Dating & Relationships, Sex Ed

Are There Different Types of “Friends With Benefits?”

March 21, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

“Friends with benefits” (FWBs) are usually thought of as relationships in which two good friends decide to become sexually involved. This is how they are most often depicted in the popular media, such as in the films No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits. However, research suggests that FWBs are more complex than this and do not necessarily represent just one thing. In fact, there may actually be as many as seven distinct types of FWBs!

In one study, 177 heterosexual college students were asked to define what a “friends with benefits relationship” means to them in their own words. Researchers analyzed the content of these definitions and uncovered the following varieties of FWBs:

1.) True Friends – This most closely matches what people think of as a traditional FWB, meaning close friends who just happen to have an ongoing sexual relationship. This was also the single most common type of FWB participants reported having personal experience with.

2.) Just Sex – This one is exactly what it sounds like: a sexual relationship that offers little more than the occasional hookup. There is no true friendship in this case—it’s all about the “benefits.”

3.) Network Opportunism – In this situation, the partners share a common network of friends and hang out sometimes. However, they are not necessarily good friends with one another and mostly hang out in situations where alcohol is being consumed. The partners tend to serve as “safeties” or “backups” for each other on occasions when neither person has found another sexual partner for the evening.

4.) Successful Transition In – These are cases where people reported intentionally using a FWB as a way of starting a romantic relationship and succeeded in making the switch.

5.) Unintentional Transition In – These are cases where people reported accidentally or unintentionally going from being FWBs to romantic partners. Oops! This is how things often seem to end up in the movies. Media depictions suggest that FWBs can only go on so long before people start having romantic feelings for each other.

6.) Failed Transition In – This is a situation in which people reported that either one or both partners wanted to turn their FWB into a true romance, but failed to make a successful conversion.

7.) Transition Out – In these cases, people reported that they broke up with a romantic partner, but then became FWBs for at least a while after. In other words, they were having “ex-sex.”

As you probably noticed when reading about these different types of FWBs, there’s only one thing they all have in common: sex. Other than that, they are quite distinct in terms of the amount of emphasis placed on the friendship, frequency of interaction, and what the partners want.

This research is limited in that it primarily examined heterosexual college students. As a result, we don’t know much about FWBs among people of different sexual orientations and ages. By studying more diverse samples, it’s possible that we might uncover even more varieties of FWBs. Although we still have much to learn about FWBs, one thing is clear: FWBs are far more complex than they way they’re depicted in the media.

You can read other articles about “Friends with Benefits” here.

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To read more about this research, see: Mongeau, P. A., Knight, K., Williams, J., Eden, J., & Shaw, C. (2013). Identifying and explicating variation among friends with benefits relationships. The Journal of Sex Research.

Image Source: iStockphoto

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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