They had always been a little flirtatious, but it was humor
and emotional support that bonded Paula and Trey. They loved wine tasting, volunteer work, and bowling on rainy Sundays. It wasn’t until Trey moved an hour out of town and Paula came to visit (after an emotional break-up with her fiancé) that anything happened.
That night Paula said, “Trey, don’t sleep on the couch, that’s silly. We can both sleep on the bed. Nothing will happen.” But something did happen. Nothing mind-blowing or life changing, but certainly nice. And under the circumstances, they both enjoyed the company.
So, what now? Did this mean they were in a relationship? Would they no longer stay friends? Would things become awkward? In this case, no. Neither Paula or Trey “schizzed out.” When they woke up, Trey made apple waffles and Paula created a Rolling Stones station on Pandora. They laughed about the most recent episode of Modern Family, and wandered around Barnes and Noble. Later that afternoon, Paula drove home. After that, their friendship was the same as it was before—supportive, honest, fun. If anything, Paula and Trey had a deeper level of affection and concern for one another.
When I first heard this story, I thought that Paula and Trey were incredibly lucky. This had to be a one-in-a-million happy ending (no pun intended). As a long-time researcher of male-female friendship, my stance was that real friends put attraction in the metaphorical backseat (there are different kinds of attraction in friendship, see Can You Love Your Friend?). I believed the early research suggesting that sexual attraction—let alone acting on it—could easily be the death of an otherwise great friendship.
Stories like Paula and Trey’s, along with the findings of Afifi and Faulkner, have almost changed my mind. Afifi and Faulkner investigated the frequency and impact of sexual episodes in otherwise platonic friendships (i.e., friendships where dating was not the intention). What they found, at least among college students, was rather striking. I describe this research not to encourage or normalize sex in friendship, but because I think it helps us understand the variety of bonds that can work between men and women.
How common is the “benefit” with friends?
Of the 300-plus surveyed, 20 percent of men and women acknowledged sexual activity with at least one friend at some time in their life. That’s one in five people who owned up to being, at some point, a Paula or Trey. College students have about three close guy-gal friendships at any given time. Doing a quick calculation, the massive majority of friendships do not include sexual activity. However, enough people have experienced this situation to warrant asking how it impacted the friendship.
So, what happened?
Are you ready for a surprise? About 76 percent of those who “went there” with a friend said the relationship got better. Better! Okay, the reality is about half of these folks started dating their friend after the fun, even though that wasn’t their original intention. But the other half kept on as friends—friends who said the quality of the friendship bond increased. That seems to challenge the treasured idea that sex outside a romantic relationship always leads to complicated emotions and destroyed relationships. Do some friendships have a bond of trust that protects them against complications that can occur in early dating relationships?
On the other hand, there was considerable damage to some of these friendships, and the difference appears to be related to whether men and women are clear about their intentions. For example, if you sense that sexual activity would really “mean something” to your friend, but not to you, and you go there anyway, friendship quality can take a hit. Suddenly there will be uncertainty about where the friendship (relationship?) is headed. If you can’t accurately “read” your friend’s intentions, and you want to keep the friendship strong, it’s best to directly talk with your pal about what sexual activity between the two of you would mean.
The take-away message
As I mentioned earlier, the point of this discussion is not to encourage or normalize friendship sex. What is interesting is that some men and women have friendships that are so solid that activities that can ruin a dating relationship don’t injure the friendship. We tend to assume that sex outside the context of a romantic relationship is always bad; that it will always lead to discomfort, to feelings of “going too fast,” or to someone feeling used. Indeed, that often is the case in fresh relationships or one-night stands. Perhaps we could realize that some friendships are different. Friends who are clear about their intentions don’t always act like awkward daters who come to realize it was a mistake to have sex too soon. Why? Because friends know who they’re dealing with, and they have a foundation of trust.
I said in the beginning that I’ve almost changed my mind. Based on the story of Paula and Trey and the research findings of Afifi and Faulkner, I am more open to the possibility that sexual attraction doesn’t always “ruin” a friendship. Now it’s your turn—What do you think?
Affifi, W. & Faulkner, S. (2000). On being "just friends": The frequency and impact of sexual activity on cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17(2), 205-222.