In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Why Are Friends With Benefits So Happy?

And why are marital friends with benefits so miserable?

"Somewhere life is going on—and I didn't take part in it." Hanoch Levin, The Labor of Life

The popularity of friendship with benefits (FWB) is increasing. A similar phenomenon within marriage (MFWB) is when the partners are friends and the sexual aspect is marginal. Both types of friendship lack romance, but while FWB is generally a most pleasurable relationship, in MFWB spouses are miserable. Why this is so, and how can MFWB be improved?

The pleasure of friendship with benefits

In "friendship with benefits" the benefits are non-exclusive recurring sexual activities. Although FWB involves the two major components of romantic love—that is, friendship and sexual desire—it does not include romantic love, since the relationship lacks the commitment to consider the partner as the one and only who forever and ever will stay in your heart. Having both the friendship and sex together, while dropping exclusivity and commitment, is different from profound romantic love; nevertheless, it is a very pleasurable and exciting relationship.

Consider a few descriptions of this relationship by people who have experienced it (these descriptions are comments that readers posted in response to my previous post on this issue).

"I've experienced FWB and found it quite enjoyable....and I WAS looking for sex more than friendship. Eventually I found that the "benefits" were much more enjoyable when there was friendship involved, due to a higher level of trust I imagine." Suzy

"With the correct mindset, FWB relationships are great! I am in a FWB relationship with a man 3 years younger. We are both emotionally mature and secure within ourselves. We are both single and been married twice. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt scenario! The time we spend together, every so often, is mutually beneficial, and not only about sexual gratification. We have a connection and have intelligent discussions openly, without fear. There are no jealousy issues. .. I am in control of my life after 32 years and 2 husbands, both of whom betrayed me. So, I have adjusted my attitude and enjoying the freedom of having a great life along with a FWB relationship. I will not be hurt if it ends and I know we will remains friends long after. I would highly recommend it for SINGLE adults. It is a problem for me, when one or both of the parties are married!" Anonymous woman

"There is in FWB a great friendship, and the other benefits are the cherry on the top. My FWB is a true friend and we communicate on a soul level… Now that I have tried it, I am very happy. During the time we spend together, we are totally in the zone concentrating on each other. No jealousy issues!" Anonymous

"I am a woman who has had a friend with benefits for more than 4 years. The only expectations either of us has of the other is fun and respect. He is married, I am divorced, and still healing from an abusive marriage of 20 years. The arrangement is perfect for both of us, and frankly it is the best relationship I have ever had with a man." Anonymous woman

"I'm a woman and currently in 3 separate FWB relationships, all of which have been successful in varying levels and types. Each has developed organically and followed its own unique path. We are all consenting adults, over 40. We all know how many partners each of us has. The level of honesty and openness that I have with each of my 'lovers' far surpasses any of my previous monogamous relationships, bar none. I cherish this openness and honesty that we've developed. It is nothing less than wonderful. Each of my lovers has reached a level of emotional caring for me, and I for them. We all know this is as far as our relationships will go. The bottom line is, humans are not monogamous, and trying to force ourselves to live monogamously is fighting against nature." Active participant female

"I've had several friends with who I have had passionate sexual encounters, none of which have led to romantic love affairs that threatened my decades-long marriage." Anonymous man

This random and nonscientific sample indicates that FWB provides an amazing level of satisfaction. The combination of friendship and sex and the lack of romantic commitment create a relaxing atmosphere in which excitement, trust and openness seem to thrive. The lack of profound romantic love actually facilitates its success.

As the active participant woman wrote, "Actual committed relationships involving romantic love have become too difficult to find for various (thousands) of reasons. People in general put too many unrealistic expectations on their one and only monogamous partner, married or not. THIS is why so many marriages fail. Too many people expect all of their needs to be met by their significant other. Most of us are only human and incapable of being all those things to anyone."

The lack of romance has a positive impact, not because romantic love is a negative experience, but because it is difficult to achieve and maintain it, and when it falls short of expectations, it causes tremendous frustration, which in turn gives rise to other negative emotions.

Friendship with benefits is then a kind of romantic compromise in which the agent gives up romantic love. However, such friendship is not experienced as a bad romantic compromise since it has its own advantages and the person is not giving up any other feasible alternative. Here, there is no frustration or yearning for a better alternative—people just enjoy what they have and are happy with their lot. When one of the friends falls romantically in love with someone (the friend or someone else), the friendship with benefit might end.

In economic terms, FWB is a relationship that cuts the costs and decreases the revenue. It cuts the cost in that there is hardly any price to pay for switching; one can replace the partner and the type of relationship in a relatively cost-free manner. The revenues are reduced as the greatest prize of all, profound romantic love, is excluded. More precisely, this prize is not on the table at the moment, but if such love were to emerge it would be preferred over FWB.

Friendship with benefits is a kind of disorganized relationship; the time between the meetings is not fixed and the length of the relationship in its present form is not determined. People are aware of its relatively brief duration, but this does not bother them much, as this relationship enables them to best exercise their romantic freedom. FWB is relatively brief since at some time in their lives, most people will want to settle down and find a long-term partner for their primary relationship. However, FWB is often not a matter of weeks or months, but of a few good years. In light of the restless nature of our world and the claim that "love is ended before it's begun" (Nat King Cole), such a duration is also of value. Moreover, unlike the situation in marriage, FWB does not prevent its participants from looking around and finding another more fulfilling relationship. Given its relatively brief duration, FWB relationships are a kind of "unfinished business."

