Sex Question Friday: What's The Secret To Making Friends With Benefits Work?

A reader submitted the following question:

"What's the secret to making a friends with benefits situation work? How do you avoid things getting complicated?"

There's no doubt about it--friends with benefits (FWBs) sometimes turn into complicated situations, often because one person ends up wanting more from the relationship than the other. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that the development of unreciprocated feelings is one of the most commonly cited concerns people have about starting FWB relationships [1]. So what can you do to reduce the odds that this will happen? A growing body of research suggests that the key to a successful FWB is up-front communication.

For starters, this means clarifying what the relationship is and is not from the very beginning. These relationships tend to become complicated because people often have different goals and expectations for them. For instance, although some people have FWBs just for the sex, others see them as a way to become closer to another person with the hope that a romance will develop later on [2]. To the extent that you can clarify things and get on the same page at the outset, the risks of someone getting hurt are lower. Stating your intentions and expectations as clearly as possible and periodically reiterating them will help to ensure that your partner does not see you as sending mixed signals.

Beyond clarifying what the relationship is (and is not), it is also worth setting some ground rules. Most people who have FWBs fail to establish rules or boundaries [3], which is another reason so many complications arise. For instance, make it clear whether you are going to be having sex with other people. Don’t make assumptions about your partner’s sex life, because that's one way that people end up getting hurt. Also, you both need to know what the sexual arrangement is so that you can take appropriate safer-sex precautions (e.g., using condoms, getting tested for STIs, etc.). Some people may also find it helpful to establish rules about sleeping over, how often they will see one another, and how they will greet the other person in public (e.g., no kissing hello or goodbye).

There are empirical benefits of communication in FWB relationships. Indeed, longitudinal research has found that the more people communicate about the ground rules of their FWB early on, the more likely they are to stay on positive terms with their partner in the future [4]. This same study also reveals that if you're going into a FWB situation hoping for romance, you may want to think again. FWBs appear to have a relatively low likelihood of transitioning into romances--people tend to be much more successful in attaining their FWB goals to the extent that they aren't looking for love. 

In addition to communicating, make sure that you go into these relationships with realistic expectations. There are no hard and fast rules for navigating FWBs, and even if you take a lot of precautions, there’s no guarantee that you'll be happy with the outcome. You can’t always predict how sex will impact a given friendship. The best thing you can do is to communicate honestly and recognize that the best laid plans don’t always turn out to be the best way to get laid.

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. 

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[1] Bisson, M. A., & Levine, T. R. (2009). Negotiating a friends with benefits relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 66-73.

[2] Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly J. R. (2011). Sex differences in approaching friends with benefits relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 48, 275-284.

[3] Hughes, M., Morrison, K., & Asada, K. J. K. (2005). What's love got to do with it? Exploring the impact of maintenance rules, love attitudes, and network support on friends with benefits relationships. Western Journal of Communication, 69, 49-66.

[4] Ioerger, M., Lehmiller, J. J., & VanderDrift, L.E. (2014, November). Can friends who have sex stay friends?: A longitudinal study of “friends with benefits.” Paper presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality Conference, Omaha, NE.

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