“Friends with benefits” have quite the reputation for being the ideal relationship: one in which people get to have sex (maybe a lot of it) with a person they like (at least a little) without having to deal with any of those pesky “obligations” associated with being in a romantic partnership. But the idea that we can’t possibly care for a person emotionally unless we’re their exclusive romantic partner has always seemed kind of silly, as has a lot of the rhetoric around “friends with benefits.” Granted, it's tough to define relationships and to talk about them in a generalized way—but brave fools that we are, we've decided to give it a go from a scientific perspective. Here’s what researchers have discovered about people who sex it up with their friends.
Who Does Their Friend and Why?
Friends with benefits relationships (or FWBRs) are pretty vaguely defined as sexual relationships between two individuals who are (surprise!) friends, meaning they aren’t exclusively committed to each other and may not be emotionally intimate. These relationships are incredibly common. Approximately half the college student population is in or has been in an FWBR, and a Match.com survey (obviously not the most “scientific” source) found that 47 percent of single people report having had an FWBR in the past.
The reasons for initiating FWBRs are, of course, numerous, given that both the individuals and the “benefits” involved vary widely Identifying and Explicating Variation among Friends with Benefits Relationships. Mongeau, PA, Knight, K., Williams, J., et al. Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. Journal of Sex Research, 2013 Jan;50(1):37-47. The stereotypical motivation—the desire for physical intimacy without any expectations or demands—is certainly a factor for some people Identifying and Explicating Variation among Friends with Benefits Relationships. Mongeau, PA, Knight, K., Williams, J., et al. Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. Journal of Sex Research, 2013 Jan;50(1):37-47. But conversely, these hook-ups may represent an attempt at transitioning a relationship from “just friends” to romantic partnership, suggesting that for some people the “obligations” of romantic partnership aren’t, in fact, all that pesky Identifying and Explicating Variation among Friends with Benefits Relationships. Mongeau, PA, Knight, K., Williams, J., et al. Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University. Journal of Sex Research, 2013 Jan;50(1):37-47. Epub 2011 Nov 2.
Ironically, even though one of the commonly cited reasons for entering an FWBR is the desire for a commitment-free relationship, these arrangements are often appealing precisely because they provide a degree of trust and comfort—in other words, because there’s some level of emotional commitment involved Negotiating a friends with benefits relationship. Bisson, MA and Levine, TR. Department of Communication, Wayne State University, Michigan. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2009 Feb;38(1):66-73. Still, for the most part, people in FWBRs tend to value the friendship over the benefits: Compared to people in officially “romantic” relationships, FWBs generally demonstrate mid-level intimacy but only low levels of passion and commitment. FWBRs might include emotion (and even some degree of emotional commitment), but generally it’s platonic in nature. When one partner in an FWBR finds someone they’re romantically passionate about, they’re likely to exit the relationship. Indeed, friends may not sleep with each other out of gotta-have-you lust but rather out of the desire to have sex with someone until someone better comes along (hence the necessity of having “no strings attached”).
Given this point, it’s perhaps not surprising that one of the most common reasons for terminating an FWBR is interest in another person—followed by non-mutual romantic interest, loss of sexual interest, being embarrassed about the relationship, pressure from family or friends, or a conflict or argument (all of which are pretty similar to the common reasons for ending a romantic relationship). But though the demise of an FWBR might look similar to that of a romantic relationship, the interpersonal and psychological implications of being friends with benefits belong in a category all their own (maybe).
The Ins and Outs of Doin’ a Friend
Like the motivations for entering an FWBR, the ramifications can vary widely. Possible negative outcomes include lack of communication about the relationship (leading to confusion and insecurity), heightened conflict, an increase of negative feelings toward each other, lower sexual satisfaction, and lower overall relationship satisfaction when compared to adults who don’t engage in FWB relationships Sexual Communication, Satisfaction, and Condom Use Behavior in Friends with Benefits and Romantic Partners. Lehmiller, JJ, Vanderdrift, LE, and Kelly, JR. Department of Psychology, Harvard University. Journal of Sex Research, 2012 Nov 26.
But that doesn’t mean FWBRs don’t provide some legit, well, benefits. Counter to the study cited above, some research suggests FWB partners often communicate more about their sexual relationship (as well as other sexual experiences) than romantic partners. And while people in FWBRs tend to report a higher number of lifetime casual sex partners, FWB partners are also more likely to practice safe sex than people in romantic relationships Sexual Communication, Satisfaction, and Condom Use Behavior in Friends with Benefits and Romantic Partners. Lehmiller, JJ, Vanderdrift, LE, and Kelly, JR. Department of Psychology, Harvard University. Journal of Sex Research, 2012 Nov 26. Perhaps the best news? In general, this casual sexin’ doesn’t seem to put anyone at greater risk for harmful psychological outcomes than peers in committed relationships Casual sex and psychological health among young adults: is having “friends with benefits” emotionally damaging? Eisenberg, ME, Ackard, DM, Resnick, MD, et al. Department of Pediatrics, Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine, University of Minnesota. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2009 Dec;41(4):231-7.
But what if romantic interest creeps in? Even though most people worry about one party developing romantic feelings, turns out these feelings often do more good than harm. When romantic interest develops in an FWBR, friends tend to provide strong emotional support to each other as a result (perhaps, but not always, as a means of transitioning into an officially romantic relationship). And regardless of whether friends turn into starry-eyed lovers, in general, FWBRs tend to mirror the level of closeness found in romantic relationships—suggesting the greatest difference between a romantic partner and a “friend with benefits” might be what we call them.
Science Impossible—Can We Actually Study FWBs in a Meaningful Way?
This is the tricky thing about friends with benefits: They’re hard to study and even harder to define. In fact, as the term has become more well-known, it’s blossomed into an umbrella phrase covering a variety of sexual arrangements, from budding romances to exes who have sex to people who hook up but aren’t really “friends.” In this sense, the term is really just another attempt at making sense of human relationships, which are inherently messy and might actually (read: probably) defy categorization.
To bypass the label issue, some researchers speak in terms of needs: Humans tend to desire kind, intelligent, and trustworthy companionship—and fulfilling these needs transcends the specific type of relationship in which people find themselves. In this sense, perhaps we would do well to stop analyzing friends with benefits, and simply affirm that everyone is free to love whomever they want, in whatever ways benefit the people involved.