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The Secret to Turning Friendship Into Romance

Relationships can develop, but only under certain circumstances.

Key points

  • Satisfying your partner's needs or wants increases how much they like you, but it may also reduce their desire to chase you for more.
  • The key is balance—intermittent rewards and a bit of tension. 
  • In successful relationships, partners like and love each other—and still chase after one another, too.

Previously, I wrote here on research about when you should play "hard to get" in relationships. That research also found an interesting distinction between behaviors that created "liking" and those that increased "desire" (Dai, Dong, & Jia, 2014). In other words, being easy, congenial, and friendly made a person more "likeable," but not more attractive or desirable as a romantic partner. In contrast, being aloof and challenging made a person more attractive and desirable, but did not make them likeable.

This finding left me wondering whether this distinction between liking/friendship and desiring/attraction could be behind other romantic issues as well. After all, many individuals find it difficult to avoid or get out of the "friend zone" and build a romantic connection with a friend (see here and here). Similarly, "nice" men and women often feel like they finish last in relationships, being picked over for "bad" boys and girls who appear more desirable (see here). Even those in long-term relationships who fall into friendly, companionate love sometimes need help re-sparking attraction and passion.

Lusting While Loathing

I uncovered an article by Litt, Khan, and Shiv (2010) titled "Lusting While Loathing: Parallel Counterdriving of Wanting and Liking." As the title suggests, the researchers were interested in exploring whether our motivation for liking something might be separate from our motivation to want or desire it—and if these motivations were separate, could they sometimes be in conflict with each other?

To test these questions, the researchers designed two experiments that "jilted" some participants in various ways. In the first experiment, some participants failed to win a prize, while others succeeded. In the second experiment, some participants were denied an expected reward, while others received it. The researchers then measured how much participants liked and desired to obtain the various prizes or rewards.

The results of both experiments supported a distinction between liking and desiring—as well as the possibility of the processes working in opposition. Participants who had been jilted showed an increased desire to obtain the prizes or rewards they had been denied, as compared to non-jilted participants. However, those jilted participants also demonstrated significantly less liking for the prizes/rewards once they were obtained than non-jilted participants did—in fact, they were more willing to trade the prizes for something else.

Put simply, being denied a reward made people want it more, but like it less when they got it. In contrast, getting the reward made them like it more, but less motivated to work to obtain more of it. Or, as the authors note, "These results demonstrate how dissociable psychological subsystems for wanting and liking can be driven in opposite directions" (p. 118).

What Does This Suggest About Love and Friendship?

Passionate love and friendly liking can sometimes conflict with one another. Too much nice guy (or gal) pleasing and you may find yourself killing attraction and desire in your partner. Too much bad boy (or girl) teasing, though, and you may find that your passionate lover doesn't really like you very much.

In other words, satisfying your partner's needs or wants increases how much they like you and how friendly they feel toward you—but it may also reduce their desire to chase you for more. In contrast, not satisfying a partner's needs may keep them passionately pursuing you and trying to please you, but will eventually lead to dislike, dissatisfaction, and animosity.

The key is balance—intermittent rewards and a bit of tension.

How might this look in practice? Consider three scenarios for the partners Chris and Pat:

Every time Pat even hints at a want or need, Chris is quick to fill it. In fact, Chris often fills those needs before Pat truly builds up a strong desire for them, just to be nice and thoughtful—without any concern for getting something in return. Over time, Pat will come to like Chris a lot—as a companion and friend. But Pat may feel little desire for Chris and perhaps not much motivation to please in return. This is the so-called "friend zone" in which desire has fizzled out—all liking, no wanting.

Now, suppose Chris was instead neglectful of Pat's needs. Left unfulfilled, Pat's needs and wants would become very strong. Pat would most likely chase after Chris constantly, doing whatever Chris wanted, simply to get some satisfaction. Over time, Pat would come to desire Chris a lot. However, Pat might also feel a lot of resentment toward Chris and perhaps little motivation to stay in the relationship. This is the relationship with the "bad" boy or girl, or a neglectful partner, that seems so passionate at first, but ends on a sour note—all wanting, no liking.

What Works

The answer for Chris and Pat is a balance. Suppose Chris addressed Pat's wants and needs in a reasonable manner. Chris might be quick to address important needs, while placing secondary wants below other matters. Chris might also make Pat wait at other times and earn satisfaction in some way that was mutually beneficial. Perhaps Chris might even flirt and tease with Pat a bit, putting Pat off for a minute, then offering a surprise. Over time, Chris would satisfy Pat enough to build a great friendship. However, Pat would also have to work for that satisfaction and sometimes wait, keeping some tension and desire as well. This is the balanced relationship—both liking and wanting.

As we have seen, desiring and liking are two distinct concepts and can often be at odds. Building a friendship can sometimes fizzle passion, while sparking desire can sometimes lead to resentment. Therefore, successful relationships balance anticipation with satisfaction—and wanting with liking. Truly successful lovers find the middle ground between too nice and neglectful. As a result, their partners like them, love them—and still chase after them, too.

Previous Articles from The Attraction Doctor

© 2014 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Dai, X., Dong, P., & Jia, J. S. (2014). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 521-526.

Litt, A., Khan, U., & Shiv, B. (2010). Lusting while loathing: Parallel counterdriving of wanting and liking. Psychological Science, 21, 118-125.

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