Turns Out, Flings and Serious Relationships All Start the Same Way

So maybe just see where it goes?

Couple walking on beach
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Ten years ago, I went to the movies with a guy who lived next door to me in high school. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, so I wasn’t looking for anything serious. That certainly wasn’t going to be an issue with this guy, though. A stickler for punctuality, I arrived at his house at the time we agreed, only to find that he was still getting dressed. We made small talk while he ironed his shirt. This isn’t going anywhere, I thought, pushing away my slight annoyance.

Today, we share a kid, a house and two small dogs. Who could have possibly seen that coming?

While it’s pretty common for people who are head over heels to talk about how they just knew their partner was “the one” from the very beginning, don’t believe the hype. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, short-term and long-term relationships actually look pretty much the same in the very beginning.

Researchers executed a series of five studies to better understand the role of relationship length in the science of romantic relationships. In total, they surveyed more than 800 people. In one experiment, for example, they asked participants to reflect back on their short- and long-term relationships and indicate the timing of important events, such as their first one-on-one date or first sexual encounter. They also asked them to gauge their romantic interest at that point in time. Their goal was to figure out at what point those warm and fuzzy feelings generally start to plateau and decline in short-term relationships.

“At approximately the 15th event, romantic interest continued to rise in long-term relative to short-term relationships, and ultimately, long-term relationships reached a higher peak of romantic interest than did short-term relationships,” the study states. “These data are consistent with the possibility that short-term relationships are relationships that fail to progress beyond the early initiation stages, perhaps because one or both partners discovered things about each other that caused romantic interest to cease rising or to plummet.”

The study’s authors also found that “as the relationship becomes sexual, romantic interest in short-term relationships levels out and falls, presaging an end to the relationship that arrives sooner than in long-term relationships.”

As Paul Eastwick, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and lead author on the study, explained in a statement: “People would hook up with some partners for the first time and think ‘wow, this is pretty good.’ People tried to turn those experiences into long-term relationships. Others sparked more of a ‘meh’ reaction. Those were the short-term ones.”

Interestingly, the study also found people define “short-term relationships” a lot of different ways: from one-night stands with strangers to casual hookups with well-known friends that can last days, weeks and even months. And in many cases, the nature of these relationships wasn’t clear until much later with hindsight.

The takeaway from this is clear: It’s impossible to know from the jump if the cutie you’re eyeballing is marriage material or not. In fact, the study supports previous research that found the idea of “love at first sight” is actually an illusion. Some things really do become clearer with time.

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