Sex Question Friday: Can "Friends With Benefits" Go Back To Being Friends?

A reader submitted the following question:

"Can friends with benefits stop having sex and go back to being friends? Or is that just wishful thinking?"

Good question! Navigating a “friends with benefits” (FWB) relationship can be complicated. People sometimes start these relationships for different reasons, and it's not uncommon for partners to have very different expectations for how these relationship will develop over time [1]. So what ends up happening in the long run when two friends start having sex? Here's what the research says.

In a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 308 college undergraduates who had previously had at least one FWB were surveyed [2]. To be eligible for the study, participants could not currently have a romantic partner or FWB. The researchers limited their sample in this way because they were primarily interested in studying FWBs that did not become romantic. Participants were asked what happened with their most recent FWB once the “benefits” ended. Specifically, they indicated whether or not they were still friends with their former FWB, as well as how they felt about that person now.

The results were mixed, but most people ended up staying friends on some level. Specifically, just 18.5% said that they were no longer friends at all, 31.5% remained friends but were less close than they used to be, 35.4% remained friends and were just as close as they were before they started having sex, while 14.6% remained friends and were even closer than before.

Those who were no longer friends with their FWB were the least happy with their relationship and were the most likely to report feeling that they had been deceived. In addition, those who were no longer friends with their FWB reported feeing the loneliest.

These results reveal a few important things. First, although it does appear possible for FWBs to revert back to friends only, not all friendships will be as strong as they were before. In fact, nearly half of the participants in this study reported that they were no longer friends or that they were less close. At the same time, however, it also appears to be the case that becoming FWBs can actually strengthen some friendships, with nearly 1 in 7 participants in this study reporting such an outcome.

What's the key behind whether a friendship survives post-FWB? It has to do with how well the partners communicated with one another. Consistent with this idea, in a one-year longitudinal study of FWBs that I conducted (you can find a write-up of the results here), I found that FWBs who had better communication were more likely to maintain a relationship of some sort with their partner in the future.

With all of that said, the take-home message is that, despite their inherent complexities, “friends with benefits” can indeed remain friends after the fact; however, to increase the odds of keeping your friendship, your best bet is to communicate early and often.

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[1] 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

[2] Owen, J., Fincham, F. D., & Manthos, M. (2013). Friendship after a friends with benefits relationship: Deception, psychological functioning, and social connectedness. Archives of Sexual Behavior42, 1443-1449

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