Lifestyle & Belief

Friends with benefits: the new form of dating


Actors Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis attend the 'Friends with Benefits' premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater on July 18, 2011 in New York City.


Jemal Countess

Navigating today’s fragile dating categories isn't for the faint of heart.

Going from friends to “friends with benefits” or from online flirting to “f-buddies” seem to be as common a societal trend as the contemporary prevalence of commitment phobia.

I once had to ask an astute friend what the practical difference was between sex buddies and friends with benefits.

Without hesitation, he explained: “With a friend with benefits, you would actually see yourself going out for coffee afterwards.”

Is that enough nuance for you?

Enter the era of friends with benefits, the new form of dating.

For those of you who just landed in 2012 completely unprepared, here is the concept of “FWB,” as the text message generation calls it: A non-committed, friendly and sexual relationship between two consenting adults who aren’t done looking for the right person romantically or who aren’t ready to commit.

Although critics have called this anything from an “utopist idea” to “an easy way for men to get what they want without having to pay for it,” it turns out that the FWB method isn’t a bad way to begin a long-term relationship.

According to a University of Louisville study published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, exclusive romances that begin as “friends with benefits,” characterized by sexual encounters with no commitment, are actually no more likely to fail than those than started out as committed relationships.

Couples that started out on the casual note were no more likely to have separated after four months than couples without a casual sex history.

Jesse Owen, the lead researcher of the study, told he was surprised by the findings.

Since commitment is a foundation of any relationship, the team assumed the instability of a FWB set up would carry forward.

But it didn’t happen.

Couples who started out as friends with benefits didn’t necessarily end up worse off than others.

“Friends with benefits may actually be the new form of dating,” Owen said.

The researcher believes the results reflect two main issues:

  1. Self-selection. Individuals who entered the FWB relationship with the mutual hope of evolving into something more may have represented the majority of their sample. Couples might not have fared as well if one partner had pushed for the transition to exclusivity against the other’s will.
  2. Being frank. Changing the relationship’s status means having a frank talk about expectations and boundaries, which could potentially activate a healthy communication behavior for the future.

This, of course, is not to say that FWB is for everyone.

To start with, one must come to grips with the assumption that often the reason one accepts the friend with benefits path is because the other person simply isn’t Mr. or Miss Right. And, naturally, they themselves aren’t Mr. or Miss Right in return.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, President and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, has more on this in his blog on Psychology Today:

“A friend with benefits is not Mr. Right, but he may be the right person in certain circumstances. The temporal aspect of friendship with benefits is complex. Certainly, it is longer than casual sex and briefer than pure friendship; it can be longer than an unsuccessful romantic relationship but briefer than a genuine successful one. The bond in friendship with benefits is typically temporary and conditional upon one participant not wanting it to become deeper and more comprehensive, and upon finding an alternative partner…..Furthermore, a significant aspect of friendship that is often lacking in friendship with benefits is that of openness. Even though these friends might be able to talk about everything else, the no-strings-attached sexual component typically prevents them from being open about their primary sexual relationship.”

The lack of openness aspect would seem contradictory to the study, but perhaps it has to do more with the fact that women and men perceive FWB relationship differently.

According to Ben-Zeév, men appear to focus more on the benefits part of the deal, while women focus more on the friendship.  

Which brings me to another interesting study on this subject, which could very well be the culprit.

Apparently, when it comes to friendships between men and women — aka, the status before it morphs into friends with benefits — guys are typically more attracted to their female friends than vice versa, reports LiveScience.

According to a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Wisconsin and published on April 25 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, men report more sexual interest in their female friends than their female friends do in them, and men are also more likely than women to overestimate how romantically interested their friends are in them.

April Bleske-Rechek, lead researcher and a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, told LiveScience that their findings shouldn't be interpreted to mean that men and women can't be friends. It’s just that we may have to overcome our evolutionary history to do so:

"It's very likely that the modern environment has changed so quickly that we've got these novel opportunities to engage in a variety of types of relationship with the opposite sex that we probably didn't, historically….It's going to take us a while to adjust."

So, let me get this straight.

In order for men and women to be friends (without benefits), the man shouldn’t be sexually attracted to the woman. (That explains why so many women are friends with gay men.) Otherwise, a friendship between a man and a woman is on a slippery slope to become a friends with benefits relationship.

And that alone might actually help explain how women perceive FWB and why they often have no problem acting against their best “evolutionary” interests. If a woman isn’t romantically interested in a man, and sees him as “just a friend,” it’s much easier for her to indulge in casual sex and do so without any commitment expectations until she finds Mr. Right.

And the benefit of such friendship for the man is, well, in the benefits.

Seems pretty evolutionarily straightforward to me.