Can a Crush on a Friend Turn Into Romance?

New research on how to turn unrequited desire into romantic reality.

Posted Jun 26, 2016

India Picture/Shutterstock
Source: India Picture/Shutterstock

Unrequited love can be painful, so painful that we often falsely believe that our feelings are reciprocated.1 This often occurs in the context of friendships, when one friend is happy with the status quo and the other hopes the relationship will turn romantic.2 We imagine that the friend reciprocates those feelings, even when they don’t.3,4

Should we stop fantasizing that one day things will change and be realistic about these one-sided relationships? Or is there reason to hold out hope? New research examines when one-sided romantic feelings become a self-fulfilling prophecy.5

In a recent paper, Edward LeMay and Noah Wolf claim that falsely projecting your own romantic desires onto a friend may give you the confidence to pursue that friend by flirting, having more physical contact, or even directly expressing your desires.5 This kind of behavior can put into play a self-fulfilling prophecy—when your attitudes toward a person ultimately influence that person to behave in a way consistent with your expectations as a result of the way you treat that person.

There are two links in the self-fulfilling prophecy chain:

  1. Your expectations lead you to treat someone differently.
  2. That person changes their behavior due to your treatment of them. 

Imagine that Leonard has a crush on his friend Penny, but Penny doesn’t feel the same way. However, Leonard falsely believes that Penny secretly has feelings for him. This could embolden him to flirt, be more affectionate, playfully tease her, and even confess his feelings for her. Eventually Leonard's behavior stirs romantic feelings in Penny and she starts to see him differently.

This scenario was examined in two studies:

In the first study, 127 pairs of opposite-sex friends (all college students) completed questionnaires assessing their romantic desire for a friend and their perception of this friend’s romantic desire for them. The students also reported on how often they engaged in romantic initiation behaviors, such as telling the other person about their romantic interest, attempts at physical intimacy (e.g., “Tried to kiss him/her”), flirtation, nonverbal communication (e.g., “Looked deep into his/her eyes"), and appearance enhancement (e.g., “Tried to make myself look more attractive around him/her”). They also completed a questionnaire assessing their own mate value—that is, how good a catch they felt they were.

The results showed that we do project our romantic feelings onto our friends. When participants had a romantic or sexual desire for their friend, they tended to overestimate how much that desire was reciprocated. This was especially likely to occur for participants who felt that they were a good catch; a less confident person is unlikely to falsely believe that others are interested in him or her without evidence. Moreover, those who projected their own desires onto their friend were more likely to engage in relationship initiation behaviors such as flirting.

These results establish the first link in the self-fulfilling prophecy chain: Falsely believing that your friend desires you makes you more likely to take the risk of flirting with them or confessing your feelings. But does this really lead to increased interest on the part of the friend? In a second study, the researchers surveyed 102 opposite-sex friend pairs once per week for a month, completing the same measures as in the previous study. Participants also evaluated their friend’s mate value.

The results again showed that participants projected romantic desires onto their friend, which made them more likely to make romantic gestures toward the friend. In addition, participants who reported the highest levels of desire for their friend, and those whose desire increased over the four weeks, thought their friend desired them more. This was unrelated to whether or not the friend’s desire increased over that time period. As in the first study, this kind of projection was especially likely to happen if the participant felt that she or he was a good catch.

These results also provide evidence for the final link in the self-fulfilling prophecy chain: The participants’ romantic behaviors toward their friends made it more likely that the friends became more attracted to them over time. But there was an important caveat to the findings—this only happened if the friend perceived the participant as a good catch. If the friend generally thought the participant was undesirable, no amount of romancing could change that.

These results suggest that if you’re nursing a crush on a friend, you shouldn’t necessarily give up hope: Holding onto possibly false beliefs about your friend’s feelings may be good for your long-term romantic prospects. And if you have the confidence to make a move, it may stoke your friend’s desire. However, this is only likely to happen if your friend already thinks that you’re a good catch, but doesn’t have romantic feelings toward you.

If you’re not someone your friend sees as a desirable mate, you can’t expect them to change their mind about what they want in a partner.


1 Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R., & Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliationJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 377-394.

2 Kaplan, D. L., & Keys, C. B. (1997). Sex and relationship variables as predictors of sexual attraction in cross-sex platonic friendships between young heterosexual adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 14, 191-206.

3 Henningsen, D. D., & Henningsen, M. L. M. (2010). Testing error management theory: Exploring the commitment skepticism bias and the sexual overperception bias. Human Communication Research, 36, 618-634.

4 Koenig, B. L., Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Ketelaar, T. (2007). Misperception of sexual and romantic interests in opposite-sex friendships: Four hypotheses. Personal Relationships, 14, 411-429.

5 LeMay, E. P., & Wolf, N. R. (2016). Projection of romantic and sexual desire in opposite-sex friendships: How wishful thinking creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 864-878.