What It Really Means to Be 'Friends With Benefits'
The pitfalls are clear, but some find ways to make it work.
Posted Feb 03, 2015
Whether it’s online or in the physical world, there are a lot of people seeking and trying to establish "friends with benefits" arrangements, or FWB.
The problem is, when an FWB hasn't developed organically, the label doesn't fit and may add pressure when it's intended to take pressure off.
When entering a new arrangement, calling it FWB is confusing because it doesn't reflect the complicated nature of what you're trying to create, especially if it's with someone you barely know.
The sexual part of a new connection can be easy to fall into, of course. But what about the "friends" element? A friend is typically someone you trust and who trusts you—a relationship that develops through shared history, experiences, situations, circumstances, compatibility, or mutual interests. When you're looking for an FWB arrangement with someone from the start, you're forcing a new potential relationship into a box that may not fit, with a label that may misrepresent it. Since it takes time to cultivate a friendship, it logically follows that it should require time and dedication to find out if one can or should cultivate a friendship with benefits with someone.
Why? Because the benefit is sex, and any time sex is involved, it complicates matters—even when both people try to maintain communication and mutual respect. For an FWB arrangement to work, you have to know each other; have a sense of who both of you are with and to each other; and understand what feelings the emotional and sexual dynamic evokes in you. Maintaining an FWB in a healthy way means communicating about what each person expects and where each is as the relationship evolves. Whether it feels comfortable and safe, or problems arise, if there is room to work through challenges to maintain the friendship, even at the expense of the benefits, then you are in a successful connection. There is a mutual investment in each other's well-being, because you're friends first.
But regardless of how the relationship is labeled, when you’re sexually involved with someone you already care deeply for, emotions build, as does trust, intimacy, connection, and familiarity. And, no matter what one calls the arrangement, it can still get tricky. Check in to make sure that your friend is still your friend and that it's not getting more challenging to maintain your status, or is in any way becoming off-putting for you or for them.
Problems can quickly become magnified: What if the person you're sleeping with is actually feeling strung along, or is only going along with the title of “FWB” because they have deeper feelings for you? What if it's become a way of keeping the intimacy going, or they are hoping the sex will lead to deeper love and a committed relationship? What if that person is afraid to bring up these complications because they don’t want to jeopardize the friendship?
Of course, this dynamic can occur the other way around as well: You may long for more and feel hopeful that the sexual part of your friendship will help your friend engage in a more romantic, committed way. You may continue calling the relationship FWB for fear that if your friend knew you wanted more, it would scare them off. You may have boxed yourself into an FWB title when your feelings no longer remotely reflect that arrangement.
Under these circumstances, FWB is not an accurate label, because it does not reflect what you're actually experiencing. And because your relationship is mislabeled, it can contribute to feeling less deserving of the feelings you're having. You're hiding what you feel, which delegitimizes any relationship, but since you're "only" an FWB, you're not "allowed" to feel emotionally invested. When the other person wanders off, you have to pretend not to be heartbroken.
FWB is also not an accurate description when it feels like your new friend is imposing an arrangement on you that is convenient for them, at your emotional expense, whether they are aware of that or not. It's confusing to try to develop friendship founded on a sexual relationship guided by a rule system that has to be invented as you go. Or, when you’re trying to force a friendship so that you can add sex as a benefit, where does the friendship part fit in? That's putting the benefits before the friendship. You may have started out thinking that the FWB label was a good idea, but since the territory can be so uncharted, yours and your friend's feelings may change in myriad ways, and the label can quickly become a hindrance.
That's not to say an FWB arrangement isn't possible: Sexual exploration can and often does become a part of an existing friendship between consenting people. Or you may have been in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with this person earlier in your life, but now it's morphed into a friendship. In such circumstances, the sexual connection may remain, or may be reintroduced. But the common thread is the history between you, the investment you share in the friendship, and the trust that has formed. You recognize that you both enjoy the chemistry, but that you may not be as compatible emotionally as you are sexually. It's a mutually understood experience. The connection you have as friends determines whether this time in your life and in your relationship is right to be sharing benefits.
However, when you ask to be FWBs with someone you don't know well, or with whom you haven't developed a connection, you’re putting stress and expectations on a nascent relationship. There are many flaws in this formula, the greatest of which is that it has the potential to cheapen what you call a friend.
Rather, when you recognize that you would like to connect and have intimacy and trust with someone, but you're not ready to be in a committed relationship, or you don't want to manage expectations early on, what is really happening is that you are figuring it out as you go. That may be more freeing and less constricting than giving the wrong label to what you're trying to create.
Not labeling a new arrangement, situation, or relationship takes some of the pressure off, sets up more room to get to know each other as friends, and keeps the communication lines open. The good news is that developing an investment in the "friends" part solidifies your foundation, and can also enhance the benefits.