12:01AM BST 19 Oct 2008
Some couples spend years as platonic friends before suddenly deciding to get it together. A recipe for disaster - or a long and happy marriage? By Jenny Tucker
It was at her boss's wedding that Sophie Holland decided, with stone-cold certainty, that she wanted to be next down the aisle. The man earmarked for the occasion? Simon, one of her closest friends for the previous three years. 'It was the morning after. We'd stayed overnight at his parents' house, and I woke up and thought, "I am going to ask him to marry me."' Until then Sophie, 40, had worked alongside Simon, 44, in a fabric shop in Soho, London. She'd found this affable, gentle man appealing as a shoulder to cry on when her succession of thrilling but chaotic relationships dissolved. He'd even sit with her in the pub and have a couple of warm-up drinks while she waited for a new date to arrive. She described him to other friends as 'not very exciting'. But then something changed. Sophie says it happened quickly. 'On that day of the wedding, when everyone around me was saying how lovely he was, I suddenly thought they were right. It was like an epiphany.'
Most psychologists would say that was unusual. The reality is that when friends become lovers the shift in their emotions is usually gradual. In fact, it's so subtle they don't even notice it's happening until the moment a kindly hug becomes loaded with intention. Mo Kurimbokus, a relationship counsellor, says, 'Think of it like foreplay. All the time you're being friends, you're learning about each other. Subconsciously you're deciding whether you can take it further, from a friendship on to a more emotional and sexual level.'
Of course, the overlap in what we want from both friends and partners is significant. In a poll conducted for the women's website handbag.com 83 per cent of female participants believed that a purely platonic friendship could exist between men and women. But, when probed further, one third said they secretly lusted after their male friends. It seems that physical attraction is often a by-product of a cemented companionship. Yet not every close friendship will develop into the kind of romance that would give Danielle Steele a run for her money.
'It's the sexual chemistry that ultimately sends you over the edge,' states Christine Northam, a counsellor working for Relate. 'And there are certain people, friends or otherwise, who you could never imagine as a sexual partner. The chemistry just isn't there. In the business, we call it "couple fit". Each of us has a psychological make-up that has been moulded by life's influences and experiences, and most of the time we're not even aware of it. We unconsciously sum up this blueprint in another person, and if there is a "fit" we make an emotional connection. Because long-standing friends have had plenty of time to develop this bond, they already know they have plenty in common. Their judgement tends to be more reliable.'
Sophie and Simon have now been married seven years and have just had their first child, Maggie Mae. 'We are incredibly close,' says Sophie. 'I truly believe that because we were friends first our relationship has always functioned on a much deeper level, which is actually quite rare among couples. It's difficult for me to define why it switched focus that day of the wedding, but, looking back, I think Simon was starting to get under my skin. I'd go on dates with other men and find myself thinking about him, and once I joked that we should get together. I suppose I was testing the water to judge his reaction. Deep down I knew he already liked me when I made my move. We were sitting on the bed in his parents' spare room when he kissed me for the first time. If I'm honest it felt so familiar, and it wasn't a fire-in-the-stomach thing, but it made me very happy. All day I couldn't stop thinking what an amazing person this quiet man had become.'
For Simon the development in their relationship was a complete shock. 'I had no idea that Sophie's feelings for me had changed,' he recalls. 'After a few months of first meeting her I realised I was attracted to her, and as time went by my feelings grew a lot stronger. I'm not the sort of bloke who takes the lead, so I sat back while she went on various dates with other men. Secretly I hoped there might be a future for us, so when she proposed I couldn't have been happier – or more gobsmacked.'
In her book, Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me, Lucia van der Post writes: 'All I know is that love comes out of the blue, sometimes when you least expect it, and that the key is not necessarily to go looking for it but to keep your heart and mind open to a wider horizon.' Yet, where friendship is concerned, the trigger that instigates a full swing into commitment is complex. A kink in events tends to play a part. Perhaps Sophie had tired of flitting through relationships and wanted someone more dependable? Women in their thirties, who may be thinking about having children, may suddenly be more inclined to see the appeal of a devoted friend. And often a crisis highlights the strengths of a person and renders them compatible (which is why some widows marry lifelong comrades because they've provided support in the depths of sadness).
As we live in a time when many relationships seem doomed to end in a dosi-do of partner swapping, few of us hold out much hope of ever celebrating a golden wedding anniversary. That's why trust is key to the transition from friends to lovers. After all, if trust is established, you'll be more likely to believe your relationship has a chance of longevity. Richard Layard, a leading economist, writes in Happiness, Lessons From a New Science, 'As social beings, we want to trust each other. The happiness in one country compared with another can be largely explained by six key factors… [the first]: the proportion of people who say that other people can be trusted…' Ray Pahl, a professor at the
Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, agrees about the primary importance of trust. 'In our world the sheer struggle of two people trying to cope with everyday pressures and have a shot at a decent life is immense. If they feel they are in it together and can trust each other to be supportive, that is extremely appealing. Also, as you move into middle age, you start to consider the question, "Do I want to get old with you?" If you have a trusting friendship, the answer will more likely be yes.'
