An eternal truism of love, sex and dating is that no relationship style is one-size-fits all. Not everybody is cut out for a romance that will last the ages!!!! with all the cartoon hearts and animated cherubs that are implied. Some people are cool with being single and doing their own thing without the responsibilities that come with the label of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “partner”.
But at the same time, people frequently do want the physical intimacy and pleasure of at least semi-regular sex. And while many people may enjoy them, one-night stands and one-off Tinder hook-ups aren’t for everyone. After all, sex is almost always better with a regular partner rather than a new rando every time.
This is why, for many people, the happy middle ground is a “friends with benefits” style relationship. For many, FWBs offer the best of both worlds: companionship, the easy intimacy of friends and occasional bed-rocking sex.
Problem is… well, frankly, most people are bad at finding and maintaining FWB relationships. So let’s talk about what it takes to make sure that being friends with benefits doesn’t tilt too far towards neglecting the friendship… or the benefits.
#5: Look For FWBs The Right Way
The first rule to cultivating a Friend With Benefits relationship is to do so the right way. An ideal FWB relationship means finding the right balance between sexual attraction and compatibility and emotional connection. You want a certain level of attraction and closeness, but not the sort of all-consuming flames of passion.
This can be a tricky balance to strike. When many people think of FWB, they tend to think of it in terms of adding benefits to an existing friendship. And while this is certainly possible – more so if there’s always been a mutual attraction between two friends – it’s difficult to do. You’re attempting to add a new dynamic to the friendship and sticking the landing there can be difficult. It’s hard to overcome months or years of “this person isn’t a sexual option to me” without a major emotional reset.
This is why it’s often easier to find a FWB by building the relationship from the start, rather than trying to bolt it on later. Starting the relationship with mutually agreed-upon expectations means that the relationship is far less likely to explode into a cloud of drama – messily and all over the place.
The problem is that other people have made this profoundly more difficult by acting like assholes. As one of my female readers has observed – advertising that you’re looking for a friend with benefits is like buying two tickets to the shit show.
Many women in particular are legitimately interested in a friends with benefits relationship; FWB set-ups are often safer and more satisfying than hooking up with strangers. However, many men frequently forget that the “F” in “FWB” means “friend” not “fuckhole you don’t have to call afterwards”. This has effectively poisoned the well. Women are less likely to advertise wanting a more casual arrangement and are more likely to give the side-eye to guys who advertise they’re looking for one.
Now, that having been said: online dating sites like OKCupid are likely your best bet. It’s a space where people are there explicitly to find companionship of various types. You’re more likely to find someone who wants that same easy-going friendship (plus orgasms) you do than by making cold approaches. But, just as people who are open to FWBs are going to be hesitant, you need to be choosy, too. You want someone who is happy in their life, just as you are. They may not do casual, but they don’t want to date either. They want a friend and occasional snugglebunny, who doesn’t have expectations of them beyond what’s on offer.
And they’re probably going to be picky. That’s why, if you want a FWB rather than a traditional relationship, you’re going to need to be patient and willing to take it at your potential buddy’s pace.
Some people are going to be suspicious of someone who only wants to be friends with benefits. Some people simply won’t want that kind of relationship. And some may not quite get what’s entailed.
#4: You Must Understand What Friends With Benefits Actually Means
Let’s be honest: trying to maintain a friends with benefits relationship often ends as a disaster of truly epic proportions. This is in no small part because of how many people tend to treat FWB style relationships as either Dating-Lite or “Sex On Call”. In the former, the mistake comes from thinking that being friends with benefits is, in some way, a stepping stone to commitment or that it’s some alternate nobody-wants-to-admit-to-it form of dating. After all, aren’t you supposed to be friends with your partner? Don’t we, as a culture, tend to romanticize the idea of “in love with my best friend”?
Setting aside the issue of the stress that trying to get all your emotional needs met from one person puts on a relationship, not everyone wants the intensity, the responsibility or the expectations that come from a more traditional committed relationship. Being friends with benefits is literally that: you’re primarily friends who just happen to have a sexual component to your friendship. There are many people who are great together, both emotionally and physically… as long as they’re not expecting the kind of relationship that comes with calling someone your boyfriend or girlfriend. Just as we don’t expect our platonic friends to be the focus of our lives, FWBs combine a certain level of familiarity and intimacy without crossing over into making your relationship the core of your world.
This doesn’t make people who want FWB relationships selfish or self-centered; it simply means that they understand the relationship that works best for them – either for now or in general.
