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Destined for Disaster or Casual and Carefree?: What are the Benefits of a Friends with Benefits Relationship?

What do the majority of today’s American college students have in common with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake? Hint: The answer is found in the title of the 2011 rom-com Mila and Justin starred in...that’s right...Friends with Benefits. Several studies show that Friends with Benefits Relationships (FWBRs) are quite common among college-age students.1,2,3 But, despite their apparent commonality, modern media tells us that FWBRs are destined to fail, either because partners become hurt by the lack of exclusivity and love in their relationship, or because partners fall in love despite their original intentions (a la Mila and Justin). But are such outcomes true in the real world? Can’t people actually enjoy the benefits of a FWBR? The answer—like most questions in relationships research—is that it depends.

A FWBR is a relationship in which two individuals who share a friendship also have sex, but do not explicitly express romantic feelings. However, the exact meaning of this FWBR label can vary across relationships, ranging from a completely monogamous relationship between two close friends to a non-monogamous relationship between two casual acquaintances, and anywhere in between. This ambiguity can be either a major benefit or a major bummer for someone in a FWBR, depending on how they feel about labels and boundaries in a sexual relationship.2 Partners in a FWBR are much less likely to communicate with each other about their relationship and their sexual needs than are partners in a committed romantic relationship, which makes defining the rules and boundaries of the relationship difficult.1 Whether or not this ambiguity can benefit partners depends on their respective intentions when initiating the relationship.

Partners’ initial motivations for having a FWBR are some of the most important factors in determining whether or not partners will, in fact, benefit from the relationship. In one recent study, for example, both women and men who were motivated to initiate a FWBR reported more sexual satisfaction when they were motivated by “simplicity” (i.e., desire for a purely sexual relationship) than when they were motivated by “future commitment” (i.e., desire for the relationship to eventually become exclusive and romantic).3 These findings indicate that people who expected sex were very happy to get it, and that people who expected more from the relationship were often disappointed.

Don’t be too disheartened, though; as it turns out, sex is the most common reason that people report initiating a FWBR.1 In fact, FWBR partners report higher levels of communication about condom use and sex outside of the relationship than committed romantic partners. These findings suggest that a FWBR can be a safer and healthier alternative to hooking up with strangers, because the trust and honesty of a friendship are built into the sexual relationship.

This is all fine and dandy when both partners share the same expectations for casual sex, but problems exist when partners’ expectations differ. These differences are not surprising given the ambiguity of FWBRs. Although people who enter FWBRs looking for sex are more satisfied overall, the unfortunate reality is that a lot of people enter these relationships looking for something more, which can have important implications for their satisfaction. For instance, some studies show that women are less satisfied overall in FWBRs.3 Are all women in FWBRs destined for doom? Not necessarily. When women’s goals for a FWBR involve a desire for sex without romance, women show higher levels of sexual satisfaction. Thus, it’s clear that being disappointed is more about expectations and less about gender.3 Nor does it mean that women shouldn’t have FWBRs.

When assessing the benefits of a Friends with Benefits Relationship, it is important to consider the unique needs and motivations of each partner. No two people are alike, and no one relationship is the “best” for everyone. As shown by these studies, the strongest indicator of satisfaction in FWBRs is having realistic expectations at the start of the relationship. As such, Mila and Justin should not be the standard for what a FWBR can and should be. This is why it is important for people to understand and accept what they actually want and need in a relationship, whether it is a FWBR or a committed romantic relationship.

1Lehmiller, J. J., Vanderdrift, L. E., & Kelly, J. R. (2014). Sexual communication, satisfaction, and condom use behavior in friends with benefits and romantic partners. Journal of Sex Research51(1), 74-85.

2 Quirk, K., Owen, J., & Fincham, F. (2014). Perceptions of partner’s deception in friends with benefits relationships. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy40(1), 43-57. 

3Williams, J. C., & Jovanovic, J. (2015). Third wave feminism and emerging adult sexuality: Friends with benefits relationships. Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly19(1), 157-171. 

Emily White is a student at Emerson College who explores the interdisciplinary relationships between psychology, sociology, and performance studies. Her research takes an analytical and inclusive approach to examining each of these fields, and incorporating these analyses into theatrical productions.



Dr. Lindsey Beck - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Beck’s research examines how people initiate and develop close relationships, including why some people—but not others—choose to avoid situations that would help them form relationships, how partners ask for and offer support as they develop relationships, and how couples respond to stressful situations in newly-formed relationships.

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