A classic story of casual sex gone wrong is that one person involved in the relationship develops unreciprocated romantic feelings, leading to distress and disappointment. In contrast, pop culture tells us that the best ending to a casual sexual relationship is for it to blossom into a loving, committed partnership. Take, for example, three movies that hit theaters in 2011: No Strings Attached, Friends with Benefits, and Crazy, Stupid Love. Each of these movies follows two attractive young adults who discover that their uncommitted sexual encounters give rise to romantic feelings, ultimately resulting in a happily committed romantic relationship. These movies suggest that, for all of the fuss we make about keeping it casual and not looking for anything serious, what people really want is love, and having casual sex is a common way of finding love.
Although we receive plenty of messages telling us that casual sex can turn into happy, committed romantic relationships, and that this outcome is preferable to maintaining or ending a casual relationship, these messages are guided by what sells, not what works. What does research say about transitioning from a casual sexual relationship to a committed relationship? Is it common to want a committed relationship from a casual relationship? Is it common for hookups, one-night stands and friends with benefits to turn into romantic relationships? Are romantic relationships that started out as casual sex as healthy and emotionally fulfilling as relationships that were romantic from the start?
Is it common to want a committed relationship from a casual relationship?
The answer to this question is complicated and depends on a number of factors—for example, women are more likely to report wanting a relationship from a casual partner than men are (Lehmiller, VanderDrift, & Kelly, 2011), and people with friends with benefits relationships may be more likely to want a romantic relationship with their partner than people with one-night stands (Wesche, Claxton, Lefkowitz, & van Dulmen, 2017). Because many things determine wanting a romantic relationship, estimates of how many people want their casual relationship to transition into a committed relationship range widely—from 30-60% (Garcia & Reiber, 2008; Lehmiller et al., 2011; Manning, Giordano, & Longmore, 2006). So, although many people want their casual relationship to remain casual, it is common to want something more committed to come out of it.
Is it common for a casual relationship to turn into a committed relationship?
In order for a casual relationship to turn into a committed relationship, there must be mutual romantic desire, which means two conditions must be met. First, both people must be interested in having a romantic relationship. This condition can be difficult to meet because many people have casual sex specifically to avoid a romantic commitment (Bisson & Levine, 2009). These people aren’t necessarily players who string their casual partners along, dangling the carrot of commitment to keep their partners’ interest while never intending to commit to anything more than an orgasm. They’re also hard-working students who don’t have time for dates in between sports practice, honors classes and two jobs. They’re people who are working through some personal stuff right now and aren’t emotionally available for anything more than a one-night stand. Good luck getting those busy or emotionally unavailable individuals to agree to come to dinner at your parents’ house.
Second, in addition to wanting to be in a relationship generally, both people must be interested in having a romantic relationship with each other. For some people, casual sex is a way to meet sexual needs while waiting for the right person to come along--and their current friend-with-benefits is just not the right person. And for some people, casual sex is a trial period before committing to a romantic relationship. Even though you initially thought you might be interested in dating your hookup partner, the more time you spend together the more you realize that it wouldn’t work out.
Mutual romantic desire can be difficult to attain in a casual sexual relationship, especially when people have different goals or when there is little or no communication between partners. For this reason, it’s uncommon for casual sexual relationships to transition into committed relationships. Although 30-60% of individuals go into their hookups with the hope of having a romantic relationship (see above), one study of college students found that only 12% of people who had ever hooked up indicated that a hookup had evolved into a romantic relationship (Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000).
So is it okay to go into a hookup hoping for something more?
Well, the stats say that you probably won’t be successful. But remember, researchers still know relatively little about all of the factors that lead to transitions between casual and committed sexual relationships. It’s totally possible that you and your partner have the all of the ingredients for a romantic relationship, and a casual fling is the recipe for turning those ingredients into happily-ever-after. What’s more, if you do end up moving from something casual to a committed romantic relationship, there is limited evidence to suggest that relationships that started out as nonromantic are any better or worse than relationships that were romantic from the beginning (Owen & Fincham, 2012).
So trying to turn your hookup into your boyfriend/girlfriend may be a foolhardy strategy, given the low likelihood of success. But if you’re not intimidated by the bleak statistics and think you have a shot at turning the person you are boning into your long-term love, then go right on ahead, and may the odds be ever in your favor.
Bisson, M. A., & Levine, T. R. (2009). Negotiating a friends with benefits relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 66-73.
Garcia, J. R., & Reiber, C. (2008). Hook-up behavior: A biopsychosocial perspective. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2, 192-208.
Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly, J. R. (2011). Sex differences in approaching friends with benefits relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 275-284.
Manning, W. D., Giordano, P. C., & Longmore, M. A. (2006). Hooking up: The relationship contexts of “nonrelationship” sex. Journal of Adolescent Research, 21, 459-483.
Owen, J., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). Friends with benefits relationships as a start to exclusive romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 982-996.
Paul, E. L., McManus, B., & Hayes, A. (2000). “Hookups”: Characteristics and correlates of college students' spontaneous and anonymous sexual experiences. Journal of Sex Research, 37, 76-88.
Wesche, R., Claxton, S. E., Lefkowitz, E. S., & van Dulmen, M. H. M. (2017). Evaluations and future plans after casual sexual experiences: Differences across partner type. Journal of Sex Research. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1298714
I am a developmental researcher focusing on relationships and health in adolescence and young adulthood. My goal is to enable people to have healthy, fulfilling sexual relationships.