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What Happens to Friends With Benefits Over Time?

Three out of four dissolve or change form inside of a year.

Key points

  • Three-quarters of friends with benefits either dissolve or change form in the span of one year.
  • People focused on preserving the friendship are largely successful; those looking for true love are not.
  • Communication and boundary setting are crucial for avoiding complications.
Adam Winger/Unsplash
Source: Adam Winger/Unsplash

When I first got into sex research, friends with benefits (FWBs) were the main thing I studied. I had been teaching college courses on human sexuality for a few years and often got questions on this subject from my students. For example, they would often ask whether it's possible to stay friends afterward and how to make these relationships work without getting complicated.

I struggled to answer the questions confidently because I couldn't really find any good data on them, so I decided to explore the topic myself. I’ve published several papers on FWBs at this point, and one of the key things I've discovered through my research is that people get into these relationships for a wide range of reasons. As a result, it's perhaps not surprising that partners often report having wildly different expectations for the future.

Some people said they wanted to become romantic partners, others hoped to go back to being friends, and yet others just wanted to stay FWBs for as long as possible. All of this variability led me to wonder what ultimately happens to FWBs over time and what the most likely outcome is. So my colleagues and I conducted a one-year longitudinal study to find the answer.

How Friends With Benefits Evolve

We studied 192 people who reported having a current FWB. We surveyed them at two different points in time, spaced apart by about one year. The sample was predominately female-identified (70 percent), white (74 percent), and heterosexual (72 percent), with an average age of 30. Participants reported that they had known their FWB in some capacity for about three years on average at the start of the study.

In the first survey, participants were asked what they hoped would happen to their current FWB in the future. They were also asked how satisfied they were with their relationship and how much they communicated about relationship rules and boundaries. In the second survey, we asked whether the nature of their relationship was the same or if it had changed over the course of time—and, if so, why.

So what happened after a year? Here's where things stood:

  • 26 percent were still FWBs
  • 15 percent had become romantic partners
  • 28 percent had gone back to being just friends
  • 31 percent reported having no relationship of any kind with their former FWB

Put another way, the vast majority of FWBs dissolved or changed form over the course of the year. However, most participants still maintained at least some type of relationship with the other person, with only about one in three cutting off all contact.

Staying Friends Is a Realistic Goal; Finding Love Isn't

In looking at people's initial relationship goals, we found that some seemed more attainable than others. For example, those who eventually wanted to go back to being just friends (i.e., they only wanted temporary "benefits") were largely successful. Specifically, 59 percent of those who desired that outcome at Time 1 attained it at Time 2. This suggests that staying friends seems to be a realistic goal.

Those who wanted to remain FWBs long-term were somewhat less successful, with 40 percent of those desiring it at Time 1 reporting that they were still FWBs at Time 2. So, while some do manage to have long-term FWBs, the "benefits" are short-lived for most.

Lastly, those who wanted to transition into romantic partners were the least successful, with just 15 percent of those who initially wanted that outcome realizing it after one year. In other words, people who start FWBs hoping to find true love mostly seem to strike out. It can certainly happen, of course, but it's not very common.

Communication Is Key in Friends With Benefits

One of the other key things we found was that among those participants who reported maintaining at least some kind of relationship with their partner over time—whether sexual or nonsexual—reported having the most communication about ground rules at the beginning of the study. Those who were less communicative early on were more likely to report having no relationship whatsoever in the end.

We found a similar pattern of results for friendship satisfaction: Those who were happier with their friendship at the outset were more likely to maintain some sort of relationship over time.

Also, when we asked people who were no longer FWBs at Time 2 to describe why things didn’t work out, the most commonly endorsed reasons were that they didn’t communicate enough in the beginning and that they wanted different things from the relationship than their partner did.

Takeaways: How to Make Friends With Benefits Work

While these findings certainly aren’t representative of all FWBs and more research on this topic is warranted, they do suggest a few important conclusions. One is that most FWBs appear to be a temporary arrangement that either dissolves or changes form in less than one year.

Also, it appears that some people are more successful at getting what they want out of FWBs than others. Those who are focused on preserving the friendship are the most likely to get what they want, whereas those looking for love are the most likely to end up disappointed.

Bottom line: According to our research, the real keys to making FWBs work seem to have a lot to do with matching expectations, excellent communication, and a solid friendship to start.

Facebook image: New Africa/Shutterstock


Machia, L. V., Proulx, M. L., Ioerger, M., & Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). A longitudinal study of friends with benefits relationships. Personal Relationships, 27(1), 47–60.

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