In decades past, “dating” was the primary way people developed relationships – people would get a feel for each other and, if things felt right, they would eventually engage in physical intimacy. Recent research, however, suggests the sequencing of sex in a new relationship has changed. Sex has begun to function as a screening device that people use to determine if a relationship is worth perusing. In fact, research shows that over the past 30 years, the amount of time between first date and first sexual encounter has decreased steadily1. Because sex is such an important element of relationships this leads researchers to reconsider what constitutes “normal” relational development.
Enter the friends with benefits relationship (FWBR). If you’re under the age of 25 and you’re reading this you may be thinking ‘nobody does FWBRs anymore, that’s what our parents did.’ Before you judge, consider the following study conducted by Mongeau and his colleagues2. They had a feeling that FWBRs were not as simple as people think they are. In fact, the researchers let their participants (in this case, college students) define what a FWBR is. The results revealed that FWBRs do not represent one type of relationship – they represent seven .
The seven types of FWBRs range from booty-calls to full blown romantic relationships. Let’s start with the type that is most commonly represented in popular culture: the true friends relationship. In this category friendship comes first. These are formerly platonic friends who decided to add that certain “spice” to their friendship. Most people may think that this describes their FWBR…until they hear about the other types.
Take, for instance, the just sex FWBR. In this relationship people meet up for one reason and one reason only (and we’re sure you can guess that reason). These people text, message, and might even call each other, but when it comes to actually spending time together there is only one goal in mind. Interaction revolves completely around sex.
At this point you may be thinking that your FWBR doesn’t look like either of these. In fact, you might be thinking that your relationship is sort of in between. Maybe you hang out with your FWB partner sometimes as friends and others as lovers. Maybe you go out together for drinks with friends (in fact, maybe you have the same friends!) and go home with each other if neither of you find anyone else. You’re not best friends, but you’re not total strangers. If this sounds like you then welcome to the network opportunism FWBR.
Now, the thing about FWBRs is that they rarely stay in one place. In fact, these kinds of relationships tend to bounce from one relationship type to the other. What’s more, FWBRs can help ease a couple into an actual relationship3. Here’s where things get tricky. Sometimes one or both members of a FWBR want to take their relationship to the next level. If you’ve ever tried this strategy and succeeded, you fall into the successful transition in category. On the other hand, if your attempt fails you are banished to the failed transition in FWBR, which is quite literally a friend(s with benefits) zone.
Of course, we don’t always realize that our FWBR is shifting toward romance. One minute you’re casually hooking up with someone and the next thing you know – bam! – you’re in a full-blown relationship. This would be an example of the unintentional transition in FWBR. This kind of relationship is more common than you might think, as ongoing research shows that many FWBRs “just sort of happen.” It makes sense that those relationships just naturally evolve into romantic ones as well. Last but not least there is the transition out FWBR. This final category is most closely related to the traditional ‘on-again off-again’ relationship. These couples were once in romantic relationships, but, for one reason or another, broke up. Despite the breakup, transition out partners continue the sexual (and possibly platonic) aspect of their relationship, allowing room for them to see other people or see each other less.
So, does any of this sound familiar? Remember, just because you don’t tell people that you’re in a FWBR, that doesn’t mean that you don’t act like you’re in one. In fact, not talking about or labeling the relationship is a trademark of FWBRs4. The whole point of a FWBR seems to be avoiding labels; however, it looks like relationship research has caught up with the lingo. Now FWBR is the label, and the people who participate in them seem to be finding new ways to avoid distinguishing their relationships.
1Perlman, D., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Sex, intimacy, and dating in college. In R. D. McAnulty (Ed.), Sex in college: What they don't write home about (pp. 91-117.) New York, NY: Praeger.
2Mongeau, P. A., Knight, K., Williams, J., Eden, J., & Shaw, C. (2013). Identifying and explicating variation among friends with benefits relationships. Journal of sex research, 50(1), 37-47.
3Bogle, K. A. (2008). Hooking up: Sex, dating, and relationships on campus. New York & London: NYU Press.
4Bisson, M. A., & Levine, T. R. (2009). Negotiating a friends with benefits relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(1), 66-73.
James Stein - Graduate Student - Arizona State University
James' primary area of research is the study of uncertainty and how it influences close relationships. So, what behaviors make us the most uncertain about our relationships? And, more importantly, how do those uncertainties affect our relationships? James also studies friends with benefits relationships in great detail, and how they differ from/overlap with more traditional close relationships.