This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
Steve Lehman was a college senior near Philadelphia when he started to realize something wonderful and terrifying.
“I remember there were times where we were hanging out just like we’d always hung out since freshman year, and I would look over and I would just think like, ‘Oh my God, I’m like in love with one of my best friends.’”
He was looking over at Katya Shipyatsky, a senior at a different, nearby school. They’d hung out for a few years, as close friends, but things were changing now.
“There were multiple times of the semester where Katya and I were hanging out one-on-one, and each time I would have, like, the urge to tell her how I felt about her and I stopped myself each time,” he said.
He was afraid. But again, this was senior year, and life is short. Things finally came to a head one night as they finished watching a Bruce Springsteen documentary on Netflix.
“I thought like, ‘This is it,’” he said. “I have to say something, like, I cannot let this movie end and not tell Katya how I feel about her.”
It was just the two of them, in the dark — Netflix and bare your soul.
“I was just kind of like shaking in my chair, just like knowing that I had to do it, but so scared of doing it,” he said.
The Boss said something beautiful about life and love to end the movie. Both of them cried as the credits rolled, and she was struck by how moved he was.
“I think I had never seen Steve cry before. I’m not usually a physical, like touchy person — I’m not super touchy with people, but, I felt like I had to do something,” she said.
Meanwhile, Steve was seconds from telling her everything.
“I looked over at her and before I could even say anything, she reached over and took my hand,” he said. “And I think if there was any doubt in my mind, that gesture totally erased it.”
His voice was shaky, Steve remembered.
“My words were something like this: ‘I know this is going to sound cheesy after watching this, but I have to tell you that I have a huge crush on you,’” he said.
”I imagined my face looking something kind of like the little, surprise emoji,” she said. “It was one of the biggest shocks in my life.”
She had no idea it was coming. He had no idea what she’d say.
For Steve, it wasn’t just garden-variety rejection at stake. This wasn’t just some cute girl shooting him down at a party, it was his best friend sitting there.
What’s the attraction?
Heterosexual cross-sex friendships are common but a relatively recent thing in most societies, says Heidi Reeder, a communication professor at Boise State University.
“One of the foundations of friendship is equality,” she said. “You’ve got to see one another as equals.”
As a society becomes more equal, Reeder said, more possibilities for true friendship emerge.
Throughout most of history, men and women have been kept relatively separate, she said. “It wasn’t until really the feminist movement that women could move into the workplace, and that they weren’t kept as much in isolation.”
Within the cross-sex friendship, Reeder said, there are basically four types of initial attraction that can occur.
“The first, and the most common, is friendship attraction. Just, you know, ‘Gosh, I just really liked this person as a friend,’” she said.
Then there’s romantic: “I could see us being boyfriend, girlfriend, getting married, et cetera,” she said.
The last two are types of physical attraction. One is subjective: “He’s beautiful to me.” The other, objective: “I can see how other people think she’s sexy.”
But how one person sees the other person doesn’t always match.
“If there is unmatched attraction, at some point someone has physical sexual attraction, the other one doesn’t. Someone has a romantic attraction, the other one doesn’t. They [then] have to resolve that and let that go and really decide, you know what, friendship is actually the priority,” Reeder said.
With Steve and Katya, that’s kind of what happened. Katya first met Steve in a mutual friend’s dorm, a kind of casual get-together. She thought he was just so cool.
“Sometimes, he would even do like a denim-on-denim look, but it didn’t look stupid,” she said. “It, like, looked cool.”
Denim on denim was cool to her somehow — that’s subjective attraction. She initially had a kind of mini-crush.
“I kind of dismissed it because he seemed, like, really cool, like too cool for me,” she said.
Katya was a real introvert before college, and actually, so was Steve.
“Like, seeing my friends every day in school was enough social interaction for me,” he said. “I didn’t need more, so I would go home and do homework, and on weekends I like wouldn’t really hang out with people.”
But neither knew that about the other. Steve said he noticed Katya in the ‘yeah, she’s pretty hot’ sense, but he too dismissed the attraction. They were forming a cool friend group between their dorms; both quietly figured a romantic relationship would just muck things up.
The more their friendship developed, the more interesting it got.
“There’s a lot of gender norms that go along with same-sex friendships, and you get the opportunity to kind of break some of those gender norms,” Reeder said.
