The term “friends with benefits” (FWB) has become part of our vernacular in recent years and public interest in the topic appears to be surging. For example, this year alone brings two major motion pictures devoted exclusively to the subject, No Strings Attached (starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) and this summer’s Friends with Benefits (starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake). The concept has also been popularized by the ongoing FWB arrangement between Vinny and Snooki on the Jersey Shore (see here for more on the Vinny/Snooki saga).
One thing all of these media portrayals have in common is that they depict FWB relationships as complicated. Inevitably, somebody seems to get jealous and drama ensues. So does that match up with reality? Are these relationships really that difficult to manage? Based upon the limited scientific research conducted to date, the answer would seem to be yes. This is especially ironic, because studies show that individuals frequently report seeking out these relationships because they want to avoid the drama inherent in a conventional romance!1
What is it that makes these relationships complicated? For heterosexual FWBs, this could have something to do with the fact that men and women seem to have different reasons for wanting a friendship with benefits and different expectations for how such a relationship should evolve over time.2 For example, men are more likely than women to indicate a desire for sex as their primary motivation for entering a FWB relationship (no big surprise there, right?). In contrast, women are more likely than men to cite a desire for “emotional connection” as their primary reason.
When you look at people’s future expectations for these relationships, an even more interesting sex difference emerges. Men are more likely to report wanting things to stay the same over time (i.e., they typically want to continue as FWBs for as long as possible), whereas women tend to desire some type of relationship shift, either into a full-fledged romance or into a basic, non-sexual friendship.
Thus, the flair for drama that seems to characterize FWB relationships may stem, at least in part, from these fundamental differences in how men and women approach them. So can FWBs really work? The jury is still out on that one, but it would be interesting to study whether same-sex FWBs are more successful because the odds are higher that both partners are looking for the same thing.
1Williams, J., Shaw, C., Mongeau, P. A., Knight, K., & Ramirez, A. (2007). Peaches n’ cream to rocky road: Five flavors of friends with benefits relationships. Unpublished manuscript, Arizona State University, Tempe.
2Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly J. R. (2011). Sex differences in approaching friends with benefits relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 48, 275-284.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.