The Pros and Cons of Becoming Friends With Benefits

5 min read
Ron Lach / Pexels

Ron Lach / Pexels

While not for everyone, casual sex is quite common despite overall levels of sexual intimacy being at a 30-year low. Over 50% of emerging adults, those between 18-29, report at least one instance of casual sex (Lambert et al., 2003; Hawkins et al., 2023).

Casual sexual encounters are not created equal. They vary between hookups, one-night stands, and friends with benefits (FWB).

Distinguished from other forms of casual sex, FWB sex occurs between people who tend to know each other well and have an emotional connection (Lewis et al., 2012).

Caution is advised for those who fall in love easily, have challenging attachment histories, or clearly want a committed relationship.

Friends with benefits is a mixture of an authentic emotional connection, sexual attraction, and satisfying sex, not far from the realities of a healthy romantic relationship. Truly, the only feature that separates the two is the foreclosure of a future together and the perceived demands of a budding committed relationship.

The cons are clear: developing a romantic attachment to a friend could end in losing a friendship, heartbreak, and for some a waste of time that could otherwise have been dedicated to intentional dating.

While the empirical research into the pros of FWBs has been disproportionately focused on emerging adults, these sexual relationships occur in adulthood as well, including with divorcees and single parents (Vanderheiden, 2021).

I’d argue that emerging adults, divorcees, and single parents share a similar period of transition and exploration despite a variety of developmental and personality differences within and across these groups. Over the last 20 years, there has been growing evidence of the benefits of FWBs.

For instance, emerging adults who have sex with a friend at least once describe it positively regardless of gender (Gusarova et al, 2012). There is some evidence of a gender difference in perceptions of casual sex with men viewing it more positively likely in part because they more frequently experience orgasm (Piemonte et al., 2019).

Benefits can also include greater sexual confidence, agency, and satisfaction in a relationship that is typically experienced as more psychologically safe (Owen et al., 2013; Hawkins et al., 2023).

The quality of sexual experiences tends to increase with this sense of safety and familiarity. Safe sex practices tend to be more consistent as well, reducing the most common risks of casual sex, including unplanned pregnancies and contraction of STDs.

The convenience of sex with a trusted friend can eliminate the effort of a more serious romantic relationship and reduce the risks of sex with strangers.

In a best case scenario, these relationships can be a stepping-stone to, or a proxy for, an exclusive romantic relationship.

However, as mentioned, the one glaring downfall of friends with benefits is if one friend develops a romantic attachment beyond the friend-based emotional attachment.

There is no surefire way to prevent romantic feelings from developing, and if those feelings aren’t reciprocated, they can lead to the dissolution of a great friendship.

The good news is, that tends not to be the case, according to researchers from the University of Louisville, who found that 80% of participants who ended a FWB relationship were still friends.

Most of these FWB relationships do end without transitioning into romantic relationships. The odds are steep, with percentages ranging from 75-85% either returning to purely friends or dissolving any form of relationship altogether (Machia et al., 2020).

It’s also likely that many FWBs will not be long-lasting. Surprisingly, one longitudinal study found 60% of participants had sex just once before returning to being platonic (Machia et al., 2020).

It’s understandable that often daters will want to fall in love with their best friend, and rightly so.

According to couples therapy pioneers John and Julie Gottman, friendship is key to a long and fierce love. It involves knowing each other deeply, being incredibly fond and admiring of each other, and effectively turning toward each other’s bids for affection, intimacy, etc.

The difference in more conventional romantic relationships is that friendship develops simultaneously with sexual attraction, passion, and intimacy. One does not precede the other.

For those for whom sexual exploration is paramount, traditional dating with an openness to exploring sexual compatibility with multiple partners may be the better route.

If you’re curious about starting an FWB relationship, here are 3 things to consider:

  1. Clarify boundaries from the start. If you’re sexually attracted to a friend and broach the subject with them, talk about what you want and what you don’t want. It’s imperative that you create shared meaning and informed consent before becoming sexually involved.
  2. Nurture your friendship. While sex can be exciting and pleasurable, don’t forget about what you enjoyed doing together beforehand. Depending on the depth of your friendship, you may want to spend time together with shared friends, go on adventures just the two of you, and keep each other updated on your life.
  3. Know yourself and be transparent. Less than a quarter of FWBs evolve into committed romantic relationships, so keep your attachment in check. If you’re starting to imagine being in a committed relationship with your friend, thinking about them often, or falling in love, you’ll need to communicate that. Likewise, if you’re dating and see yourself pursuing another person, let your friend know so that your FWB relationship doesn’t deteriorate into a “situationship.”

Having casual sex with a trusted friend is not going to be an option for some and the wrong option for others. But if you’re an emerging adult, divorcee, or recently single parent, I believe these periods of transition could be a rich opportunity for sexual exploration and pleasure outside of traditional dating or a committed relationship.

As with all intimate relationships, you get to choose what’s best for you. Having a consensual sexual relationship with a friend is one path toward pleasure and satisfaction, one worth considering.

Facebook image: lenetstan/Shutterstock

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