Friendship with benefit is not suitable for all people and for all periods of our lives. It is particularly difficult when the friends are married (to other people) or when they wish to build a family and raise children. The optimal circumstances for FWB are those of young people before marriage and older people who have older children. I will focus here on the latter group.

Marital friendship with benefits

Marital friendship with benefits (MFWB) refers to a situation in marriage where there is good friendship between the two spouses, the sex is reasonably good, but there is no romantic love. The two types of friendship are almost identical in the combination of friendship and sex, and the lack of romantic love. However, whereas those involved in FWB say that is amazingly pleasurable, those who have experienced MFWB say it is amazingly miserable. Thus, the sex in FWB is highly exciting and is considered to be the icing on the cake, while in MFWB it is more marginal and a kind of obligation that is fulfilled from time to time, but that lacks any romantic spell.

Consider how Eva, a married woman in her early fifties, describes her relationship with her husband: "We are friends. Best friends, even, but the romance is just gone. In fact, there is nothing exciting about him for me anymore, and I don’t even feel happy to see him or talk to him. It makes me sad admitting this. Nevertheless, we actually have a really good sex life. Although, maybe it would be even better if there was more romance."

The significant difference in evaluating the two kinds of friendship is mainly due to the fact that only FWB involves romantic freedom combined with a lack of commitment. Married people give up their romantic freedom and take upon themselves a certain commitment in the hope of receiving two values: romance and better circumstances for raising a family; however, MFWB find that while they got the latter, they did not get the former. Having a long-term profound romance was supposed to compensate for losing their romantic freedom, so when they do not get the expected romance, they feel cheated and frustrated, as if they have paid too much for too little.

People in non-marital FWB relationships freely chose to temporarily give up the possibility of profound romance in order to maintain their romantic freedom. On the other hand, for those in MFWB relationships, marital friendship without romance was not their original choice; they drifted into it against their will and against their romantic aspirations. For them, their present situation is a bad romantic compromise. People in FWB maintain the relationship with the other person because of their positive evaluation of the relationship and not because of external constraints, such as switching costs (which hardly exist in their case). Many people in MFWB stay married not for the "right" reason, not because their positive evaluation of the relationship, but because of the high cost of switching and their belief that they may fail again in their search for a profound romantic relationship.

In many cases of FWB, initial external conditions, such as marital status, culture, age and other background differences do not allow the development of a profound long-term romantic bond. However, if such bond did nevertheless emerge, it would be a great bonus. In the case of MFWB, romance has died and its resurrection is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, marital friends still expect and yearn to get what they deserve (in light of the price they have paid by relinquishing their romantic freedom) and what they have failed to get or maintain so far. This dissonance is a source of frustration and dissatisfaction.

The unfulfilled expectations in MFWB cause people such as Eva to derive little enjoyment from (even good) sex, since they still yearn for romance. However, in FWB people can simply enjoy their (wonderful) sex because they never expected romance to be part of the package, and also because they can have other sexual partners. In addition, their time with their FWB partner is not part of their everyday life, their daily routine or their future aspirations; it is merely a time for pursuing friendship and sexual pleasure. It seems likely that Eva would feel much better if she and her husband were sharing a non-martial friendship with benefits.

The good news in this story is that our expectations and attitudes play a crucial role in our satisfaction or frustration. And such expectations and attitudes are to a certain extent in our control.

The value of companionate love

Although marital friendship seems inferior to non-marital friendship, it is still valuable since friendship is important in life and in marriage. Ellen Berscheid claims that Companionate Love ("friendship love," "strong liking") "may be the 'staff of life' for many relationships and a better basis for a satisfying marriage than romantic love." The reason that romantic love seems to be of lesser value as the basis for a satisfying marriage is that it is more complex; it consists of both friendship and sexual desire. In light of the fact that sexual desire in marriage declines at a greater pace than friendship (which in many cases is even enhanced), relying merely on friendship for marital satisfaction is safer than relying on both friendship and sexual desire. When the pleasant combination of the two lasts for many years, you are in the best of all worlds, but if, as is often the case, it does not happen, you are better off relying mainly on friendship, which will make you less disappointed with the decline in sexual desire. Indeed, Ellen Berscheid argues that "If Romantic Love is a felicitous combination of Companionate Love and sexual desire, then any weakening of the causal conditions associated with Companionate Love or those associated with sexual desire for the partner should weaken Romantic Love."

Like companionate love, friendship with benefits accepts the absence of romantic love, not by considerably reducing the place of sex, but by reducing romantic commitment. Both types may be valuable in different circumstances. Thus, companionate love may be more suitable at an older age, while friendship with benefits may be more suitable at a younger age. Romantic love is suitable at all ages; however, finding and maintaining it is much more difficult.

Both FWB and marriage involve romantic compromises: giving up profound love in the case of FWB and giving up romantic freedom in the case of marriage. MFWB combines two types of compromises: giving up both romantic love and romantic freedom. In this sense, MFWB constitutes a bad romantic compromise, while in many circumstances FWB can be a good romantic compromise, at least temporarily.

If we project into the future, it seems that people are likely to be less willing to completely relinquish either romantic freedom or romantic love; instead, they will most probably be willing to devise more flexible ways in which to pursue both concurrently.

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.

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