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Sex in Friendships, Friendship After Sex

I'm currently involved in what you term a 'cross-sex' relationship. I've found all of your articles very insightful into the way we interact, and the benefits we receive from our close friendship. I also have found knowing that sexual encounters occur in these sort of relationships, which is what happened between my friend and I (yes we fit the college student statistic) interesting. I've read about cross-sex 'life-cycles', different phases in the friendship etc. I was wondering if you could elaborate more on this? Or give some suggestions on how to continue the friendship after sex (Cosmo just doesn't compare with your articles, obviously!). 

The blending of friendship with sex seems to be popping up everywhere these days. What you call “cross-sex relationships,” others call “friends with benefits” (FWBs), “booty calls,” and any number of other names. Regardless of what they’re called, these relationships have one important feature in common: they’re complicated! Although, there’s no official rulebook for navigating these relationships and the perils they pose, the science of relationships can offer some insights into keeping a relationship of this kind going. (On a side note: was I the only one who watched Friends with Benefits last summer and kept thinking that if Justin Timberlake would just call Ashton Kutcher for advice, his relationship development would go a lot smoother?)

First, how two individuals integrate sex into an existing friendship is up to them, and indeed, there are any number of ways to combine these elements, and some people do it more successfully than others. But once sex enters a friendship, what happens next? It’s a fair question, and the truth is, there is no one “right” answer. A recent study of FWBs suggests that you’d be in good company no matter what your feelings are.1 Say you’d rather go back to being just friends, and not revisit the sex again (maybe it was too awkward?). You’d be among the 17% of FWBs who cited that as their preferred option. Or, let’s say you liked the sex being added to your friendship and you’d like to keep a casual (i.e., “no strings”) thing going. You’d be in good company again, with 39% of FWBs citing that as the most desirable option. Or perhaps you’ve decided you would like to give your relationship a shot at becoming a full-fledged romance—a full 38% of FWBs cited this as their preferred outcome. In short, there’s more than one potential path forward! 

Whatever you decide you want for the future, the best advice the research has to offer is to communicate. Unfortunately, those in FWB relationships typically do not communicate frequently and openly with their partner, especially when it comes to discussing and defining the nature of their relationship.2 However, those FWBs who do communicate with greater frequency about the emotional (e.g., how important the friendship is, how permanent the sexual aspect of the relationship is, feelings of jealousy, love) and sexual aspects of their relationship (e.g., sexual needs and desires) tend to experience more satisfaction!3 Thus, no matter what you ultimately want from this relationship, the answer is to talk to your partner.

So what’s the moral of the story? Don’t let Justin Timberlake’s emotional turmoil in trying to navigate a friendship after sex scare you. Friendships are flexible, diverse, and ready to be molded into whatever form best suits the two of you. As long as you communicate openly, there’s no reason you can’t have a satisfying relationship in the space between friends and lovers for a long time to come.

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1Lehmiller, 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.

2Bisson, M. A., & Levine, T. R. (2009). Negotiating a friends with benefits relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 66-73.

3VanderDrift, L. E., Lehmiller, J. J., & Kelly, J. R. (2011, May). The role of communication in “friends with benefits” relationships. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.

Dr. Laura VanderDrift 
Dr. VanderDrift's research addresses how people balance the fulfillment of their personal and relational needs and goals. She also seeks to identify predictors of relationship break-up and safer-sex practices.

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.

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