On the other hand, wanting to have a friends with benefits relationship also isn’t about non-monogamy, polyamory or old-fashioned no-strings bangin’. While, yes, most FWBs come without the expectation of monogamy, it doesn’t mean that it’s just about fucking. Most people who are looking for a friend with benefits want a partner that they can trust. While the rush of the new can be intoxicating, the combination of familiarity, comfort and trust makes sex amazing. Women, in particular, benefit from a regular partner, who’s more likely to actually care about her pleasure.
While some folks may be cool with a “no talking, just head”1 sort of relationship, even people who like sleeping with lots of other people don’t always want a show-up-screw-leave scenario. Having a friendship where sex is just one component of the relationship is often ideal.
In both cases, however, the conflict between expectations and the reality causes drama. Many people have used an FWB relationship as the “just the tip” strategy to weasel a reluctant partner into commitment. Many people have hurt their partners by treating the friendship as being contingent on the benefits. They only wanted sex, and were willing to put up with whatever it took to get it. Once sex was no longer an option – for whatever reason – the friendship fell apart.
The fact that you may not be headed for happy-ever-after doesn’t mean that you get to be casual with other people’s feelings. If you’re going to look for a friend with benefits, you want to make sure you and your friend both understand what that means.
#3: Define Your Terms (And The Relationship) Early
For many people the hardest part of a Friends With Benefits relationship isn’t finding the person, it’s asking for the relationship itself.
For some, it’s a matter of being afraid of offending their potential partner. It’s not an unreasonable fear; to some people, asking to be FWBs can sound an awful lot like “Hey, I’m really only interested in sex.” The last thing that you want to do is give the impression that you’re just trying to dress up “be the person I can bang without thinking about their needs” in prettier language.
For others, it can be difficult to know just what to say. How do you tell someone you don’t want to date date, but you do want to hang out, get beers and occasionally make out?
A lot of people try to get around this problem by… simply not talking about it. Everything becomes predicated on avoiding labels because hey, labels cause pressure, man. So much easier and less complicated to just let this be “whatever it is” instead of stressing yourselves out by, y’know, talking about it.
Needless to say, this is a great way to make everyone miserable. One of the reasons why FWB relationships implode is because one partner feels left out or gets hurt because things were unclear. One partner believes one set of rules or guidelines, while the other partner has different expectations entirely. Once these two conflicting outlooks collide, drama erupts and everyone goes home upset and confused.
As awkward as having a defining-the-relationship talk can be, setting the terms early saves everyone time, trouble and heartbreak.
Ideally, you want to establish just what you have before you have sex. Sex has a way of complicating and confusing things, and if you’re going into an ambiguous situation, you’re running the risk of some serious upset. As tempting as it is to put things off until someone else calls the question, that nebulous “ok, we’re seeing each other regularly and sleeping together, so what does this mean?” stage ups the odds that one of you has completely different expectations. You may be seeing this as a casual thing, but they’re pretty sure you’re on the path to something more serious.
You want to head that off at the pass. So when you know that you two click, you want to sit down and lay things out as plainly as possible. Your script is fairly simple:
“Look, I’m going to be straight with you: I’m not looking for/ do not want/ am not interested in having a girlfriend/boyfriend relationship. I’m a good friend and a good lover, but I’m not available for commitment beyond that. If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s not a problem, but I’m not the person who can give it to you.
Here’s what I want from this relationship and here’s what I have to offer.
How about you?”
That “how about you” is incredibly important. A lot of people are uncomfortable being blunt about what they want from a relationship. By leading the conversation and ending with “how about you”, you’re modeling the conversation and communication you want. You’re giving them permission to be as open and honest as you have been, without fear of judgement.
From here, you’re now free to discuss and negotiate what you both want and need from this relationship. Just as importantly, you want to lay out what you don’t want and can’t give. This last part is vital; while you can’t prevent people from going in with unrealistic expectations, you can at least try to head off drama. If there is no way this will ever be more than just friends who bang, you need to reemphasize that. You may not be able to stop someone from setting themselves up for heartbreak, but you can at least make sure they know what they’re in for.
Of course this also brings up the question: what if they say no?
Then, you thank them for taking care of themselves and let them go. As hard as it can be to get turned down, you’ve found out early that this relationship couldn’t work. You two simply weren’t compatible, and trying to make this work would have ended in tears. It’s far better to cut things off early on, before feelings make things complicated.
