As detailed in The History of Dating, dating and relationships have diversified vastly in recent years. One relatively new type of relationship that has emerged is the “friends with benefits” (FWB) relationship. The seemingly contradictory idea has garnered media attention, inspired several movies (such as No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, both of which were released in 2011).
Our generation is seemingly fascinated with the concept. While it can generally be described as a friendship that includes sexual intimacy, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about what, exactly, a FWB relationship really is. Are they all the same? Are they destined to fail, or become romantic relationships? Are there rules? Though the answers to these questions are often individual and highly specific, an understanding of the role of the FWB relationship is beginning to develop among sexual scientists.
In general, a FWB relationship is somewhere between a friend and a partner, with the key difference being some level of sexual intimacy. Preliminary research shows that the term “friends with benefits” actually encompasses a number of different types or relationships. Most people agree that this relationship is not based purely on sex, and that friendship is a key component, including some level of emotional attachment. It is seldom an exclusive arrangement—often, one or both partners may be dating or engaging in sexual activity with others at the same time, and the FWB relationship usually does not forbid this. In many cases, the relationship is kept relatively secret or only discussed among friends—it differs in this way from a traditional relationship in that it is unlikely to be displayed on a social networking site and tends not to involve introduction to family. It appears most commonly, at least under the name “friends with benefits,” among young adults, especially college students. The relationships are usually short-lived, and in fact seldom lead to traditional romantic relationships.
Besides the obvious difference in title, a number of differences exist between the relationships. Friends with benefits relationships tend to be short-lived, often lack in meaningful communication, are usually not exclusive, include a higher proportion of sexual activity per time spent together, and run the risk of complicating a friendship. Traditional romantic relationships involve more contact overall, as well as more nonsexual activity, and usually have higher satisfaction ratings from both partners.
The FWB relationship sometimes serves as a transition state for a relationship, either prior to an official monogamous relationship, or after it ends. One or both partners may be hoping to transition to an exclusive, official relationship. While this certainly can happen, contrary to media representations, it is uncommon. Far more often, the relationship collapses amongst hurt feelings stemming from poor communication and divergent expectations. It can also serve as a transition out—after a relationship has been formally broken off, it may continue in the form of a FWB relationship. This is a delicate situation, where emotional attachment often persists, while one or both partner(s) desire to continue sexual contact without commitment. It is not uncommon for someone to try to restore a relationship through a FWB relationship, but more often than not, lack of communication and differing expectations and desires prevent this and instead cause more resentment and hurt between the partners.
One key factor is associated with more successful, satisfying FWB relationships: COMMUNICATION. In one study, almost all participants described “direct, open, honest communication” as ideal in an FWB relationship. Unfortunately, studies have shown that only 15% of FWB relationships actually include talking about the relationship, and 73% of partners say they never discussed any ground rules. If you decide to enter a FWB relationship, discussing your expectations and feelings and setting some ground rules can mean the difference between getting hurt and having a positive experience. A study by A. D. Weaver, K. L. MacKeigan and H. A. MacDonald reported the following positive aspects of an FWB relationship: “appropriateness for their life situation, safety, comfort and trust, gaining confidence and experience, closeness and companionship, freedom and having control, and easy access to sex.” The same study found negative aspects including, “getting hurt, ruining the friendship, and the relationship becoming complicated or awkward.” Before you put time and energy into a FWB relationship, make sure you understand these risks and benefits, and sit down and talk with the friend with whom you are entering the relationship.
It is especially crucial to update your partner if your feelings change through the course of the FWB relationship. If you are no longer comfortable being in a FWB scenario or if your feelings progress romantically, it is important to communicate this. While it may seem embarrassing to broach the topic, talking about the change in your feelings as soon as you notice it will help you make the changes in the relationship required to keep it happy and functional, and prevent the FWB relationship from becoming a source of hurt feelings or resentment. With careful, open communication and mutual respect, you and your FWB can both have a positive experience.
Bisson, Melissa A., and Timothy R. Levine. "Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship." Archives of Sexual Behavior 38.1 (2009): 66-73. Springer. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
Wyndol Furman & Laura Shaffer (2011): Romantic Partners, Friends, Friends with Benefits, and Casual Acquaintances as Sexual Partners, Journal of Sex Research, 48:6, 554-564
Paul A. Mongeau , Kendra Knight , Jade Williams , Jennifer Eden & Christina Shaw (2013): Identifying and Explicating Variation among Friends with Benefits Relationships, Journal of Sex Research, 50:1, 37-47
Marina Epstein , Jerel P. Calzo , Andrew P. Smiler & L. Monique Ward (2009): “Anything From Making Out to Having Sex”: Men's Negotiations of Hooking Up and Friends With Benefits Scripts, Journal of Sex Research, 46:5, 414-424
Weaver, Angela D., Kelly L. MacKeigan, and Hugh A. MacDonald. "Experiences and Perceptions of Young Adults in Friends with Benefits Relationships: A Qualitative Study." The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 20.1-2 (2011): n. pag. Biomedsearch.com. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.
Justin J. Lehmiller , Laura E. VanderDrift & Janice R. Kelly (2012): Sexual Communication, Satisfaction, and Condom Use Behavior in Friends with Benefits and Romantic Partners, Journal of Sex Research, DOI:10.1080/00224499.2012.719167
Last Updated 26 May 2013