It was a breach of trust that made Natasha Miller, now 39, completely revaluate her approach to commitment. Fourteen years ago she moved from England to the Italian riviera with her family and boyfriend. The couple married in 1996, and had a son, now 10, and twins, now five. When the twins were just two weeks old Natasha discovered her husband was having an affair. 'I knew something was up because after I came out of hospital I noticed he was behaving very strangely,' she explains. 'Then one night I went to get something from our car, and he tried to stop me. I don't know what made me think it, but I asked him if there were condoms in there. He couldn't look me in the eye. I had a year of mourning after he left. I didn't see anyone, I didn't go anywhere. I'd been with my husband since I was 18 and he was my perfect everything. I couldn't believe he would betray me.'
It wasn't until the end of that year, when the divorce was finalised, that Natasha felt she could begin her life again. She started hanging out with groups of friends, and even had a couple of brief relationships. Then nearly two years ago she met Marco, 44, when he came to her English classes as a student. 'From the word go I thought he was a lovely person. I was faintly attracted to him but, physically, he really wasn't my usual type. After a couple of months he started socialising with me and my other friends, and he sometimes came to my house with my boyfriend at the time. We became good friends, and through the English lessons I learnt a lot about him and we often talked about my marriage. I loved the fact that he rarely judged me and was always so caring. I suppose, looking back, that was his appeal. I'd had my fun flings after the divorce, and I was starting to want something more.'
And so it happened. Last Christmas, after more than a year of platonic friendship, Natasha and Marco went for a drink alone. They met for only an hour, but Natasha says she felt distinctly different towards him that evening. 'I desperately wanted him to kiss me,' she remembers. 'But we didn't actually have any physical contact until the New Year when we went on a date and the sexual tension between us was so obvious. I knew then we'd crossed the line.' Natasha admits she's now starting to allow herself to believe that Marco could be part of her future. 'I had to be able to trust him. I have my children to consider, and I've been hurt so badly. I'm not keen for that to happen again.'
Not knowing the difference between lust and something more substantial could, however, mean the loss of everything. The counsellor Mo Kurimbokus says, 'However close you are as friends, you never really know someone until you become more intimate. You need to be sure this is the way forward for you, and, if so, then negotiate the ground rules because the boundaries have changed. Whereas before, as friends, you could flirt with whoever you fancied, now you might not be able to flaunt that option. Remember, if you split up as lovers you will probably lose your friend, too.'
David Grace, a 55-year-old lawyer from Brighton, slept with Alice, a friend he'd known for six years, after he divorced his wife. 'At that time I was an emotional wreck. I'd been with my wife nearly 30 years and it was a messy break-up. Alice was always in the background, listening to my problems and taking my midnight phone calls without complaint. Then suddenly it clicked that she fancied me. I suppose I was flattered and we started going out with each other. It lasted a couple of months, but I was never as into it as her. I was still devastated about my failed marriage, plus I found the sex with Alice disappointing. I felt I knew her too well, and I soon got bored. When we broke up she went mad, telling me I'd deceived her. I rarely see her now, just occasionally around town, but she's always offhand. I've felt very sad and guilty about the whole thing. I wish I'd never got into it.'
Christine Northam of Relate agrees that sex can be a dirty word where friends are concerned. 'Sex complicates things, and not always for the better. Even if a couple stay together they can find that sex isn't quite the grand passion they imagined. Because you're friends first, there might not be too many surprises, and so sex can be convenient and comfortable rather than wildly exciting – we all know that initial thrill you tend to feel when you first meet someone, and long-standing friends can miss out on that. Every couple is different, though. Other people report a thriving sex life which has been built on knowing someone incredibly well first.'
If there's one thing the experts seem to agree on it's the healthy survival rates of many friend-to-lover relationships. Ray Pahl says, 'Friendship is often the basis for a deeper kind of love, one that tends to be more long-term.' While Kurimbokus adds, 'When you're friends first, there are so many qualities you're ticking off along the way. If it all adds up, then you've got a real fighting chance.' Sophie Holland reckons she is living proof: 'Our love has grown so much over the years but the crux of everything is our deep, strong friendship. Simon is my best friend. I am absolutely certain of him in every way. And that is the most wonderful feeling.'