Can Casual Sex Turn Into a Serious Relationship?

Couple In Bed

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At one time or another, we've all been involved in a purely sexual relationship. Whether it's a friends-with-benefits-style connection or a random, onetime hookup with no strings attached, there are all sorts of ways we enjoy strictly physical connections with other people. But is it actually possible for these fleeting run-ins—ones based solely on the foundation of casual sex and little else—to turn into more serious connections worthy of marathon phone sessions, bae status, and (gasp) eventual declarations of love?

Surprisingly, yes: It's absolutely possible. But it takes diligence. Here's how to tell if you're in a casual sex-based relationship, why we get into these types of arrangements, whether they're healthy for you, and how you might be able to turn those steamy quickies into longer-lasting relationships with substance.

Casual Sex: Three Types

First, you'll have to figure out what type of relationship you're in. To help out, the psychoanalyst Paul Joannides, Psy.D., has identified three main types of casual sex in a 2015 article he wrote for Psychology Today. Here's how he breaks it down:

  1. No Strings: "Sex with no strings attached is as casual as casual sex gets," says Joannides. "It often involves sex with a total stranger whom you might have only met in the last hour." One-night stands fall into this category, and, as he points out, alcohol is often a factor.
  2. Friends With Benefits: Although this one's pretty self-explanatory, friends with benefits (aka booty calls) arrangements can still be a bit murky, because, he says, 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."
  3. Sex With An Ex: Especially when the sex was the best thing about the past relationship, many exes choose to reengage after they've officially ended their coupling. As Joannides points out, "the potential pitfalls in having sex with an ex are endless," so we're focusing on previously and currently uncommitted pairings.

Why Have Casual Sex?

For one, it's the novelty. We're all pretty well familiar with the excitement we feel when we're having sex with someone new. Well, casual sex enables us to feel 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, then they'll move on before pursuing something more serious and lasting.

Ironically, many of us end up being open to (and commencing) a more serious relationship once we discover we not only enjoy the sex but that we also like our sexual partners as people—after having hooked up before and spent time canoodling, eating breakfast, or chatting—right after the deed is done. In this way, an emotional bond is often the catalyst for something more serious, and a committed relationship may often 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 clearly attracted to this person and (hopefully) fully enjoy the intimacy.

Is It Healthy?

It's important to point out that casual sex isn't practiced only by college students, as prevalent medical studies would suggest. Rather, it's something for the ages—and many studies have shown that people from every generation have partaken.

Skeptical? Then head over to The Casual Sex Project, a website created by sex researcher, Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., wherein people from virtually all consenting age groups (from teens to septuagenarians) share their personal "no strings" stories. The online dating service Match.com, too, funds singles research via its ninth-annual 2019 Singles In America survey that canvassed 5000-plus single people living in the U.S. from all "ages, ethnicities, incomes, and walks of life." Among the year's most surprising findings was that just 32% agreed that one has to be in love to have great sex, 41% had "friends with benefits" relationships, and 52% had one-night stands.

And even those of us who prioritize no-strings hookups aren't necessarily opposed to full-fledged, loving relationships, either.

The bottom line? Well, it's two-fold. As the clinical sexologist Robert Weiss Ph.D., MSW, posits in a 2015 article he wrote for Psychology Today, "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."

But, he goes on to say that casual sex (like everything else) can have psychological drawbacks for certain folks. And, as Vrangalova tells Women's Health, it all comes down to one's sociosexual orientation, "which is a complex combination of genetic and cultural factors that influence your feelings on no-strings-attached sex." In other words, know thyself before diving into casual sex.

How To Take Casual Sex to Next-Level

The biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., (she's also one of the doctors who oversaw Match.com's survey) maintains that more people are increasingly engaging in casual sex in hope of starting a more serious relationship—it's a concept she calls "slow love." Back in 2016, Fisher explained it to reporter Lisa Bonos, of The Washington Post, in an article supporting the fact that casual sex is actually quite 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,'" she said, adding, “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 they can as fast as they can.” So if you’re interested in taking a casual physical connection to the next level, here are several tactics that might just get you there.

  1. Determine Mutual Interest: Pay close attention to your partner’s words and actions: Are you only hearing from them in the wee hours in expectation of your regular booty call or do you also interact throughout the day, and sex isn't always the main topic? Take a hard look before you leap. Because if you incorrectly conclude they're into something more serious, you could scare them off. Either way now is the time for you to choose whether to resume your arrangement or pursue something more meaningful.
  2. Express Yourself: This one's risky: If you're pretty positive they're into you as much as you're into them, then tell them how you feel. But if you're chomping at the bit to take things further, you may as well put it out there regardless—and get a definitive response. But don't host a Ted Talk on it, as relationship expert Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, tells Self. Bring it up casually and avoid ultimatums. Explain what type of new relationship you'd like and where you think your relationship is going, and then give them ample time to mull it over.
  3. Go Out: This is especially helpful when you're on the "S.O. material" fence: Suggest you both go somewhere together. (Your usual 2 a.m. drunken meetup doesn't count.) Semi-casual yet more conventional date-like activities, such as heading to a party in tandem, visiting a museum, getting coffee, or even going out for a meal only fosters increased familiarity. 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? Well, then, they're obviously not the one.

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