Folks report a strange freedom in cross-sex friendships, she said: Guys get more vulnerable, reveal more of their inner lives, and women shed the caring listener role.
“It allows one to access a sort of a different part of their personality when they’re with a friend,” she said. “It’s like there’s less conflict, there’s less rules, you know, just be yourself.”
Steve and Katya described the same summer in Philadelphia. It was all art museums, and parks, and often it was just the two of them. Katya called their time together liberating.
“It was nice to just talk about art or talk about what kinds of books I was reading, or how I was feeling about my internship, and not have to delve into, you know, trying to theorize about why boys ghost girls or like things like that,” she said.
And Steve, for his part, said their talks had a unique richness others didn’t.
“And not even, I feel like easy to talk to is one thing, but like a joy to talk to. I felt good after talking to her,” he said.
If you’re in the ‘boys and girls can’t be friends’ camp, Reeder said, get over it, you’re missing out on stuff like this. She actually predicts nursing homes in the not-too-distant future will have more and richer cross-sex friends as a mix of greater sex equality meets an aging generation with no real taboo against it.
The relationship shift
Why do some friends become more?
“All I can say is that I’m pretty confident we don’t know,” said Paul Eastwick, a researcher at University of California, Davis.
He studies how romantic relationships start.
“We have no evidence that there’s anything you can assess for about two people before they meet that will have any bearing on whether they’re going to like each other or whether they’re going to form a relationship,” he said.
Much of it is a mystery, but Eastwick has learned a lot studying couples and holding experimental speed-dating events.
“There weren’t candles, but you know, the lighting was a little low, and we actually set it up in an art gallery,” he said.
First off, Eastwick learned that first impressions are all about looks – both men and women made a big deal about physical attractiveness in choosing who they might want to date. But he also learned first impressions don’t really matter in the long run. Only about 5% of the speed daters ever saw each other again.
“What we realized was that it’s actually quite challenging to introduce people to each other from scratch when they have not met the other person before and expect to watch a romantic relationship appear before your eyes,” he said.
And even those who did go on to see each other again, probably started seeing each other differently.
“There’s 10 men and 10 women. So here’s this one guy, right? The 10 women generally agreed, you know, he’s a six,” Eastwick said.
Really strong consensus, he’s alright-looking.
“But now fast-forward in time, six months. And some of the women now think he’s a nine, and some of the women now think he’s a two,” he said.
Maybe a couple months later, the objective attraction is still there — you can see how others think he’s cute, but the subjective attraction is gone. He’s less attractive to you.
“So you will literally start to see somebody as less attractive because … you find their jokes not particularly funny,” Eastwick said. “You think their sense of humor is sort of crude, gross kind of sense of humor you’re not into, and now they appear in your eyes less attractive than they did.”
The looks are still there, but Eastwick said the looks have been twisted by other stuff. He calls this the degrading attractive consensus and it can be positive or negative.
Katya, for instance, eventually forgot about how cool Steve looked in all that denim. Instead, she saw how kind he could be.
“It was his mom’s 60th birthday, and he made her this really beautiful compilation, like, audio recording of all of the people in her life, talking about why they loved her,” she said.
Kindness beats cool.
“It was just natural to him. It was never like it’s too much work,” she said. “It was always just like, ‘Oh, I am doing this for my mom. Like, of course I will,’” she said.
That’s the kind of thing you find out about a person over time, and to Eastwick, that’s an important point.
He said most romantic relationships do tend to bubble out of your friend or acquaintance group, people you know for a while, people you may call friends.
“If you ask people in general: How long did you know each other before you started this relationship? The answer usually on average is about a year,” he said. “And I think that answer often surprises people.”
It may be surprising because apps are starting to change this dynamic. The low success rate in his speed-dating events offer a clue as to why so many people find dating apps exhausting. To Eastwick, it’s sort of like going about forming a relationship backwards — just becoming a couple before doing any of the homework, getting to know each other’s friends, routines and habits.
“Getting to know each other’s friends, making sure that your friends like her and, you know, you sort of figure out how to navigate your way in the social network. Now, you have to do it all from scratch,” he said. “Like that all would have been part of the prelude to you getting together traditionally, and now, it’s something you have to navigate as one of your first tasks as a couple.”
