We’ve spoken with experts to explore what friends with benefits really involves — and how to make it work.
Chances are you’ve seen at least one movie or TV show where two of the characters were exploring a friends with benefits relationship. It usually ends with the duo falling in love and dancing off into the sunset. In reality, the situation can turn out very differently, as this type of relationship involves far more than just sex with “no strings attached.”
“Friends with benefits describes any sexual relationship in which partners have agreed not to expect emotional commitment or investment from the relationship,” explains Cooper, founder of The Sex Esteem Program and the director of Center for Love and Sex in New York City. “It doesn’t have to include penetrative sex to qualify.”
What you want vs. what you can do
When you think of friends with benefits, you likely envision tangled bedsheets and a good dose of satisfaction, then scheduling your next meetup and getting on with the rest of your day. But, as with many things in life, it’s not always so clear-cut.
Why it can be (scientifically) hard to keep love out of lust relationships
The main issue that tends to arise is around keeping the physical and the emotional aspects separate.
“Being physical with someone has loads of feel-good hormones going around in our bodies — we’ve got all of those endorphins going on, and hits of dopamine,” states Sarah Louise Ryan, a U.K.-based dating and relationship expert. “However, we’re built to attach to one another.”
Indeed, as well as those feel-good hormones being released, there’s a chemical in the body that actually pushes us to form a deeper connection: oxytocin. This is produced by the brain when you’re attracted to another person and is associated with bonding thanks to its role in developing feelings of trust and security and lowering anxiety levels.
Plus, together with the hormone vasopressin, research shows oxytocin encourages heightened sexual arousal and the process of falling in love.
Why it can be easier for some to enjoy sex without affinity
That being said, for various reasons, some individuals do find it easier to distinguish between love and lust. These includes:
- People who are aromantic. Although they can form bonds, these individuals don’t get romantic feelings or seek traditional romantic relationships.
- People who are content in romantic relationships already but are looking to fulfill a sexual need. In some couples, one partner may have a higher sex drive. To ease a sense of frustration and guilt, the pair may come to an open-relationship style arrangement where sexual needs and demands are met by other people.
- People who have a vocation involving sex. Escorts and sex workers, for example, engage in intimate physical acts regularly, but don’t fall in love with every client. Research shows that to help achieve separation, sex workers can construct various physical and emotional boundaries — such as using different locations and changing their appearance.
- People who have experienced sexual violence/abuse. A 2011 study indicated those who were sexually abused as children have greater difficulty forming stable and positive intimate relationships in adulthood.
- People who have an attachment style based in self-preservation. We learn by doing and some people have had repeated experiences that have created a fear of intimacy.
- People who have certain mental health conditions. Those with conditions such as schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder are shown to have lower levels of bond-inducing oxytocin.
When to avoid friends with benefits
Attempting no strings attached sex may be feasible for many, but it’s a scenario best avoided for some, such as folks who experience anxiety.
“If you feel that being sexual with someone might trigger feelings of rejection and emotion, and worry about what might happen, then it might just not be for you,” Ryan says.
“You need to feel comfortable and confident enough in yourself that you’ve got this and can do this. If you don’t, I highly advise a friends with benefits situation wouldn’t serve you,” cautions Ryan.
Cooper adds that people with rejection sensitivity and chronic depression might also be better off avoiding friends with benefits.
Cooper also says that “those who have a traumatic history and get triggered during sexual encounters will be challenged if the person is not an actual friend, since these triggering episodes can be very disturbing and, at times, a survivor can do a violent movement during a flashback.”
Tips to maintain friends with benefits
When it comes to diving into a friends with benefits relationship, getting on the same page from the very beginning is important to ensure optimum levels of trust, comfort, respect, and enjoyment.
Also, there are a variety of approaches to help ensure things don’t get messy both in and outside the bedroom.
Set sexual ground rules
“As in any sexual relationship, setting boundaries on what will and won’t be expected of the actual sexual behaviors (including sexual health guidelines, like sexually transmitted infections and contraceptive barriers), [should] be engaged in each time and during a sexual meetup,” Cooper states.
