As someone who writes about contemporary relationships and the hookup culture, I hear a lot about Friends With Benefits Relationships (FWBR), mostly from women. Mostly they don’t seem to work too well, in that most young women regret having had them once they’re done. When I ask women if they have ever been in a FWBR, the most common answer I hear is “Yes, unfortunately.” One young woman I spoke with recently lamented the end of friendship activities once the sexual activity began:
“We used to hang out all the time, go to movies, grab dinner, stuff like that. But now that we’re hooking up, I hardly ever see him outside of bed. He says that if we were to have sex and still do all the other stuff, that would be a relationship, and he doesn’t want a relationship. But I miss him.”
At the same time, I find that most women still believe casual sexual relationships can work. They can work well if rational behavior prevails and both people are “on the same page.” Meaning that both parties have zero expectations for romance, commitment, or sometimes, even friendship.
There are several commonly accepted characteristics of FWBRs:
Sex occurs in the context of a non-romantic friendship.
There is an absence of desire for a romantic relationship or commitment.
The emphasis is on fulfilling sexual rather than emotional needs.
Why the dichotomy? Why do women enter FWB arrangements with optimism and confidence, only to exit them as cynics? Were they not being honest with themselves at the start? Or did their feelings change over time, rendering them “ineligible” to play by the rules of emotional detachment? And why are women blaming themselves when these relationships sour? Do they feel deficient in their ability to keep things casual? Or are women the ones breaking hearts? Perhaps I’m just not hearing the success stories?
Reflecting on how things have changed since my own college days twenty-five years ago, I recall that we had plenty of casual sex, but it was mostly of the one-night-stand variety. Close platonic friendships between men and women were not the norm, and those I tried to forge eventually always got complicated by sexual tension one way or another, a la When Harry Met Sally. We straddled the eras of traditional dating and casual sex, and we generally did not attempt to combine the two.
Today’s youth is much better at friendship between genders. Sexual tension becomes an issue for them just as regularly, but they choose to handle it differently. It is common for girls and guys to acknowledge, even discuss, their mutual attraction for each other, and then to decide not to act on it. Usually, they refrain from indulging their feelings so as to preserve the friendship when neither (or just one) wishes to pursue a committed relationship. Of course, often the two go right ahead and have sex, choosing to deal with the complications afterwards. And sometimes they decide in a pragmatic way to introduce sex into the friendship, allowing physical intimacy to grow while keeping emotional intimacy in check.
There are other ways that FWBRs get started. Sometimes a one-night-stand or random hookup evolves into a FWBR if both partners want to repeat the experience, perhaps indefinitely. Conversely, some of these relationships are about having sex with the ex; a romantic relationship ends, but the couple decides to maintain the sexual relationship. FWBRs offer another compelling benefit in an era where STD transmission is rampant: they are less risky than sex with a larger variety of partners.
So what does the data say? Who’s happy, who’s unhappy with the status quo? A survey of the scholarship on FWBR reveals the following:
60% of college students have experienced at least one FWBR.
10% of these relationships evolve into romances.
33% remain friends after halting the sexual part of their friendship.
25% end both the sexual relationship and the friendship over time.
47% of participants in FWBRs believe in “deep love,” while 60% of non-participants do.
Do young women and men experience FWBRs in the same way? The research shows that there are profound differences between women and men in their answers to the following questions:
Clearly, women are more focused on the friends aspect of the relationship, while men are more concerned with the benefits. In addition, researchers have studied how FWBRs differ in their relational dynamics from platonic cross-sex friendships:
There is a prevalent emotional rule in FWBRs stating that both parties must avoid falling in love, and must work to minimize jealousy.
Openness occurs less naturally in FWBRs than in platonic friendships. However, a continuous process of negotiation is required to assure clarity for both parties.
FWBRs include less supportive communication, including giving assurances and advice.
The sexual part of the friendship is often kept secret.
The sex in FWBRs is characterized by less passion than romantic sex.
FWBs often try to spend time with mutual friends to avoid focusing too heavily on sexual activity.
There is more emphasis on the role of equity in the relationship, i.e., who has the “upper hand.”
Clearly, the primary risk for young women is an emotional one. That is not to say that women are always the ones to have unrequited feelings. But they worry they will be, with good reason. One woman admitted that she is tired of hooking up with guys she doesn’t know, but that she doesn’t like being the only one to go home alone. Her f**k buddy provides a good alternative.
“We’ve been good friends for a couple of years, and we recently started hooking up. Neither one of us is looking for anything serious, but he’s really sweet, and he’s kind of cute. I never really saw him that way before. I’m not looking to date anyone right now, so I’ll probably just stick with this for a while and see how it goes.”
Uh oh. She thinks he’s sweet. And cute. She doesn’t focus on his jacked body, or that she wants him outta there in the morning. She’s not looking for anyone else. She wants to “see how it goes.”
I’ve got my fingers crossed, but what I fear is this: Her heart is open. His fly is.