In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Friends with Benefits

Sex is the icing on the cake of friendship.

Well I'm so sick and tired
Of all your hissy fits.
We've got irreconcilable differences.
If we could just say no to this relationship
We could be best friends with benefits (Randy Rogers)

The relationship of friendship with (sexual) benefits has become increasingly popular. What underlies this attraction and is it a relationship that is beneficial? The answer to this is far from clear.

The complex emotional experience of romantic love involves two basic evaluative patterns (a) praiseworthiness--positive appraisal of personal characteristics, and (b) attractiveness--an attraction to external appearance. While the first pattern underlies friendship, the second underlies sexual relationships. Romantic love combines the two types of evaluations in a profound and intimate manner. Genuine romantic love involves profound caring and a commitment to at least try seriously to maintain the relationship.

These types of relationships include sexual relationships, friendship, and romantic love. Unlike casual sexual affairs, romantic love is a serious matter. Friendship is also not a casual relationship--we do not make friends with all our acquaintances. Friendship assumes the continuation of the relationship over a period of time and a depth that is absent from mere casual acquaintances. However, as friendship refers to a less comprehensive interaction between two people, it requires a less comprehensive commitment than romantic love.

In addition to the relationships of casual sex, friendship, and romantic love, another possible relationship is that of "friendship plus," or what is known as "friendship with benefits." Such a relationship is very common among people in their 20s (research suggests that over 50% have had such a relationship at least once), but it occurs among other age groups as well. It prevails both among young people who are not yet ready for a comprehensive committed relationship and among more mature people who are already in such a committed relationship-for example, when they both are married and are not satisfied with being mere "friends," but do not wish to be committed in another comprehensive relationship.

In friendship with benefits, the friendship and the benefits are typically non-exclusive recurring sexual (or near-sexual) activities. The bond and commitment in friendship with benefits are less deep than in romantic love but greater than in casual sex. While romantic love usually involves a similar relative weight to the friendship and the sex components, in friendship with benefits the friendship component is of greater weight, and the sex component is a kind of icing on the cake. Hence, the two partners have often been friends or lovers first, prior to achieving the position of being friends with benefits.

Sex between friends with benefits is more recurring and affectionate than that of a one-night stand, although the sex is not part of romantic love. Research shows that men appear to focus more on the benefits and women more on the friendship.  

A related, but still different, kind of relationship to that of friendship with benefits is that of "no strings attached." The essence of the latter is a casual sexual relationship with no other conditions (restrictions) attached. However, friendship, including friendship with benefits, implies strings-in addition to mere acquaintance, certain commitments are to be fulfilled. In friendships with benefits, strings are attached more to the friendship component and less to the sexual one.

The policy of "no questions asked" is often associated with a "no-strings-attached" relationship. When there are no restrictions on a person's sexual (and other) behavior, there is no place for making normative inquiries concerning this behavior. The policy of "no questions asked" applies only to the benefits of a "friendship-plus," but not to its friendship component.

These relationships offer the advantages of caring friendship and sexual enjoyment without the emotional turmoil and commitment associated with romantic love. The disadvantages are that they lack some of the advantages of romantic love--in particular, the continuous and deep bond to the other. The partner in a friendship with benefits is often not the first priority of the agent. In the long run, this person is second best--second to the person with whom the agent wishes to have with a profound, committed, and intimate relationship. Some measures of preference, exclusivity and uniqueness regarding the first priority are typically required.

A major reason for maintaining friendship with benefits is the fear of commitment as the boundaries of such a friendship are not clearly defined. The low level of commitment can result in a decrease of passion and intimacy. The desire to enjoy the benefits of all worlds often diminishes these benefits. Furthermore, a significant aspect of friendship that is often lacking in friendship with benefits is that of openness. Even though these friends might be able to talk about everything else, the no-strings-attached sexual component typically prevents them from being open about their primary sexual relationship.

To avoid commitment, the following advices are often given to friends with benefits: Do not have expectations, have a time frame for the relationship (e.g., not more than three months), limit your time together to no more than two hours a day, talk on the phone only once or twice a week, keep friends out of it, don't do pillow talk, no sleeping over, and do not romance the partner. These artificial rules might impede the relationship from developing into a committed one, but they cannot stop it from doing so.    

Can people have many friends with benefits? Although there are no strings attached to the sexual component of such a relationship, the partners still like to feel that they are unique to each other. Hence, some types of quantitative strings may nevertheless be attached to the sexual component as well. Moreover, it can be unpleasant to have a few friends with benefits who know each other. People may not like to know everything; a kind of partial ignorance associated with positive illusions is beneficial in friendship with benefits. A friend with benefits is not Mr. Right, but he may be the right person in certain circumstances. The temporal aspect of friendship with benefits is complex. Certainly, it is longer than casual sex and briefer than pure friendship; it can be longer than an unsuccessful romantic relationship but briefer than a genuine successful one. The bond in friendship with benefits is typically temporary and conditional upon one participant not wanting it to become deeper and more comprehensive, and upon finding an alternative partner. If the bond in friendship with benefits is good, it is likely that one or both participants will want to upgrade it to a profound, committed romance.

When only one partner falls in love with the other, a major difficulty arises. In such a case, this person might cross the boundaries of friendship with benefits and begin to behave like a lover. The lack of reciprocity can then be painful and destructive.

If the friendship with benefits results in a strong bond, it may begin to feel incomplete, whereupon the wish to complete it can arise. But such completion can shatter the relationship. The thought of your beloved naked in the arms of another person is extremely difficult for a genuine lover, even if the naked person is "merely" a friend with benefits.

In a somewhat similar manner, many exciting online romantic relationships are killed the moment the two people upgrade them into a comprehensive offline romantic relationship. In both cases, the satisfaction and enjoyment stem from the difference between these relationships and regular comprehensive and fully committed romantic relationships. Upgrading a friendship with benefits means giving up its advantages, and in a sense killing, as Oscar Wilde said, the thing we love. Consequently, friendship with benefits is often desirable in theory but fails in practice.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a partner might express: "Darling, as the love in our relationship has disappeared, can we at least retain the friendship with the sexual benefits?"

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

more...

Subscribe to In the Name of Love

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?