or sexual love, but the person ceases to be a “perfect partner” as the dynamics and expectations of the relationship change and the relationship alters to mature or companionate love (a feeling of deep attachment and friendship 4). These heartaches and headaches often can be avoided if people are friends before being lovers.

Dr. Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love helps clarify why some couples are successful, while others are not in that it emphasizes the dynamic quality of the love relationship and stresses three essential, interrelated elements: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment:

1) Intimacy is the emotional component, which grows steadily, then levels off. It includes feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bonding; each person can count on the other. There is a sense of mutual understanding and the sharing of one’s self, as well as a genuine liking for the partner. Excitement comes from acknowledging each other’s goals and the relationship. There’s a desire to build a more cohesive rapport or identity as a team. This component is defined by trust, patience, tolerance, and respect. One is aware of the partner’s idiosyncratic characteristics and imperfections. It’s intimate communication with a loved one – the giving and receiving of emotional support. A sense of “we” has developed, with the couple looking out for each other and avoiding what irritates the other. One tries to anticipate partner needs and desires. Women tend to emphasize this aspect of relationships.

2) Passionate love has the elements of romance, attraction and sex. Not surprise, but men tend to emphasize this aspect of relationships. It’s the relationship’s physical passion and drive for sexual expression, and this is what differentiates it from other loves. It may be fueled by the desire to increase self-esteem, be sexually active and fulfilled, affiliated with others or to be dominate or subordinate (9). Often, it motivates the progression of a relationship, building quickly as a positive force, peaking and subsequently dropping. Negative passion takes hold more slowly and lasts longer, accounting for more heartache that remains after love is gone (10). Sternberg stated that the rapid development of intense passion is what leads to habituation. With time, one’s lover is no longer seen as “stimulating” (10).

3) One’s Decision/commitment as short-term and long-term is cognitive - short-term meaning the decision to love someone (which one may not be aware of) and long-term being one’s maintenance of that love. It’s the purposeful decision to love somebody at present and over a long period of time. Commitment takes considerable effort to build. It’s steady and enduring, and it involves a confident affection of the other. Partners strive to consolidate the union, respecting one another’s privacy and enjoying sharing in a social setting. They don’t take advantage of each other’s vulnerabilities. Conflicts can occur, but they don’t automatically harm the relationship. The couple is able to negotiate.

Sternberg argued that each of these components must be translated into action. Intimacy needs to be expressed by communicating feelings, showing support, and expressing empathy to each other. Physical expressions can activate the passionate side of love. And committing to somebody may involve stating your love for them, promising a lifelong relationship, and remaining loyal to the relationship during good times and bad.

A study of 94 married and committed couples found three primary areas as being fundamental to the quality of a relationship: companionship, supportive communication, and sexual expression (8). Participants who reported working to improve these areas had great benefits on their relationship satisfaction and commitment. Couples with these relationship characteristics did many and different things together, openly communicated with and listened to each other, and enjoyed variety in their sexual expression, spontaneity, and their partner’s sexuality. Furthermore, partners in failing relationships tend to demonstrate fewer expressions of love and affection and seem less actively committed to maintaining the bond (7).

Remember this: love is not so much an emotion but rather a dynamic, psychophysiological state that can and does change over time. The components of commitment, passion and intimacy grow or diminish over the course of a relationship, and can be combined in eight different ways for different loving states:

1. Liking (intimacy only) – Is a friendship with emotional closeness and intimacy, but without passion or commitment.

2. Infatuation (passion only) – Is love at first sight, obsessive and all-consuming, with high degrees of attraction and physical arousal, and without any real emotional intimacy or commitment.

3. Romantic love (intimacy and passion) – Is a physical and emotional attraction.

4. Companionate love (intimacy and commitment) – Is a long-term, stable and committed friendship with great emotional intimacy and commitment, yet diminished passion.

