Friends With Benefits

Hara Estroff Marano gives advice on hooking up, clingy moms, and annoying mother-in-laws.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Friends with Benefits

I have been really good friends with a guy, and although we've both talked about having a relationship, we're not ready. I don't want to remain just "friends with benefits." He talks to other girls, which bothers me because he acts as if there is nothing between us, and there is. Sometimes I'm really pissy with him on the phone because I see him hug other girls, but I can't tell him, "I don't want you to talk to other girls," because I'm not his girlfriend. What should I do?

Dahlink, you are already having a relationship, just not a good one. It's one-sided, without any investment of attention on his part. The thing about friends with benefits is that, often, only one person gets all the benefits. Among the young, who typically do not yet know how to establish equality or mutuality in relationships, friends with benefits frequently functions to service the physical needs of boys while overlooking the more subtle emotional needs of girls. Women are pretty much wired to form emotional attachments to men they are intimate with. That's why having friends with benefits can get confusing. You feel attached to him, expect him to feel the same about you and so you want him to demonstrate some caring, certainly by not being overly affectionate with other girls. But he won't even recognize a relationship. Result: You're distressed. It's not the sex that makes friends with benefits a bad bargain for young women; it's the nature of the deal—lack of equal emotional involvement of the partners. At least you'll salvage your self-respect if you stop the flow of benefits to him completely. Maybe then he will begin to pay you more attention, maybe not. But you will have learned something important: It's best for your own soul to reserve sexual intimacy for relationships where there are clear signs of affection both ways. Otherwise, you're just going to keep going down the same one-way street named disappointment.

Naming and Blaming

My wife and I have been together for seven years. It's her second marriage, and some things cause me great discomfort. First, despite my asking her to switch it, all of her bills continue to be in her and her ex-husband's name, so that if we want to change our phone service, we must call her ex first. Her circle of friends is her ex and two former boyfriends. She thinks it's fine to go out to dinner with them, catch up with them on the phone and visit them at work. If I suggest that she start developing a new group of mutual friends, she calls me insecure and jealous. Am I the one with a problem here?

The issue is not who has the problem—you both deserve prizes for inaction—but who will be brave enough to break the impasse before, say, 2010. Remarriage is hard enough without deliberate injections of the past. At the very least, your wife is just plain insensitive to your needs. But she could be desperately trying to grab your attention or stoke jealousy so you can demonstrate a strong presence in the relationship. It's hard to leave the past behind when there's nowhere exciting to go. It's time to ensure that your wife puts both feet in her current marriage; start by listing the bills in your name and hers. Since she hasn't done it in seven years, stop asking and just do it yourself; draft a letter to the phone company requesting the billing change and ask Exman for his signature. If he doesn't comply, get a new phone line in your name, disconnect the old one and have messages forwarded. Similarly if your wife won't take the initiative to make new friends, take action yourself. Look into clubs and activities that you can join together that will widen the circle you are both exposed to.

The Ultimate Manipulative Ploy

I am a fresh graduate and have a great job opportunity overseas that I am really looking forward to. However, my mother has been crying and telling me not to go. She wants me to stay beside her because I've been away at boarding school and college for so long, and as a caring daughter, I should stay close to her. She told me she would break ties with me if I go, and implied to my father that she would commit suicide if I left for another country. How do I handle this situation?

The goal of childrearing is to create independent adults capable of making their own decisions and responding to the needs of the world as their generation encounters them while maintaining loving bonds. It sounds as if your mother has done a great job. Most parents experience a sense of loss when their kids grow up and leave home for good. Plus, it's a sure sign parents are growing older. But it also presents many opportunities. Your mother and father should be focused on those opportunities and making their own plans for the years ahead. Threatening suicide as a way to control your behavior is a terribly manipulative strategy. Guilt makes a miserably corrosive glue.

Maybe Mom's own emotional landscape looks especially bleak right now. But it is not your job to sacrifice your future to meet a parent's emotional needs. If your parents aren't going to be adults about your growing up, then you just have to do it for them. Try talking to your father about your wonderful opportunity and encourage him to make concrete plans for activities or travel with your mother. Let Mom know how much you appreciate all she's done. Remind her that she is now free to enter the next phase of her life and devote time to her own interests. Be sure to let her know how you can stay in close touch via e-mail and low-cost voice connections such as Skype.

How Do I Deal with My Mother-in-Law?

I cannot stand my mother-in-law. She lives a lifestyle that I do not morally agree with (smoking, drinking, all while trying to control numerous health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and more). I view her as a weak person, and therefore it is extremely hard for me to be around her. In addition, she obviously favors my husband over his other siblings. She is nice to me, but I do not trust her and see her as a fake person. How can I deal with her inevitably being in my life without going crazy?

Your mother-in-law may not be perfect and I'm willing to bet that you aren't either (true confession: neither am I), but you are passing some harsh judgments. Would you like her to judge you as strictly as you regard her? Also, consider the possibility that the very rigidity of your views is as repugnant to others as your mother-in-law's lifestyle choices are to you. In fact, your views may be so harsh that they ultimately alienate your husband. Not only is it unpleasant to be exposed to your relentless negativity, but it isn't wise to put him in a position of having to choose between his mother and his wife.

Acquiring some humility and tolerance for what you consider other people's weakness could help you in many ways. After all, you are perfectly safe; lifestyles are not contagious, and there is no law requiring you to adopt your mother-in-law's. I am sure that the woman has some admirable qualities. Try identifying them. They are what you should be focusing on when you have to deal with her. At the very least, appreciate her for raising your wonderful husband.

Your rigidity keeps you from looking deeper into your mother-in-law and her life, through which you might acquire some understanding and even some sympathy for her many problems. In all probability, she knows that she has made some bad choices in her life, and perhaps she herself is not thrilled with the current outcome.

A Murder in the Family

My boyfriend and I have been together for almost two years, and we have a wonderful relationship. But in September of last year, his sister, his only sibling, was murdered. He went into a deep depression and suffers from insomnia. He has been from psychologist to psychologist and medication to more medication. I really care about him, but he seems to not care about anything anymore. He has even fallen into a financial hole and has filed for bankruptcy. He has just been in a rut and can't seem to get out, rarely even leaving the house. I tell him that I love him and that I'm here for him, but I don't know what else to do.

Depression is not an invariable consequence of grief, but it is a common one, and insomnia is its calling card. The murder of a sibling can be a powerful trauma. In addition to the personal loss, it shakes one's basic sense of safety in the world. Your boyfriend needs to actively rebuild a sense of trust, and your continued presence can help him. At the same time, he may be stuck ruminating over the horrible circumstances of the death or his feelings surrounding the murder.

Perhaps your beau recalls having said unloving things to his sister or feels guilty for being the survivor or not having protected her from death. Perhaps he is now shouldering unusual expectations from his parents. Medications alone cannot resolve these issues. Your boyfriend needs love, time and the help of a good therapist.

Still, there are more ways you can help, too. Physically mobilizing a person can often begin to psychologically mobilize them as well. Do not tell him to get up and out of the house. Simply usher him out and go for a walk together. Maintaining social bonds is also important to help counter his impulse to withdraw. You'll have to shoulder this burden for now, but that is part of the give and take of relationships. Sexual intimacy is another good antidepressant. Again, you're pretty much going to have to take the initiative.

Send your questions to: Editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano,