Dating & Relationships

Can “Friends With Benefits” Ever Go Back To Just Being Friends

December 27, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller


Navigating a “friends with benefits” (FWB) relationship is complicated. People sometimes start these relationships for different reasons, and they often have very different expectations for how the relationship will develop in the future [1].

So what ends up happening in the long run when two friends start having sex? We know that some (but not most) go on to have romantic relationships [2]. But what about everyone else? Can these people go back to being “just friends,” or do they inevitably drift apart? A recent study offers some insight into these questions.

In this research, 308 college undergraduates who had previously had at least one FWB relationship were surveyed [3]. To be eligible for the study, participants could not currently have a romantic partner or a FWB. The researchers limited their sample in this way because they were primarily interested in studying FWBs that do 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 feel about that person now.

The results were mixed, but most people ended up staying friends on some level. Specifically:

  • 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,

  • 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 tell us a few important things. First, although it does appear possible for FWBs to revert back to friends, this study found that there is only about a 50/50 chance that the friendship will be as strong as it was 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 people reporting that this occurred.

How do we explain such different outcomes? That’s a question for future research. However, I would speculate that it has something to do with how well the partners communicate with one another because communication is a major key to relationship success, regardless of whether we’re talking about a relationship with a romantic partner or with a casual sex partner.

Although there is still more work to be done, the take-home message from this is that despite their inherent complexities, “friends with benefits” can indeed remain friends after the fact.

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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. (2012). Friends with benefits relationships as a start to exclusive romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 982-996.

[3] Owen, J., Fincham, F. D., & Manthos, M. (2013). Friendship after a friends with benefits relationship: Deception, psychological functioning, and social connectedness. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1443-1449

Image Source: 123RF

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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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