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This Is How Friendship Turns Into Romance

… and why friendlier partners may actually have better sex.

Solis Images/Shutterstock
Source: Solis Images/Shutterstock

Someone new has caught your attention—and seems to be flirting with you. Are those quick smiles a signal of interest, or is all of this friendly banter really just signs of friendliness?

Is this a chance for love, or not?

The challenge of determining if a new connection is on the road to love or friendship is made complicated by a number of factors. (For more on the differences between love and friendship, read here.) For example, are you thinking about the possibility of intense passion, a traditional romance, or intimate companionship? Are you looking for a casual fling or a life-long partnership? And how do you define love?

If you’re looking for a long-term romantic relationship, it’s important to recognize that they can vary in their quality quite widely. Individuals enter relationships with a diverse range of expectations and plans that are enacted over time; couples vary in their happiness, what they value in relationships, and how well their needs are met by their partners. One pattern that has emerged is that focusing on friendship in a relationship could actually be an incredibly healthy part of any long-term connection (VanderDrift, Wilson, & Agnew, 2013).

This suggests, then, that nurturing friendship with a new acquaintance could be a great way to find love. But yet this seems contradictory: Why devote friend-related energy to a relationship that you really want to be a romance?

Because friendship, it turns out, can make or break a romantic relationship. This is not unexpected: Most people would identify friendship as a feature of long-term love, but a recent scientific study demonstrates how valuing friendship may improve one's relationship quality. VanderDrift and colleagues (2012) showed that an array of positive outcomes is connected to how much people value a romantic partner as their friend.

Specifically, valuing friendship in a romantic relationship predicts commitment (no surprise), love (no surprise), and (surprise!) sexual need fulfillment (VanderDrift et al., 2012). Friendship in love, therefore, isn’t just about promoting support, understanding, and companionship—it also plays into the sex lives of couples. Interestingly, the research found that couples that directly prioritize the satisfaction of sexual needs actually end up with less fulfillment of those needs, whereas valuing friendship appeared to promote greater sexual need fulfillment.

Valuing friendship in a partner is far more important than most people think, as it protects against relationship dissolution, and supports positive relationship outcomes.

How does this relate to our initial attraction dilemma? If you are having trouble deciding if someone’s flirting or just being friendly, you might consider beginning by investing in the friendship. Such efforts would allow for more interaction and time spent together; and ultimately, more opportunity to discover shared interests, goals, or hobbies. Time together can also provide more space for acting on romantic feelings, should they be shared. If the potential for a romantic relationship is there, your initial efforts to value the friendship in that relationship can actually promote its long-term stability and health.


VanderDrift, L. E., Wilson, J. E., & Agnew, C. R. (2013). On the benefits of valuing being friends for nonmarital romantic partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(1), 115-131.