The Price of “Friends with Benefits”
When sex is the icing on the cake of friendship
Posted Jul 02, 2020
“Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship." Oscar Wilde
“No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.” Harry, in the movie When Harry Met Sally
Can men and women be friends? Can casual sex be part of profound friendship? How similar is “friendship with sex” to romantic love?
“I have had sex with my lover a few times at a hotel; it means nothing to me. It’s like drinking water and not being quenched. My body is connected with him, but my soul is not. I implied to him that I’d rather be a f*ck buddy, rather than more. Trying to keep the emotional attachment at arm’s length.” A married woman
Jocelyn Wentland and Elke Reissing (2011) divide casual sexual relationships into four major types: “one-night stands,” “booty calls,” “f*ck buddies,” and “friends with benefits.” Each type is distinguished from the others by both its degree of romantic superficiality and its temporal aspects.
One-night stands, which are the most superficial encounter, involve the least emotionally intimate experience and often take place between strangers or after brief acquaintance. One-night stands usually end when the individuals part company. Booty calls refer to a communication initiated with the urgent intent of having a sexual encounter. Unlike one-night stands, the purpose of booty calls is to engage in repeated sexual activity with an acquaintance. Despite the acquaintance, individuals participating in booty calls do not consider each other friends, they typically do not stay overnight, and they share minimal affection. Booty calls are not planned in advance. When booty calls become regular or frequent, the participants are considered to be f*ck buddies. F*ck buddies are already friends, but their friendship is largely limited to sexual interactions.
Friendship with benefits (FWB) involves the most profound activity among casual sexual relationships, in which partners are first of all friends, and then they add the sexual bonus.
To these major types of casual sex, we may add “sugaring,” which is situated between “f*ck buddies” and FWB, and where people receive cash and other gifts in exchange for company that can include sex.
"I've had several friends with whom I have had passionate sexual encounters, none of which have led to romantic love affairs that threatened my decades-long marriage." A married man
I focus on FWB, the type of casual relationship that seems closest to romantic love. It involves two major aspects of love, friendship and sex, and differs from love in other respects, including a low level of commitment (e.g., concerning exclusivity).
As in love, FWB involves significant concern not only for yourself, but also for your friend. However, it lacks the profound commitment of a long-term partner whom the lover deeply cares about and consistently engages in various sorts of activities with. Having both friendship and sex together, while dropping commitment and most types of the sharing, is different from profound romantic love; nevertheless, it is usually a pleasurable and exciting relationship.
To avoid commitment, the following pieces of advice are often given to FWBs: Do not have expectations, have a timeframe for the relationship (e.g., no 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 FWB from becoming lovers.
FWB constitutes an intermediate, unstable and relatively brief experience. Yet such a friendship can last beyond weeks and months, extending to several years. Laura Machia and colleagues (2020) found that FWB is indeed relatively short: about one-third of the participants in the study reported that their relationship did not survive the first year; the majority of those whose relationship did survive the first year later turned into regular friends, and the majority of those who wanted to transition into a romantic relationship did not do so.
FWB involves emotional closeness, but not the strong bond characterizing romantic relations. This closeness frequently generates, at least in one partner, the wish to upgrade the relations into a romantic one. Such an upgrade means giving up the advantages of FWB, and in a sense killing, as Oscar Wilde said, the thing we love.
Given the restless nature of our world, the relatively brief duration of FWB is also of value. Moreover, unlike marriage, FWB does not prevent its participants from looking around and finding another, more fulfilling relationship.
How do women feel in FWB?
Here are a few random descriptions by women about their experiences.
"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 have had a friend with benefits for more than four 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, and frankly, it is the best relationship I have ever had with a man."
"I'm currently in three separate FWB relationships, all of which have been successful. We are all consenting adults, over 40. We all know how many partners each of us has. The level of honesty and openness far surpasses any of my previous monogamous relationships, bar none. It is nothing less than wonderful. We all know this is as far as our relationships will go."
“I'm in a FWB situation and we are ACTUALLY friends. We talk, do lunch, hang out... and just happen to have sex sometimes.”
“My favorite relationships were FWB ones. I hope to get a FWB thing up again, it's the best dynamic for me. Friends who f*ck, no romantic overtones, no obligations to go to family functions, no expectations to have feelings after sex, nobody's asking when we're moving in together or getting married or having kids.”
“I get lots of offers, been tempted, but it's just not my cup of tea. I enjoy sex, I just think just intimacy makes it better. Plus, I love morning sex.”
“I had one FWB situation. I caught feelings early on. He didn't. I was tortured for years until I cut him off.”
“It always ends. You always regret it. And someone always catches feelings. And my opinion (now) is that you shouldn't see someone who doesn't have strong feelings for you. Friends with benefits is never worth it.”
“My FWB was (and still is) my best friend.”
Uncertainty and conflicting expectations
FWB is a compromise in which one gives up romantic profundity and manages with being second-best. This compromise can be a good and enjoyable one. In economic terms, FWB cuts the costs and reduces the revenue. It cuts the costs since there is hardly any price to pay and the relationship is relatively risk-free. The revenue is reduced because enduring, profound romantic love is excluded.
Machia and colleagues (2020) found that FWB is characterized by high levels of uncertainty, coupled with discrepant ideals. Thus, women are more likely than men to hope that the relationship either becomes romantic or reverts to friendship without sex, whereas men are more likely to hope that the relationship remains the same. Machia and colleagues further suggest that FWB requires partners to fully discuss the rules of their relationship—but that this is rarely done, thereby damaging the quality of the relation.
FWB is not suitable for all people or for all periods of our lives. It is particularly difficult when the friends are married and have young children. The optimal circumstances for FWB may be those of young people before marriage and older people who have grown children.
Many people will continue to feel compromised by completely abandoning either romantic profundity or romantic freedom (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). Hence, they will want to find more flexible and diverse relations, like FWB, which seem to feature the best of both worlds—but can also be problematic because they combine these worlds. After all, even in FWB, there is no free lunch.
Facebook image: Kate Kultsevych/Shutterstock
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How are romantic lives changes over time. University of Chicago Press,
Machia, L. V., Proulx, M. L., Ioerger, M., & Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). A longitudinal study of friends with benefits relationships. Personal Relationships, 27, 47-60.
Wentland, J. J., & Reissing, E. D. (2011). Taking casual sex not too casually: Exploring definitions of casual sexual relationships. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 20, 75-91.