No strings attached: Are “friends with benefits” as complicated in real life as they are in the movies?

One thing that is clear is that, in the case of heterosexual FWBs, the sexes attach different meanings to these relationships. Consider a recent study by Lehmiller, VanderDrift, and Kelly (2011), in which 411 adults aged 18-65 who currently had a FWB were surveyed (on a side note, this age range tells us that it is not just college students who are having FWBs!). When asked why they started this relationship, most men and women pointed to sex as the primary reason, which is perhaps not surprising. However, men (72%) were significantly more likely than women (56%) to report that sex was their primary motivation. Also, women (37%) were significantly more likely than men (25%) to say that their primary motivation for starting the relationship was to connect emotionally with another person. Moreover, when asked what they hope the future holds for their FWB, most women (69%) expressed a desire that the relationship would change in some way, whether that meant becoming romantic partners, reverting to friends, or cutting off their friendship and sexual relationship altogether. In comparison, most men (60%) expressed a desire for their FWB arrangement to stay the same in the future. These findings suggest that part of the reason heterosexual FWBs often become so complicated is because men and women are not always on the same page about what the relationship is and where it is going. In many FWBs, it would seem that there are actually quite a few strings attached.

Why Do FWBs Get So Complicated?

The fact that men and women sometimes have discrepant motivations and expectations when starting a FWB relationship is certainly one source of complication, at least in the case of cross- sex FWBs. However, FWBs often become complicated for another reason: a lack of communication both in and out of the bedroom. For one thing, most people who have a FWB report failing to set any kind of rules for their relationship (Bisson & Levine, 2009). When it is not entirely clear which behaviors are permissible and which are not (e.g., having sex with other people, telling other people about the relationship), it becomes all too easy to unintentionally hurt your partner’s feelings. In addition, FWBs do not communicate about sex as much as one might expect. Although popular media portrayals suggest that FWBs have greater freedom to talk about their sexual desires and ask for what they want compared to romantic partners, this is not the case in reality. In fact, in a study that directly compared the sexual communication patterns of a sample of 190 people who had a current FWB to 186 people who had a current romantic partner, the results revealed that FWBs were less likely to discuss their sexual needs and desires, establish sexual boundaries, and talk about sexually transmitted diseases and contraception (Lehmiller, VanderDrift, & Kelly, 2014). The only aspect of sexual communication where FWBs appeared to have a leg up on romantic partners was in talking about the sexual experiences that they have with other people. FWBs were also more likely to have discussed the need to use condoms when they have sex with outside partners.

Why is communication lacking among FWBs? One factor that may play a role is the fact that alcohol use is associated with reporting FWB experience (Owen & Fincham, 2011). In fact, many FWBs only get together when they are drinking. However, while alcohol reduces inhibitions and breaks down barriers to sexual activity, it may also impair communication. Not only that, but alcohol use is linked to making less thoughtful relationship decisions (Owen & Fincham, 2011). Consequently, FWBs who get together while drinking may be less likely to think things through. It is also worth noting that, independent of alcohol use, some FWBs may shy away from communication because they fear that it might create too much intimacy or they may worry that establishing rules and boundaries might make their arrangement even more complicated.

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