The rise of ‘slow burn’ on-screen romances is the reminder our love lives all need

From Dexter and Emma, to Connell and Marianne, and even Jim and Pam, we’re hooked on watching people yearn for a love ever so slightly out of reach.

19 February, 2024
The rise of ‘slow burn’ on-screen romances is the reminder our love lives all need

In the first episode of Netflix’s latest smash, One Day, we learn that a one night stand between Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew has somehow gone awry. Instead, the pair spend the day together, hiking up Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat. Dexter lags behind. The conversation shared is combative but playful, as if they were two old friends trading insults based on years of private jokes. But as Emma strides ahead, we see Dexter looking as Emma adjusts her bra strap – a swift gesture that would have been missed by anyone else not watching her so closely. It’s this deep sense of longing and will-they-won’t-they between Dexter and Emma, which goes on to span more than two decades, that fuels the dramatic tension that made One Day such a phenomenal hit.

But One Day is not the first time that slow-burning tales of longing have dominated discourse; the last few months have seen a huge outpouring of characters suffering from major third-degree yearns. From the deep desire to infiltrate the upper echelons of society in Saltburn, to the potential of a love unexplored in Past Lives, to the multiple near misses of Connell and Marianne in Normal People, seeing slow burn desire makes for compulsive viewing. Yet in our fast-paced world where we’re ever-accustomed to getting what we want on demand, does this perhaps seem… at odds? Or is our desire for the slow burn revealing more about our collective psyche than we might think?

“When it comes to novels or movies the delay with the slow burn comes from unresolved tension,” psychotherapist Jade Thomas tells Cosmopolitan UK. “The bubbling anticipation can lead to those invested in the narrative to shout ‘finally’ when they kiss or confess their love for one another.”

There’s a psychological reason behind it too, Thomas continues, with the slow build of passion triggering the scarcity effect: “This effect states that when something is scarce or in short supply, its perceived value increases and it becomes more attractive and desirable—basically, when we can’t have something it makes us want it more.”

This desire for yearning stands in stark contrast to dating trends of the last few years, which have focused on speed, convenience and spark. The lockdown brought about by the coronavirus pandemic saw relationships ‘turbocharged’: research from Relate and eHarmony found one in three people were reaching common relationship milestones, such as moving in together, quicker, with 36% also agreeing that two months in isolation feels equivalent to two years of commitment. Elsewhere dating apps, which have completely altered the romantic landscape after their introduction a decade ago, pride themselves on their ease of use rather than the quality of partnership.

“Although dating apps have expanded access to potential partners, they often prioritise quick connections based on initial physical attraction, rather than gradually developing emotional connection and nuanced communication,” explains Dr Limor Gottlieb, a sex and relationship psychologist at Brunel University.

“I think in a world where TikTok has 2x speed option, Insta reels need to capture the audience’s attention within 5 seconds or they’ll scroll past, it and where instant gratification is readily available in almost all aspects, the convenience of the dating apps makes a slow burn romance less likely,” agrees relationship and sexuality expert Courtney Boyer. “Usually when someone is on a dating app they have an agenda. That’s certainly not compatible with the slow burn.”

But there has certainly been a vibe shift when it comes to how we our own off-screen meet cutes to look: after years of swiping right to no avail, an increasing number of us are now looking to meet a partner organically. According to research by platform Tylt, 84% of millennials would rather find love 'in real life' than online. And we're certainly moving towards IRL dating; last year, Eventbrite found that 25% more singles attended dating events. Meanwhile, a survey by Arrow found 39% of dating app users had deleted the apps because they found them to be ‘a waste of time’.

The event platform also saw three times as many speed dating events listed in London compared to previous years. Elsewhere, Google Trends has seen search for both ‘yearning’ and ‘longing’ have been climbing for the last two years, with a spike in the last month.The nostalgic 90s backdrop of One Day, where phones are few and far between, further fuels this sense of yearning; in a world where we can pick up a phone and send a message instantly, it feels romantic to actually be able to miss someone.


Looking for a slowly unfolding romance seems in stark contrast to the ‘spark’ so many of us seem to chase. That initial frisson of attraction is lauded as the driving force between those looking to find a match, but while it’s often held in such high regard, some relationship experts argue that those looking for that instant sizzling attraction may be overlooking other glaring red flags.

“The spark means that you go into every date seeking an unquantifiable feeling of compatibility,” Hayley Quinn, dating expert for, explains. “You may find that an intuitive sense of connection and attraction, but can overshadow major points of incompatibility, for example, them not wanting the same level of commitment as you. As the spark feels rare it may also mean that you hang on to the hope of a relationship with someone, even if they've clearly communicated that they don't want the same things.”

Quinn adds that, like in the case of Emma and Dexter, that spark can grow, particularly if you connect on a deeper level.

“Initially, you still have to work out much more important, long-term points of compatibility,” she says. “Whilst you may have had your fair share of crushes in early life, with maturity and experience you may not fall for someone in the same way again. Instead, you may need to build more trust with someone before you feel ready to let your guard down and open up properly. This may mean your spark is more of a slow burn, but when it arrives, it can create a long-lasting impact and be a great quality of your relationship.”

So, can these slow burn relationships actually work in real life, or are friends to lovers scenarios destined to only be narrative devices for Netflix dramas and BookTok?

“Slow burn romances work every day in real life!” Quinn says. “Whilst not everyone spends as long as Dexter and Emma in figuring out if they're supposed to be together, many people take their time getting to know potential partners before diving in.

“Some people are now simply taking longer to realise what it is they actually want from a relationship. When you take the time to establish a solid foundation and good friendship with someone first, they will already have inadvertently checked a lot of your boxes for what makes a great partner.

“You’ll hopefully know that they’re reliable, that you can trust them, and that they’ll accept you just as you are. Love starts with us, and when you begin a romantic relationship with someone you already feel close and comfortable to, you also won’t feel a need to try and change who you are, but instead to embrace it.”

Credit: Cosmopolitan