5. Fatuous love (passion and commitment) – Is an unstable, fleeting passion without deep emotional intimacy.

6. Consummate love (intimacy, passion and commitment) – Is a perfect love which one dreams of that is difficult to achieve.

7. Empty love (decision/commitment only) – While the couple stays together, there is no emotional involvement or attraction.

8. Non-love (absence of intimacy, passion and commitment) – Is often driven by greater concerns for finances or out of fear.

For a number of physiological, psychological, and social reasons, people pursue love with different “love styles.” In order to have a mutually satisfying relationship, one needs to find a partner who shares the same ideas about love. It’s important to remember that not every person displays one approach or style of loving. Some people may adopt numerous love styles and an individual’s love style may change throughout the life cycle or during the course of a relationship.

Regardless of the different types of love you experience throughout your lifetime, hopefully you will find, or have found, one full of the following components of a healthy love (11):

1. Caring for each other (the most important) and wanting to promote the partner’s welfare

2. Needing the other

3. Trusting the other

4. Tolerating the other

5. Feeling happiness with your partner

6. Holding the partner in high regard

7. Being able to count on your partner in times of need

8. Being able to understand each other

9. Sharing yourself and your possessions with your partner

10. Receiving emotional support from your partner

11. Being able to communicate with your partner about intimate things

12. Giving emotional support to your partner

13. Valuing your partner’s presence in your life

I am hardly anyone to judge people who become lovers before friends, but I can say this: it takes time outside the bedroom for a couple to explore their level of long-term compatibility and to see if they have the components of healthy love. If a committed relationship is what you want, then pacing the relationship and the level of physical intimacy can actually help un-cloud your judgment as you assess the potential partner. It can strengthen the relationship, not undermine it. It’s just a smart psychological move, aside from any moral or religious convictions that might come into play.

As Milton Viederman (12) once wrote, “Passionate love is what you want it to be, is what you make it, is what you can allow yourself to experience with and without fear. It is a gratifying and powerful illusion, but to say that is in no way to devalue it, for once it is experienced and reciprocated it is the closest thing to ever-elusive happiness” (p. 10). With that, may you find your happiness by using your head in matters of the heart. Lovers are great and friends are great… but what could be better than having your lover also be your best friend?


1Amato, P. R., & Previti, D. (2003). People’s reasons for divorcing: gender, social class, the life course, and adjustment. Journal of Family Issues, 24, 602-626.

2Glenn, N. D. (1996). Values, attitudes, and the state of American marriage. In D. Popenoe, D. Blankenhorn, & J. B. Elshtain (Eds.), Promises to keep: decline and renewal of marriage in America (pp. 15-33). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

3Hyde, J., & DeLamater, J. (2003). Understanding human sexuality, (8th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

4Masuda, M. (2003). Meta-analyses of love scales: do various love scales measure the same psychological constructs? Japanese Psychological Research, 45, 25-37.

5Rogers, S. J., & Amato, P. R. (1997). Is marital quality declining? The evidence from two generations. Social Forces, 75, 1089-1100.

6Rogers, S. J., & Amato, P. R. (2000). Have changes in gender relations affected marital quality? Social Forces, 79, 731-753.

7Sprecher, S., & Felmlee, D. (1993). Conflict, love and other relationship dimensions for individuals in dissolving, stable, and growing premarital relationships. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 21, 115-125.

8Sprecher, S., Metts, S., Burleson, B., Hatfield, E., & Thompson, A. (1995). Domains of expressive interaction in intimate relationships. Associations with satisfaction and commitment. Family Relations, 44, 203-210.

9Strong, B., DeVault, C., & Sayad, B.W. (1999). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

10Sternberg, R.J. (1988). Triangulating love. In R.J. Sternberg & M.L. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 119-138). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

11Sternberg, R., & Grajek, S. (1984). The nature of love. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 312-327.

12Viederman, M. (1988). The nature of passionate love. In W. Gaylin, & E. Person, E. (Eds.), Passionate attachments: Thinking about love (pp 1-14). New York: Free Press.

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