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

How Are the “Benefits?”

Research comparing FWBs to romantic partners has revealed that there are no differences in sexual practices across these two types of relationships (Lehmiller et al., 2014). In other words, FWBs engage in roughly the same types of sexual activities as people in more committed relationships. Where they differ is in frequency of sex and sexual satisfaction. Specifically, FWBs report having sex with one another less often than romantic partners, which makes sense given that FWBs do not typically live together and therefore have fewer opportunities for sex. In addition, FWBs report being less sexually satisfied than romantic partners. To be clear, this is not to say that FWBs are inherently dissatisfied with the sex they are having—that is not the case at all! In fact, FWBs are very satisfied on average, just not quite as satisfied as romantic partners. Why is that? One factor is likely the lack of communication about sex. If you do not tell your partner what you like and enjoy, it is less likely that you will reach orgasm consistently or achieve maximum pleasure. Another contributing factor may be that FWBs are more likely to use condoms than romantic partners. For some people, condoms reduce sexual pleasure. Finally, one other factor that may be at play here is the fact that the more sex you have with the same partner, the more you learn what that person likes and how to please that individual. Because FWBs have less sex than romantic partners, they therefore have fewer learning opportunities.

What Happens to FWBs in the Long Run?

As mentioned above, FWBs often go on to become romantic partners in the movies. What happens in the real world? To date, there have been no published longitudinal studies exploring the typical trajectory of FWBs; however, in a study in which college students who had a previous or current FWB were asked to report on their outcome of their relationship, the results suggested that these relationships go off in a number of directions (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Specifically, 28.3% reported that they were still FWBs, 35.8% reported that they stopped having sex yet remained friends, 9.8% reported that their relationship evolved into a romance, and 25.9% reported that their relationship ended completely. In a different study of college students who were asked about their most recent FWB that had ended, about half said that they were no longer friends or were less close than they were before, while the other half said that their friendship was as strong or stronger than ever (Owen & Fincham, 2013). Thus, it is possible to go back to the way things used to be before becoming FWBs, but it is far from guaranteed.

Are There Any Secrets To a Successful FWB?

It is clear that some FWBs turn out better than others in that their friendship survives the sex. So are there any tips or insider secrets for managing FWBs? First, it is important to recognize that FWBs might not be right for everyone because people differ in how they approach sex and relationships, and some people naturally have an easier time separating sex from emotion than others. For example, consider the personality trait of sociosexuality (Gangestad & Simpson, 1990). Persons who have what is known as a restricted sociosexual orientation are uncomfortable having sex unless they have an emotional connection to their partner; in contrast, those with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation feel that sex and love do not necessarily have to go together. It is likely that persons with an unrestricted orientation would be less likely to develop feelings for their FWBs and would have an easier time staying friends if and when the sex ends. Thus, before you go looking for a FWB, it is important to think about whether this is the right type of relationship for you.

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