The relationship that sounds so caring: friendship. What could be better than a friend? Duh, a friend with benefits of course! The term friends with benefits (FWB) describes couples who are more than friends but less than committed lovers. They’re friends who, now and then, also have sex. They’re not deeply involved and remain free to date other people. But they value the friendship, feel a mutual affection towards one another, and sometimes make love, or simply, have sex. But when a friendship moves from platonic to sexual, even if both partners claim they're not "romantic," doesn't the dynamic of that relationship change? It's a puzzle of gargantuan proportions (or a mistake made time and time again), that's often discussed during girl’s nights in, guy’s nights out, and with anyone besides the friend we’re benefiting with!
The FWB relationship shouldn’t be as surprising or new as the Grapple you’ll find in your local grocery store, unless you’ve been living under the conservative rock, or in this case, boulder. P.S. For those of you who don’t dabble in genetically modified foods, a Grapple is an ordinary apple that’s modified to taste like a grape. Similar to the ordinary apple that’s been around, umm pretty much forever, FWB relationships have been too, and, are semi-similar to ordinary relationships, though those participating will beg and plead to disagree. Some similarities: disagreements between partners about making time for the benefit-er, nondisclosure of personal feelings, and of course, sex. Side note, the first two criteria are signs of an unhealthy relationship; just sayin’!
Who participates in these far from chivalrous acts? The 18 – 24 year old, new professional – overworked and underpaid – stressed – chardonnay consuming – brand name conscious – bar hopping – after hour’s club attendees – the YOUNG ADULT. But as we grow older (and hopefully wiser), will FWB relationships sustain us into adulthood? What about the Tiffany engagement ring (you know you’ve designed your own via their website), the $50,000 wedding (not including the 5-star honeymoon retreat you hope he’s paying for), the mini-van of our generation – a Mercedes-Benz SUV (GPS? Yes please!), and of course, two beautiful children? It’s a pretty general consensus that the above daydream doesn’t come from the FWB relationship some of us are shamelessly participating in. So, why do we do it? This is what researchers M.A. Bisson from Wayne State University and T.R. Levine from Michigan State University set to find out in their study entitled, Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship.
Bisson and Levine asked some pretty probing questions, much more invasive than when you missed curfew and had to answer to mom over chocolate chip pancakes the next morning. Some snippets: How friendly are FWB? How much sex do they have? And what happens after it’s all over? Their method of discovery: surveying 125 undergraduate students from undergraduate communication courses, 65 women and 60 men.
The results of their study were interesting, particularly the fact that more men were involved in FWB relationships then women! Ladies, what are you thinking, IF anything at all? Of the surveyed, 60 percent overall were involved in FWB relationships, (40 men, 35 women) (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Bisson and Levine weren’t hesitant to ask how many of those participants were involved in an FWB relationship currently and 1/3 revealed they were in one at the time of the survey.
Moving on, what becomes of these FWB partnerships? Of the total sample, almost two-thirds (62 percent) said they thought based on their experiences that men and women can remain "just friends" while being FWB (Bisson & Levine, 2009). The rest said it was impossible, and that FWB participants must decide (and surveyors said that this must happen quickly…finally some reasonable thinking) to be friends without sex, or become official can’t live without each other – you better not cheat – oh I love you sooo much - LOVERS. FWB veterans felt more optimistic: 81 percent (34 men, 26 women) said it was quite possible to be happily FWB FOREVER (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Really, like forever ever? In a country where approximately 50 percent of marriages fail yearly, how can you be deluded enough to think that FWB is the winning ticket to forever? Why should marriage, common law or otherwise, even exist?
So, how much sex are FWB having? Bisson and Levine found that sex isn’t as frequent when the partners share little to no commitment to each other. Again, this shouldn’t be surprising. Simply because, sex is generally a way for those who love each other to express those feelings in a physically intimate way. Deterrents such as work or busy schedules can all be worked out between couples, generally a source of conflict with FWB, because the couples WANT it more and choose to MAKE it work. FWB pairs reported various sexual frequencies: only once (19 percent), occasionally (52 percent), and frequently (29 percent) (Bisson & Levine, 2009).
What happens to the FWB relationship after all the fun is had? First, let’s preface, according to Bisson and Levine, most FWB couples were friends for an average of 14 months. Of these, some maintained the FWB status as a long-term relationship, approximately 28 percent (Bisson & Levine, 2009). However, not all were able to do so, emotional attachment developing – DING! Most FWB relationships changed, relatively close to six months after they began (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Bisson and Levine found that many of these participants stayed true to the “friends” part but smartly chose to stop with the benefits (approximately 36 percent). And surprise, surprise, only 10 percent of those surveys ended up together romantically (Bisson & Levine, 2009). However, tragedy lay for some, 26 percent, as both the friendship and the sex came to a screeching halt (Bisson & Levine, 2009). The killing two birds with one stone adage seems a little “I told you so” at this point, so I’ll refrain….
I guess the burning question in some minds is why do some of us participate in FWB relationships? Like anything else, there is an upside. According to Bisson and Levine, sex without commitment topping the list at 74 percent, having an available sex partner, having sex with some you know, like and trust as opposed to a random hookup, and having some semblance of a relationship while remaining officially single, only 13 percent, top the list of advantages. However, like anything else, there’s a pretty steep downside as well. The biggest disadvantage and one that was felt by 81% of those surveyed, was developing romantic feelings (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Some others included the risk of losing the friendship upon which FWB commenced on, a lack of commitment, and feeling badly about the non-romantic couple sex.
Why is FWB relevant to you, especially if you’re not a participant? Simply because understanding this concept aids in understanding the relationship spectra that our generation is facing. To some, FWB is usually a functional arrangement, serving a definite sexual need between two consenting adults. But we cannot dictate our emotions, or theirs, when we are dealing with complex human beings. For friends with benefits to really work it has to have clear guidelines or rules between the couple. Despite knowing the “rules” when we get busy with our friend, the rules often get broken, along with a few hearts. FWB is a way for this and future generations to experiment, try something with one person, try this thing with another person. In a time when everything can be next day and ordered and put on credit and paid for, love to me is promise, all promise, very little realization. I guess a lot of us see love, relationships, and intimacy as a big gamble, we’re just not ready to put our hearts on the line. But being alone is a battle too difficult to face, so we engage in the FWB compromise.
- Bisson, M. A., & Levine, T. R. (2009). Negotating a friends with benefits relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 66 - 73.