While we’re on the subject…
#2: You Will Not Catch Feels
One of the eternal questions of maintaining a Friends With Benefits relationship is: “How do you avoid developing feelings?” This is a legitimate concern. The combination of sex and emotional chemistry has a tendency to make things complicated. After all, sex triggers the production of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain – the two chemicals that promote bonding and create those warm lovey-dovey feelings. They create a very real rush that people get addicted to. And while some people are great at compartmentalizing how they feel, most aren’t. Even people with the best of intentions can find themselves catching a bad case of The L-Word2 when they don’t mean to.
The key to avoiding this and keeping your relationship at the casual level is to maintain agreed-upon boundaries to keep things casual. It’s much easier to maintain a FWB when you both work to avoid blurring the lines of your relationship.
How do you do this?
Limit the sex. Yeah, I know: the benefits of a Friend With Benefits are kind of key. But it’s also where most people slip up. The more often you’re fucking, the more hits of dopamine you take. The more dopamine you’re mainlining, the more it causes the dividing line between “friendship” and “love” to fade. While that sex may be goddamned amazing, if you’re serious about not catching feels, you need to be willing to put some limits. This is going to vary from couple to couple. Some are able to keep it to every other week without problems. Others need to limit to once a month. It may feel like an absurd restriction, but this distance helps keep you from getting lost in the rush. Plus: taking time between hook-ups makes the tension and build-up that much more delicious when it pays off.
No “relationship” behavior. This means no PDA – no casual handholding, flirting and romantic dates. These may feel like little things, but they’re little things that are part and parcel of romantic relationships. Your brain responds to your body’s behavior; act like you’re a couple and you’re more likely to feel like a couple. If you’re going to be strictly FWBs, then you need to avoid the romance frame. This also means no sleepovers, weekend trips or getaways that’re just the two of you. Time and proximity are, after all, part of how we start to fall for people. The more time it’s just the two of you? The more likely that lines will be crossed and someone’s going to catch feels.
Keep the conversations platonic. Some people in FWBs try to limit contact in general, which is a mistake. You’re supposed to be friends, and friends talk. They joke around, they hang out, they trade stupid memes and laugh about shit they saw on Twitter. What you don’t want to do, however, is keep having those sweet schmoopy conversations or the cute little flirtations. Flirting can be fun and a little sexy teasing can make the sex even more enjoyable… but you also run the risk of getting smitten. The more you act like a couple, the more likely you are to imprint on the other person and start chafing at your relationship’s limits.
Yeah, all of this feels cold and calculated. That’s the point. If you want to keep feelings from developing and complicating things, you can’t give them fertile ground to grow in. That artificial distance helps everyone feel better in the long run, enjoying the relationship you want without opening yourselves up to needless hurt.
But of course, that leads to the most important rule about being friends with benefits:
#1: You Must Keep The Lines of Communication Open
No matter what precautions you take, not all relationships are going to work in the long term. People change. Their needs change. Sometimes, the relationship itself changes. What may have worked for you two in the beginning may not work later on. People agree to things they think they can handle, only to realize that they couldn’t. People go in, honestly expecting to be able to make things work, but keep ignoring clearly stated boundaries. And you have to be ready for that.
This means that you have to keep the lines of communication between the two of you open where the relationship is concerned. If someone is starting to have problems – whether the relationship isn’t right for them, or their needs have changed – then they need to feel empowered to come to their partner with their issues. And just as with having the Defining The Relationship talk, you can ensure this by modeling this behavior yourself. Being willing to talk openly and freely about what is and isn’t working is important. It reaffirms that they can speak openly to you just as you do to them.
So check in with your FWB. Are things working for them? Are they still ok with things as they currently stand?
For that matter: are you ok with things? After all, sometimes you may be the person who realizes that the relationship isn’t a good fit. You may be the one who realizes they want more than their partner can give. Or you may be the one who recognizes that your partner’s in a bad place, but won’t say so. And, in either case: if you’re in a bad scene, then you need to be willing to end things and walk away.
It helps to remember that the campground rule applies to relationships too. You want to leave it better than you found it… and sometimes that’s not possible. If your relationship is hurting your partner and leaving them worse off – or if it is leaving you worse off for being in it – then the best thing you can do for the both of you is to end it.
As hard as it can be to give it up, the most important part of having friends with benefits is the friend; it’s often better to give up the benefits to save the friendship. After all: benefits come and go. But friendship is precious. And that’s something worth preserving.