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How to Turn Friendship Into Love

Fascinating new research provides a potential roadmap.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

If you’re in the friend zone, how do you get out?

Whether she’s a new acquaintance or he’s someone you’ve known for years, having a friend who isn’t clearly reciprocating or denying your romantic interest is a challenging situation to navigate. Do you profess your love and risk losing the friendship? Do you bide your time, just waiting for something to happen? Or do you let it go, try to add some distance to your friendship, and look for love elsewhere?

Hidden love can be frustrating and emotionally distressing. Your heart pounds every time you’re with your friend, but you have no clear evidence that your friend feels (or doesn’t feel) the same way. You might feel anxious and uncertain, but hopeful as well: Could this turn into a romantic relationship?

For heterosexual individuals in other-sex friendships (also called cross-sex friendships or opposite-sex friendships), sexual and romantic tensions often run strong, even if there are no behaviors that clearly deviate from the norms that define friendship (Kaplan & Keys, 1997). We might be painfully aware of our own desires, all the while questioning where the other person stands. Is she interested? Does he want something more?

A new study out of the University of Maryland suggests that friendships are more likely to transition into romantic relationships when individuals engage in a bit of a cognitively biased thinking (Lemay & Wolf, 2016). It turns out that many enamored individuals project their strong romantic feelings onto their friends, even when those friends aren’t actually interested. In other words, people with strong feelings often overestimate their other-sex friends’ romantic interest in them. This false thinking has a fascinating outcome: It motives individuals to initiate real behaviors that can actually cause friends to reciprocate their interest.

It goes like this:

  • Person A and Person B are friends.
  • Person A holds strong feelings of romantic and sexual attraction for Person B, and projects those feelings on to Person B such that Person A thinks Person B is attracted to him/herself.
  • The belief of romantic reciprocation gives Person A the confidence to enact behaviors that can actually have a real favorable influence on Person B’s feelings.
  • Person A might flirt more, dress to impress, engage in intimate conversations, etc. In other words, Person A behaves differently because of a false belief that Person B is interested.
  • The outcome: Person B becomes interested.

Self-fulfilling prophecies can be powerful mechanisms and they underscore the importance of our thoughts and beliefs during social interactions. If we believe others are attracted to us, we might in fact do the behaviors that actually make them attracted to us, confirming our initial belief. And what was initially an illusion becomes reality.

Projection of romantic interest is not a universal phenomenon in other-sex friendships, even when those strong romantic feelings are held. The research tested the effect of self-perception on projection and discovered that people who viewed themselves as highly desirable partners engaged in projection more than those with less-favorable self-views (Lemay & Wolf, 2016). If you think yourself to be highly desirable, you may be more apt to think friends agree.

Further, projection doesn’t always lead to romantic interest, even when it motivates relationship initiation behaviors (e.g., flirting). Attraction can be positively influenced, but only if it starts off as neutral to favorable. If a friend doesn’t view his or her pursuer as a desirable romantic partner (e.g., having high mate value), the outcome isn’t favorable (Lemay & Wolf, 2016). Further, there’s a dark side to projection, as it could produce unwanted sexual advances if not tempered with an accurate sensitivity to feedback received during social interaction.

In sum, for many people, strong feelings of romantic interest form the foundation for a cognitive-behavioral sequence that creates the opportunity to transition a friendship into romance. These processes are often already at work in a friendship, but now we see how they transpire. To turn a friendship that’s viable for love into an actual romantic relationship, the take-home message is to do something: Flirt like your friend is interested, and then see how it’s received. At its heart, the study identifies behavior as the game changer in attraction.


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.

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

More from Theresa E. DiDonato Ph.D.
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