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).
In a generation where instant gratification is of increasing importance to millennials, the concept of a hookup culture has taken the forefront. Individuals are now able to have the sexual benefits that only individuals in relationships would otherwise have without the responsibilities that come with a relationship.
However, this bargain is not always enough for individuals. Instead, many people now wish to maintain a consistent hook up relationship as opposed to an inconsistent series of hook ups with different people. Thus, the concept of Friends with Benefits (FWB) has become a norm.
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.
A FWB relationship, in general, is a mutual connection between two people that lies somewhere on the spectrum between a friend and a partner. The key to this relationship is that it requires some degree 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. 1
Friends with benefits relationships tend to be short-lived, often lack in meaningful communication, are usually non-exclusive, include a high 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 generally have higher satisfaction ratings from both partners.1
A FWB relationship is usually not an exclusive arrangement, meaning that both partners involved are able to pursue other “hookups” without repercussion. The non-monogamous nature of this relationship is an attractive aspect of this type of relationship because it includes a non-committal, but consistent sexual relationship. 2
In many cases, the relationship is kept relatively secret or only discussed among friends. This characteristic differs from a traditional relationship in that the relationship is unlikely to be displayed on a social media sites and tends not to involve introduction to family. The individuals involved usually understand that the relationship is meant purely for sexual pleasure and thus they do not want to become invested in the other partner’s friendships and familial relationships.2
FWB relationships are usually short-lived and seldom lead to traditional romantic relationships. Sometimes, however, the relationships can develop into more committed, romantic relationships. Because of the high amount of sexual contact the partners in a FWB relationship one or both partners can develop feelings. The problem with developing romantic feelings is that with a lack of proper communication, both partners involved may not be on the same page. If one partner develops feelings while the other partner remains dedicated to the friends with benefits mindset, then it can become complicated and even ruin the preexisting friendship. 3
On the other hand, a FWB relationship can serve as a helpful transition state for individuals wishing to pursue a committed relationship with a friend. While this strategy may happen occasionally, the relationship can be incredibly toxic when one partner has different intentions than the other. Often, the relationship collapses because of hurt feelings stemming from poor communication and unrequited love.4
A FWB relationship may also serve as a transition state after a romantic relationship ends. When two partners decide to transition out of a relationship by still maintaining only sexual contact without any emotional contact, it can either be helpful for phasing out a relationship or it can be incredibly devastating to the parties involved. Often, an emotional attachment still exists and the non-committed nature of this relationship can easily hurt one partner’s feelings. 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 it from happening. Instead, even more resentment and pain between the partners ensue.5
If an individual chooses to pursue a FWB relationship, it is important to maintain open communication. Before beginning a FWB relationship, the partners involved should discuss their intentions and expectations. It is important to establish whether either party intends to become any more committed in the relationship than they began. It is important to check in periodically to discuss whether or not any feelings have developed along the way. If any romantic feelings have developed, it may be helpful to reevaluate the relationship so that neither party is hurt. 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.4 Be sure to have open communication from the onset in order to have a satisfying FWB relationship.
Another strategy in helping a FWB relationship succeed is discussing sexual restrictions and limitations beforehand. It is important to consent to all sexual encounters and to discuss what each partner is comfortable with as the relationship progresses. 5
It is especially crucial for one to update their partner if their feelings change through the course of the FWB relationship. If they are no longer comfortable being in a FWB scenario or if their feelings progress romantically, it is important to communicate their thoughts.6 While it may seem embarrassing to broach the topic, talking about the change in feelings as soon as they are noticed will help the partners make the necessary changes in the relationship to keep it happy and functional. Communicating prevents the FWB relationship from becoming a source of hurt feelings or resentment. With careful, open communication and mutual respect, FWB relationships can both have a positive experience.
For more information, check out this great video about friends with benefits!
- 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
- 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
- Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 20.1-2 (2011): n. pag. Biomedsearch.com. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.
- 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
Last Updated: 18 April 2017.