by Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.


  • Because friendships offer a safe space to develop deeper ties, frequently, attraction sparks interaction.
  • Quality friendships often escalate to exclusive romantic relationships, as opposed to friends with benefits.
  • Factors impacting friendship escalation include anticipating rewards, quality of friendship, attraction, and expected social approval.

Quality friendships offer a safe space to develop deeper ties. And frequently, attraction sparks interaction. But what is the next step? Research reveals the factors that determine how friendships escalate into “something more.”

From Pals to Partners: The Evolution of Friendship

Valerie Akbulut and Harry Weger, Jr., examined the ways in which friendships escalate to the next level.[i] They introduced and tested relationship adaptation theory within cross-sex friendships, investigating the circumstances prompting escalation to a relationship of either exclusive dating or friends with benefits. Factors predicting escalation to exclusive dating included dating status, anticipated rewards, expected social disapproval, quality of friendship, and attractiveness. Factors predicting escalation to friends with benefits included biological sex, anticipated rewards, expected social disapproval, sexual permissiveness, and attractiveness.

Akbulut and Weger note that in explaining escalation from friendship to a higher degree of intimacy, attraction played the largest role. They note, however, attraction is not itself sufficient for romantic escalation, a minimum degree of attraction is necessary. They also observe that preference for physical attraction is apparently lower to prompt escalation to an uncommitted sexual relationship, a finding they speculate is especially true for men. And they also found that friends who anticipate more rewards with fewer costs are more favorably predisposed toward escalating their friendship.

Akbulut and Weger report one result they describe as counterintuitive: The negative association between friendship quality and feelings about becoming friends with benefits. They note that high-quality friendships are positively linked with the willingness to become romantic partners, suggesting that friends would rather begin dating than merely add sexual benefits, perhaps recognizing the risk that uncommitted sex can ruin a satisfying friendship.

Regarding the impact of social networks, Akbulut and Weger note that expected disapproval plays a role in the decision to escalate a friendship. When friends belong to the same social group, both parties likely rely on network members for social and emotional support. The risk of losing these resources might create hesitancy to escalate the friendship.

And regarding the link between dating status and relationship escalation, Akbulut and Weger found it did not predict desire for transitioning from friends to friends with benefits but did for romantic relationships. They explain that people likely believe that romantic escalation requires ending a current romantic relationship, but escalation to friends with benefits doesn’t; it merely presents an opportunity to add a sexual partner.

Healthy Relationships Involve Romance and Respect

Quality friendships that evolve into quality relationships do not involve casual sex or concern over losing the respect of one’s social network. That is because healthy unions are characterized by mutual respect, trust, and relational investment. Good friends that become exclusive partners win both approval and admiration from friends and family, so there is no hesitancy to go public. Having been friends first, the comfort of familiarity only adds fuel to the fire, sparking a quality romance that involves both compatibility and chemistry.

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