Unless you’re already friends …
Back to Steve and Katya. They’re perhaps the increasingly rare potential couple that’s done their homework. They really know each other. Yet Reeder, the communication professor at Boise State, brought up something more important than that: simple timing, dumb luck.
“I think it was on ‘Seinfeld’ where he said it’s amazing that anyone ever gets together, you know, the chances that any given friend is going to be also your soulmate or your long-term partner is just statistically low,” she said.
She probably wouldn’t have put money on Steve’s chances.
“You have to meet a whole lot of people to find someone that you really want to partner with,” Reeder said. “So I think it’s just a statistics game.”
But Steve, back in that Netflix glow, had already staked his position, put his cards on the table. No turning back. It was time for Katya’s answer.
“He was probably like pretty annoyed with me. I, well, OK, I would’ve been very annoyed with me,” she said.
Katya didn’t give him a yes or a no. Said she had to think about it. And then they went on winter break. A few days became a week, one week became two.
Steve started doing the mental prep work for the no.
“I was sure that she did not feel the same way, I was positive,” he said. “I think part of that was I didn’t want to allow myself to think that she did like me, cause then if she didn’t, I’d be so much more sad.”
But then, when the answer finally came, it was a yes.
“I couldn’t believe what I just heard,” he said.
She told him over FaceTime.
“It was a combination of disbelief and ecstasy.”
Katya took so long to answer because of a bunch of what-ifs.
“What if this doesn’t work? What if we try it, and it’s weird, and what if we’re, like, not compatible?” she asked herself.
What if this relationship failed and she lost a boyfriend and her best friend. A lot was a stake for her, too.
Bill Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University, has studied friendship since the 1970s, and he could have shared some comforting science.
“You look at troubled married couples and you look at couples that report being satisfied with their marriage, and you look at 30 years of research and identify two variables that distinguish what we might call happy couples from troubled,” he said.
The first is just luck, matched affinity for each other — and they happened to meet.
“The second was that they were also friends because, since they were friends, that helped them get through really tough times and in their relationship,” he said.
On hearing the story of Steve and Katya, how they started out as just friends before Steve finally made his confessions, Rawlins takes offense at the phrase “just friends.” As in, what do you mean “just?”
“You have Aristotle saying [in] the fourth century BCE … life is not worth living without friends,” Rawlins said. “And I have heard people — hundred years old — say, my life wouldn’t have been worth living without my friends.”
He said the hierarchy of friends being below or less intense than lovers is meaningless. One is not more anything than the other in his mind, but there is an interplay.
“I’ll tell you this, when you look at people who have been friends before they become lovers, they’re nicer to each other,” he said. “Typically, you know, that dance of the scorpions, you know, ‘I’ll be wrapped around your finger thing or you’ll be wrapped around my finger,’ that withholding of commitment, friends don’t do that.”
Instead, he said, friends are more likely to be open, to say what they want to say, and to give each other what he calls two gifts.
The first gift, is independence: Do what’s best for you, you don’t owe me anything.
“I gift you the freedom to be independent from me cause I want what’s best for you. So at the end of the college, if you find a job in Paris, you got to do that,” he said. “You’ve always wanted to go to Paris. So that’s the freedom to be independent.”
Steve and Katya did just that. After a short semester and summer together as a couple, each moved abroad, to Spain and Russia respectively.
The second gift? “The freedom to be dependent,” Rawlins said. “At the same time,… I say, ‘But I just want you to know if you need me, I’m here for you.’”
That’s proved to be true for Steve. Though Katya couldn’t have learned about his kindness from a Tinder profile, he couldn’t have learned about her strength from some speed date.
“When each of us are having bad days where we are, I’m so impressed and amazed at how she can handle them,” he said. “She’s very strong.”
And when they’re asked: Look you could have had all this time together as a blissful couple only a short drive apart. Do you regret not saying how you felt earlier, spending those years together as just friends?
“I wouldn’t trade them for anything,” she said.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.
Katya Shipyatsky and Steve Lehman are a couple now, and they’re facing a new challenge: two weeks of quarantine following their evacuation from Europe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s going to be tough for them, it would be tough for anyone. But they’ve got something going for them that a lot of couples don’t: their friendship.