You might not want to engage in oral sex, for example, or feel less comfortable snapping pics or recording videos during the escapades. However you feel, speak up, and always make sure there’s mutual consent.
Create outside-of-the-bedroom boundaries
Setting these can help “eradicate what might lead to an emotional attachment,” explains Ryan, who suggests it’s important to think about factors such as whether you sleepover afterward or go for dinner beforehand and how you communicate between your hookups.
Ensure you’re both in it for the right reasons
In some instances, one partner goes into a friends with benefits relationship hoping it will evolve into something more. However, harboring these beliefs can lead to disappointment and upset that potentially ends your friendship entirely — so venture into this sexual territory only if you’re on the same page about how you feel toward each other.
Talk, talk, talk
“In any type of sexual relationship, no matter what the definition is, communication is key,” says Gillian Myhill, sex and relationship adviser. “Ensure you’re always on the same page — frequently take each other’s ‘emotional temperature’. Feelings can and do change.”
Don’t let it become a top priority
An FWB relationship is great for releasing pent-up sexual energy and having a bit of fun, but don’t let it hold you back in the real world.
“If you want to meet someone in the long term and emotionally invest in a relationship that is significant to you, and the friends with benefits situation is taking up way too much time and energy, look at scraping that back,” Ryan says.
Agree when to stop
“Have a conversation about the duration they see this going on for,” suggests Ryan.
“Is it until you meet somebody else, or is it until you’re exclusive with someone else? It’s also about communicating what we would do if one of us catches feelings,” Ryan says. Having this discussion will help ensure you’re both prepared for any developments and can navigate your way through them.
Challenges and what to avoid
If you want to make friends with benefits work, look at the good and the bad. In addition to blurred boundaries and mixed messages, it’s essential to be aware of other challenges that could prevent your casual sex arrangement from staying healthy, safe, and fun.
Keeping in good health
It’s vital to look after your physical well-being as well as your mind. In 2019, there were 2.6 million cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Currently, rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are at an all-time high.
Practicing sex with a barrier method — using condoms and undergoing regular STI testing — is essential. And remember: “There are many STIs that can be spread through oral sex, so using a condom is not going to protect you completely,” Myhill notes.
Navigating social situations
It usually isn’t long before you introduce a new romantic partner to friends and family. But what’s the deal when it comes to socializing alongside a friend with benefits? “It all depends on your level of comfort,” states Ryan, and “the situation between the two people.”
You may already be in the same social circle, and everyone is aware of what’s going on, or it may be something you want to keep private. Again, communicate and set those boundaries.
When three’s a crowd
Ensure you agree with friends with benefits exclusivity. Are you each other’s only casual partner, or does one of you have several?
Either way, “this should be communicated when you begin this kind of relationship,” Myhill says. Not only is this respectful and honest, but it also helps preserve your sexual health and prevents boundaries from being crossed.
If one wants more
Because of oxytocin, developing feelings for someone is easier than you might expect. But those feelings might not be returned, which can make it tougher for all involved.
“It can often sting more painfully, because the partner who falls in love hadn’t expected to, and the partner who isn’t reciprocating can feel guilty or blamed,” says Cooper.
At this point, the kindest thing for both partners to do is walking away. “If you’ve said that you’d like to progress this further and they don’t, it’s really [about] stepping into your power, having the confidence to know your worth, and knowing that you’re not just a plaything,” Ryan says.
A friends with benefits relationship can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be entirely off-limits. You just have to be aware of your emotional limits, the expectations versus reality, and the potential challenges. Also, know the importance of setting boundaries
Everyone’s experience looks different, and what works for some might not be so great for others. Ultimately, “there are so many layers to consider,” says Ryan — meaning it’s not something to jump into without giving a second thought.
“I think anyone can do it, as long as you’re fully prepared and aware of the best and worst outcomes,” she continues. “It’s [about] having the tools in one’s box to realize that this might not work out the way you foresee it to.”