Sarah and Zoe have known each other since elementary school. They went to the same high school, then attended college in different states, but saw each other during breaks. Zoe knew from the get-go that she was in love with Sarah—she describes the sudden realization that her deep feelings resembled romantic love rather than platonic as a “light bulb moment.” She felt compelled to share her revelation with Sarah immediately.
The result? Sarah felt the same way.
The feeling of wanting each other’s closeness and companionship had evolved into a deeper feeling of love when apart. Although the process is different for everyone, Sarah and Zoe’s story beautifully encapsulates a joyful leap from friends to lovers.
But these transitions aren’t always so seamless—or easy to navigate. After all, loving feelings for friends can sometimes be tricky to decipher from romantic ones. It’s healthy to adore your friends, but how do you know when what you’re feeling has reached romantic heights?
Making the distinction
As relationship coach Kristen Mira sees it, the tipping point is often when these feelings are “so strong that you may start to manipulate the situation to spend more time with them.”
Other indicators that might help you differentiate romantic feelings from friendly ones are sexual attraction, inability to stop thinking or talking about someone, butterflies, or even jealousy. Is this person all you can think about, and do you miss them when they’re gone? These are helpful signs that could point to romantic feelings.
Portland-based dating coach Eric Leonhard suggests that a telling marker to potentially move forward with a friend is to consider your history together and how you navigated upheaval together.
“Are you already comfortable with one another? Do you regularly hug or cuddle up on the couch when watching TV? Have you successfully come out of potentially stressful events together with good results? If the answers are yes, then consider that to be evidence that you can attempt to further the relationship,” says Leonhard.
Determining whether it’s time for “the talk”
Broaching the topic of going from friends to lovers can be scary, especially if you don’t know how the other person will respond. Risking your friendship is a possibility. But then again, so is beginning a new relationship.
So how do you determine whether it’s worth it?
“You’ll know when you’d prefer to feel peace in knowing, more than the risk of losing the friendship—because that’s always a possibility that the friendship could change,” says Mira. “But at least you’ll know where you stand so you can invest your time with someone who demonstrates mutual interest.”
Mira adds it’s worth it to risk losing your friendship “when the discomfort of spending time with them as friends, yet wanting more, outweighs the risk of losing them as friends.”
24-year-old artist Samantha knows this delicate dance well after going through it with her friend Kelly. The two used to hang out all of the time when Samantha decided she wanted more than just friendship.
“Kelly was also the first girl I was attracted to, so it was extra-terrifying,” shares Samantha. “Ultimately, I started to really need to know if she liked me back. She didn’t—which was crushing—and our relationship changed, but knowing that she didn’t feel the same helped me move on.”
Initiating the conversation
So you’ve decided it’s time. You’re going to bare your heart to your friend, no matter the consequences, because you need to know whether your feelings are reciprocated.
To invite this conversation, Mira recommends the following dialogue for starters:
“You know, I really appreciate our friendship, and I enjoy spending time with you. Lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve been feeling a desire for us to be more than friends—what are your thoughts about us?”
When you let the other person speak, you’ll know your answer. It’s as simple as that. Leonhard believes the “perfect” time doesn’t exist, so you might consider ripping the Band-Aid off and starting that conversation sooner than later.
Managing expectations and self-care
How can you take care of yourself when you’re about to have a vulnerable conversation like this one? According to Mira, the key here is to focus on self-care and manage your expectations. Before the talk, consider how you’d feel either way.
“As you think about having this kind of risky conversation, I would work with your own feelings if they don’t respond the way that you’d like,” suggests Mira. “That could entail journaling, getting the support of friends who know when you’ll have this conversation, or talking with a coach or therapist—so that you’ll know you have support when it’s over, no matter how the conversation goes.”
If the conversation reveals that your feelings are mutual, it’s still a good idea to amp up your self-care, as any type of transition—good or bad—can be a shock to the system.
Advice to keep in mind moving forward
If the conversation doesn’t go as you’d hoped, remember that your courage to speak from your heart is admirable. It’s okay for your friendship to change or for you to take some space.
And if you do find yourself in a new relationship after having the talk, Leonhard suggests reframing your thinking around the transition from friends to lovers.
“Don’t think of it as a transition at all—that implies that you are losing one branch of identity to have it replaced by another,” says Leonhard. “Rather, you are keeping your friendship and exploring additional facets of it. Increasing the intensity has to happen gradually so that nothing sets off alarms.”
He also points out that the pillar of most long-term relationships and marriages is “friendship love.” One of the best things you can do is to continue doing all the things you used to do that brought you together in the first place.
Oh, and Sarah and Zoe? They celebrated five years of marriage last week.