At one time or another, many of us have been in purely-sexual relationships. Whether you've agreed to be friends with benefits or it's a one-time romance with no strings attached, there are plenty of different ways to enjoy strictly physical connections with other people. But when it comes to these fleeting run-ins with someone you care about, can you turn casual sex into a serious relationship?
If your casual partner seems worthy of marathon phone sessions, monogamous arrangements, or even falling in love, you might wonder how to make it official. It's absolutely possible—and not uncommon—for the relationship to become something more. Like all matters of the heart, starting a new relationship doesn't happen instantly. Thankfully, it's easier when you're already on close terms with the person occupying your thoughts.
Below, read on to learn about when casual sex can turn into a relationship (and how to tell if your partner is open to something more).
Types of Casual Sex
Since relationships are comprised of two individual, unique people, there's no single answer that can determine how each one will unfurl. So rather than trying to predict the future, it's better to understand what type of relationship you have with your casual partner to decide what you want moving forward.
Expert Paul Joannides, Psy.D., examines three different types of casual relationships that paint a bigger picture: No strings attached, friends with benefits, and even sex with your ex. "Sex with no strings attached is as casual as casual sex gets," Joannides says. "It often involves sex with a total stranger whom you might have only met in the last hour. Or you may have been on each other’s radar for weeks or months before opportunity knocked. It might be a one-night stand, or it may have its own jagged lifeline."
Sex with no strings attached usually lives up to its name, but what happens when you turn into friends with benefits? You may develop a romantic interest—and it can be hard to tell if your partner feels the same way.
When you start having regular sex with the same person, it's helpful for both parties to discuss your intentions from the start: Are you both open to the possibility of something more serious, or does one person want to keep it casual?
Although they're self-explanatory, friends with benefits arrangements can still be a bit murky. Joannides notes that they're still technically considered relationships: "It can be with an acquaintance who is maybe a Facebook friend, but not someone you’d call when you need a real friend," explains Joannides. "It can also be with a good friend, which doesn’t always end up as bad as you might think."
On the contrary, your casual relationship might be with someone you're more-than-familiar with. Especially when the sex was the best thing about their relationship, many exes choose to re-engage after they've officially ended their coupling. As Joannides points out, "The potential pitfalls in having sex with an ex are endless," even if the arrangement seems easier than meeting new people.
Why Have Casual Sex?
For one, it's the novelty. Having sex with someone new brings a level of excitement that previous partners don't share, and casual intimacy enables us to have that feeling over and over again.
Some might also choose to be sexually active with someone they're attracted to—before getting to know them on an emotional level—just to find out whether sexual chemistry exists. If not, they'll move on before pursuing something more serious and lasting.
"Each person is an individual, with a unique life history and emotional makeup, so each person is likely to respond differently to casual sexual behavior," says clinical sexologist and psychotherapist Robert Weiss, Ph.D., MSW. "If you find that you are questioning your sexual behavior (or lack thereof), perhaps the best guide is your own conscience."
Many of us end up being open to (and commencing) a more serious relationship once we discover that we not only enjoy the sex, but we also like our sexual partners as people—after spending time together, going on unofficial dates, and getting to know one another. In this way, an emotional bond is often the catalyst for something more serious, and a committed relationship may be the next step.
It's also fair to say that, romantic or not, the very act of sexual intercourse inspires us to partner up. After all, you’re already attracted to this partner, and you enjoy being intimate with them.
Is It Healthy?
Many studies have shown that people from every generation have partaken. Even those of us who prioritize no-strings hookups aren't necessarily opposed to full-fledged, loving relationships.
The bottom line? It depends on the person. "If casual sexual activity doesn’t violate your moral code, your sense of integrity, or the commitments you have made to yourself and/or others, then it’s probably not going to be a problem for you in terms of your psychological wellbeing," Weiss says.
Casual sex, Weiss notes, can have psychological drawbacks for certain people. What's important is to be open with yourself about how you feel, and take a step back from non-committed partners if you're ever uncomfortable.
How to Take Casual Sex to the Next Level
If you're currently a "friend with benefits" to your partner, it can be confusing to voice your desires for something more without knowing how they feel. So how can you tell if they're just in it for short-term fun—or if they're open to taking the next step?
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., maintains that many people engage in casual sex in hopes of starting a more serious connection: It's a concept she calls "slow love." In an interview published in The Washington Post, Fisher supports the idea that casual sex is a legitimate path to a committed relationship.
“Early sex means: ‘I’m interested in you. I want to know who you are. I don’t want to spend my life trying to figure out who you are,'" Fisher says. “The person who really wants to marry is going to have sex early, because they want to get to know as much about this person as they can, as fast as they can.”
So if you’re interested in taking that casual physical connection to the next level, here are a few tactics that might just get you there:
- Determine Mutual Interest: Pay close attention to your partner’s words and actions: Are you only hearing from them in the wee hours of the night, or do you talk about other topics throughout the day? If you both enjoy spending time together outside of the bedroom, your partner may be open to starting down the path of commitment. Be prepared if they're not interested—now is the time to choose whether to resume your arrangement or pursue something more meaningful.
- Express Yourself: If you're feeling certain that your partner feels the same way, tell them how you feel. Even if it turns out that your suspicions were completely unfounded, it's best to get a definitive response when you're developing feelings. Bring it up casually, and give your partner some time to think about it. It's best to avoid ultimatums: Explain what type of new relationship you want, and don't expect an answer overnight.
- Go Out: This is especially helpful when you're trying to decide if your partner is "relationship material." Suggest going somewhere together: Make it semi-casual, but choose an activity that indicates you want to test out a date. Go to a party as a couple, visit a museum, get coffee, or cook dinner together. Spending time with someone outside of your bedroom's four walls enables you to see one other in a new light—in every respect. And if they're not into it? It's okay if this person isn't "the one."
It might be difficult to muster the courage at first, but starting a new relationship with someone you care about can be worth it. Even if this partner isn't right for you, there's no harm in trying—you never know where it might lead.