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From Friendship to Courtship: How Friends Fall in Love

Attraction and romantic projection can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

View Apart/Shutterstock
Source: View Apart/Shutterstock

Some of you know a When Harry Met Sally couple — that seemingly perfectly matched couple who existed platonically as best friends for years until suddenly announcing they were engaged. “I knew it!” we often respond, wondering while we view their compatibility in retrospect, why it took them so long.

Yet we also know a couple whose great friendship was destroyed by unreciprocated attraction, because one-way affection, or a desire for “something more,” can ruin a great friendship.

If you are beginning to feel the tingle of attraction in a platonic friendship, should you explore the possibility that your feelings might be reciprocated? After all, a relationship of compatibility and trust can serve as a strong foundation for romance. If you are inclined to make a move, how do you test the waters without sinking the friendship?

First, consider the potential consequences if your assessment of partner potential is incorrect.

Drama in the Workplace

A variety of factors impact the tricky decision to explore moving a platonic friendship to the next level. Co-workers face the prospect of having their relationship crash and burn while continuing to (somehow) continue working with each other every day. Assuming the relationship was public knowledge, the resulting office drama can create problems for both parties, personally and professionally. No one wants to be the topic of conversation around the watercooler after a failed attempt to mix business with pleasure.

Neighborhood Watch

Neighbors face a similar predicament if a community-based romance goes south. Many relationships spring from geographic desirability, due in part to the attraction of familiarity. We tend to like, trust, and be attracted to people with whom we frequently interact. But post-breakup awkwardness and negativity may affect the neighborhood as well as the exes. Neighbors and friends are thrust into the difficult position of deciding which of you (or both) to invite to the next block party.

Worse, given the residential proximity, former paramours will eventually witness a parade of new candidates, and eventually their replacement, coming to visit after the breakup.

Romantic Projection Can Become a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Despite the risks and potential drawbacks, people try to take friendship to the next level all the time. Sometimes, friendship becomes courtship through behaviors initiated through romantic projection. Research by Lemay and Wolf (2016) found that projection of romantic and sexual desire within opposite-sex friendships might lead to romantic relationships when the perceivers are high in “mate value.”[i]

They conducted two studies in which individuals with romantic feelings toward friends projected that desire, resulting in a perception that their friends reciprocated the romantic feelings. This perception prompted relationship initiation behaviors. This projection was more pronounced in people who viewed themselves as high in mate value. Interestingly, targets appeared to be influenced by the overtures when they shared the view that the projectors were high in mate value, suggesting that romantic desire can create biased perceptions that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Mismatched Attraction and Assortative Mating

The results may be different when friends are mismatched on the attractiveness scale. We all know “handsome couples," beautiful pairings who complement each other in terms of physical beauty. Yet not all couples look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (and they're no longer even together). Some strong relationships feature partners who fall in different places on the attractiveness spectrum. Many such apparent mismatches-turned-romances began as friendships.

Research by Hunt et al. (2015), aptly entitled “Leveling the Playing Field,” found that mismatched attraction levels resulted in couples being friends longer before becoming romantically involved.[ii] They reference the concept of “assortative mating,” the idea that people prefer partners with similar physical, psychological, and behavioral traits.

The researchers found that couples that became romantically involved shortly after meeting were more likely to have paired up based on similar levels of physical attractiveness, as compared to couples that became romantically involved after a longer period of time as friends. They also found that attractiveness-based assortative mating was more pronounced in couples that had not been friends before they became lovers.

These findings are consistent with prior research linking short acquaintance periods with romantic “consensual desirability,” as compared to longer acquaintance periods, which involve romance that relies on “unique, idiosyncratic desirability.”

Friends Forever?

Deciding to explore becoming “more than friends” with a longtime acquaintance is an individual decision, worthy of serious contemplation due to the potential adverse consequences. If you decide to attempt the transition, remember that a failed romance does not have to result in a broken friendship. There are scores of friends who have remained just that after failing to establish something more. Within relationships of trust and respect, it is indeed possible to be good friends forever.


[i] Edward P. Lemay Jr. And Noah R. Wolf, ”Projection of Romantic and Sexual Desire in Opposite-Sex Friendships: How Wishful Thinking Creates a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42, no. 7 (2016): 864-878.

[ii] Lucy L. Hunt, Paul W. Eastwick, and Eli J. Finkel, “Leveling the Playing Field,” Psychological Science 26, no. 7 (2015): 1046–1053.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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