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Friends with Benefits Is About More Than Casual Sex

80 percent discuss the rules of their relationship with each other.

Key points

  • Friends-with-benefits relationships stand somewhere between casual flings and long-term commitment.
  • The vast majority of FWB couples have openly negotiated the rules of their relationship.
  • Honest communication about intentions and expectations is just as important in traditional romantic relationships as in FWBs.

Traditionally, sex was only supposed to occur within the context of an intimate relationship. Until the sexual revolution of the 1960s, that usually meant couples were only supposed to have sex after marriage. Although premarital sex no longer carries the stigma it once did, people still believe that couples should only have sex if they’re in a committed romantic relationship.

However, not all people are ready to commit to a partner, or perhaps they just haven’t found someone they’d like to commit to. And yet, they still have sexual needs, which they satisfy through casual affairs. In recent years, social apps such as Tinder have made it even easier to find a temporary sex partner to hook up with.

Because committed romantic relationships are the most socially accepted contexts for sexual activity, there’s a set of implicit rules defining what partners can and can’t do. For instance, it’s widely accepted that committed relationships should be sexually exclusive. It’s also typically assumed that the relationship is long-term, that is, that the couple will stay together indefinitely.

In contrast, there are no generally accepted rules for casual flings. In some cases, the partners may intuit each other’s preferences, and in others, they may explicitly agree on how long they’ll be together and what they’ll do while they’re together. In still others, partners misinterpret each other’s intentions, leading to regret and hurt feelings.

Friends With Benefits: Somewhere Between Casual and Committed

Between committed relationships and casual flings stands a kind of sexual relationship that’s a cross between long-term commitment and short-term “no strings attached.” This is the friends-with-benefits relationship, or FWB for short. Couples who are FWBs enjoy an ongoing relationship with their partner, whom they enjoy spending time with, whether sexual or social, but they avoid romantic entanglement with each other. In other words, they’re friends who just happen to also enjoy having sex together, but they don’t think of themselves as being in love with each other.

Most of the research in relationship science to date involves either committed relationships or casual flings, and FWBs are relatively understudied. In particular, it’s unclear what sort of rules FWB couples establish for their relationship and whether they define these rules explicitly. It’s also unclear whether all FWB relationships have similar structures or if each is defined by a unique set of rules.

To find answers to these questions, Sam Houston State University (Texas) social scientist Lisa van Raalte and her colleagues surveyed over 100 college students in FWB relationships, the results of which they recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The survey consisted of just two questions. The first asked whether the respondent had discussed the rules of the FWB relationship with their partner. Affirmative responses were then followed up with an open-ended question asking them to explain in detail what those rules were.

Rules of Engagement

Nearly 80 percent of the respondents indicated that they had discussed the rules of the relationship with their partner. This finding alone is remarkable in that other research has shown romantic couples are much less likely to have open conversations about the rules of their relationship.

For instance, Canadian doctoral student in psychology Megan Muise and her colleagues recently published a study that found only 43 percent of those in romantic relationships had explicitly discussed the issue of sexual exclusivity with their partner, even though 90 percent of them believed that they weren’t allowed to get romantically or sexually involved with another person.

An analysis of the open-ended responses in van Raalte and colleagues' study on FWBs yielded three main themes. Three-quarters of the respondents reported communication rules. Mostly, this had to do with whether the partners could disclose the relationship to others. Secrecy is a common concern among those in FWB relationships because of the social stigma attached to it.

Honesty with each other was another important communication rule that emerged from the analysis. In particular, couples generally agreed that they needed to inform their partner if they become romantically or sexually involved with another person. However, some had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Other communication rules limited what could be said or talked about when the couple was together. Many agreed not to use pet names or other expressions that would even hint at romantic feelings. Discussing feelings of attachment or jealousy were also typically off-limits.

About two-thirds of the respondents reported sexual rules. Typically, these involved decisions about whether the relationship was sexually exclusive or not, under what conditions they would have sex, and what sexual behaviors were allowed. While some expected their relationship to be sexually exclusive, others had an open relationship in which they were allowed to have sex with other people.

Finally, about a tenth of the respondents had discussed the expected length of the relationship with their partner. For instance, some couples agreed that their relationship was not romantic and would not become so at any time in the future. Other couples concurred that the FWB relationship would end if either of them became romantically involved with another person. Likewise, many couples agreed to maintain their friendship even if they decided to stop having sex with each other.

Lessons to Learn From FWB Couples

This study by van Raalte and colleagues yielded two important results. First, these findings show that FWB couples are far more likely to discuss the rules of their relationship than are romantic couples. No doubt this is because there is a set of cultural norms concerning romantic relationships that couples can assume to apply to their own. In contrast, there are no defined rules of FWBs, so these couples need to clearly define the limits of their relationship.

Second, these findings demonstrate that not all FWBs are alike. Instead, each couple entering into an FWB relationship has to openly negotiate boundaries since there are no social norms to follow. No doubt, these clear rules help the couple enjoy their time together while minimizing the chances of misunderstandings or hurt feelings.

Researchers and therapists alike have long argued for the importance of communication in intimate relationships. In that respect, FWBs demonstrate a healthy level of open conversation that is often lacking in traditional romances. It’s a lesson that even traditional romantic couples would be wise to learn.

Facebook image: Hananeko_Studio/Shutterstock

References

Muise, M. D., Belu, C. F., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2021). Unspoken, yet understood: Exploring how couples communicate their exclusivity agreements. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 30, 196-204. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjhs.2021-0011

Van Raalte, L. J., Bednarchick, L. A., Generous, M. A., & Mongeau, P. A. (2021). Examining rules in friends with benefits relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-021-02114-5

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