Sex Q&A

Sex Question Friday: How Do You Navigate A Friends With Benefits Relationship?

October 11, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller


Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know what advice I would offer someone who is interested in having a “friends with benefits” (FWB) relationship and wants to avoid the seemingly inevitable complications.

Are there any secrets to a successful friends with benefits arrangement? It seems like they’re usually great in the beginning, but then one person develops feelings and things just get messy. Is there any way to keep things from getting so complicated?

A fear that unreciprocated feelings will develop is the most commonly cited disadvantage of FWB relationships [1], so you are not alone in worrying about this. But is there anything you can do to prevent this from happening? The single best way to reduce the likelihood of finding yourself in this awkward situation is to communicate with your partner up front.

First and foremost, this means clarifying what the relationships is and is not at the very beginning. Part of the reason these relationships often become complicated is because people have different motives for entering the relationship and different expectations for how it will change over time. For instance, although some people have FWBs just for the sex, others use them as a way to become closer to another person with the hope that a true romance will ultimately develop [2]. If the two of you can clarify things and get on the same page at the outset, the risks of someone getting hurt are lower. Of course, if your partner wants more than just sex from you, they may not necessarily be truthful about this because they don’t want to lose the opportunity to get what they’re after. In that case, there isn’t much you can do other than express your intentions and expectations as clearly as possible and reiterate them from time to time.

Beyond clarifying what the relationship is, it is also worth setting some ground rules. Most people who have FWBs fail to establish any kind of rules or boundaries [3], and this is another reason so many complications tend to pop up. For example, be explicit about whether you are going to be having sex with other people. Don’t assume anything about your partner’s sex life so that you don’t end up getting hurt, and also so that you can take appropriate safer-sex precautions (e.g., using condoms, getting tested for STIs, etc.). Some people 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).

Another thing you might consider is setting an “expiration date” for the “benefits.” I know this sounds incredibly unromantic—but, then again, these relationships usually aren’t intended to be romantic. By setting a time limit of a few weeks or a few months on the sexual aspect of your relationship, you can reduce the odds that unreciprocated feelings will develop before the sex ends. Of course, shutting down an opportunity for perfectly good sex may be difficult when the expiration date finally arrives. Indeed, it may require quite a bit of self-control to make a clean break, especially if you plan to transition back to “just friends.” However, you both have to be committed to the temporary nature of the relationship and be ready to move on.

Lastly, 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 things will go smoothly. You can’t always predict exactly how sex will impact your relationship with another person. The best you can do is 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. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[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.

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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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