No strings attached: Are “friends with benefits” as complicated in real life as they are in the movies?
Many people become “friends with benefits” to avoid drama and to have sex without getting tied up in emotions; however, the reality is that having a friend with benefits often becomes complicated. Why is that, and is there anything you can do to avoid these complexities? In this article, we will explore the science behind friends who decide to have sex.
“No relationship. No emotions. Just sex. Whatever happens, we stay friends.”
– Jamie (Mila Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake) negotiating the rules of their sexual arrangement while swearing over an iPad bible in the film Friends with Benefits
“Friends with benefits” (FWB) relationships have become increasingly common over the last few decades. As some evidence of this, data from the General Social Survey reveals that among college students surveyed between 1988 and 1996, 55.7% reported having had sex with a friend; among students surveyed from 2002 to 2010, that number jumped to 68.6% (Monto & Carey, 2013). As FWBs have increased in popularity, so have media depictions of these relationships, including the popular films No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits. These and other media portrayals of FWBs suggest that they tend to follow a pretty standard narrative: two friends talk over drinks about how complicated and messy sex and relationships tend to be. These friends then come to the conclusion that the solution to their problems is to decouple sex and emotion and just have sex with one another. Things get hot and heavy and seem pretty exciting for a while; however, things inevitably get messy because the partners cannot keep their emotions at bay. Sound familiar? It should, because this plot has been enacted time and again.
So is this what FWB relationships typically look like in real life? Research suggests that FWBs often follow a different script in the real world than they do in the movies. People can have very different motivations and expectations for their FWBs, which can lead these relationships down many possible paths. However, the movies do get one thing right: navigating a FWB relationship tends to be pretty complicated.
What is a Friend with Benefits Anyway?
In the popular media, FWBs are invariably depicted as having been friends first, and this friendship is seen as a vital part of the relationship. In everyday usage, however, people define and use the term “friends with benefits” in many different ways. For example, in a study by Paul Mongeau and colleagues (2013), they asked 177 heterosexual college students to define “friends with benefits” in their own words. After analyzing the content of all of the definitions submitted, the researchers found that there were actually seven distinct types of FWBs that varied in the relative degree of emphasis the partners put on sex vs. friendship, how often they interacted, and what they hoped to get out of the relationship in the long run. The seven varieties of FWBs included:
1) True friends: when two preexisting friends decide to start having sex, just like in the movies. This was the most common type of FWB arrangement participants reported having had before.
2) Just sex: when two people hook up from time to time, but do not really have a true friendship.
3) Network opportunism: when two people agree to serve as “backups” for each other in situations where neither of them can find another partner for the evening.
4) Successful transition in: when someone intentionally uses a FWB as a stepping-stone into a romantic relationship.
5) Unintentional transition in: when FWBs accidentally turn into romantic partners. Most media portrayals of FWBs end with the partners moving into some type of romantic relationship, even though they were initially trying to avoid this.
6) Failed transition in: when someone hopes to use a FWB as a stepping-stone to romance but is not successful in doing so.
7) Transition out: when romantic partners decide to maintain a sexual relationship after a breakup (sometimes referred to as “ex-sex”).
As you can see, the term “friend with benefits” can have more than one meaning! Despite this clear variation, however, most researchers to date have studied FWBs as one homogenous group. As a result, we must await future research to determine whether certain types of FWBs tend to be more or less successful than others.