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The Secret Truth About Friends with Benefits

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Okay first, define friends with benefits.

Researchers pretty much unanimously agree that friendships are beneficial. But “friends with benefits,” as you can imagine, is a whole different ball game.

What is friends with benefits?

Friends with benefits is a complex dating-but-yet-not-dating relationship. It’s a non-relationship relationship.

Most commonly, the term refers to friends who have casual sex. But the term could also be used to describe friends who are physically involved at lesser levels too.  (I.e. Make out buddies count.)

It can be helpful to think of opposite sex relationships on a spectrum. There are friends who have always been just friends, there are friends you’ve been attracted to while never acting upon that attraction, there are friends you’ve dated, and so on.

Friends with benefit are friends who are acting on their attraction, but aren’t yet in a relationship.

So why do people create a separate category for friends with benefits?

In theory, a friends with benefits arrangement is supposed to proceed with no strings attached, no questions asked.

No jealousy. No weirdness.

Just calm, cool, and casual.

Of course no one is surprised that reality is almost always more complicated than our intentions.

Thus leading to the obvious question: Does friends with benefits really benefit anyone?

Read on to find out what the research tells us.

First, friends with benefits might be more common than you think.

Match.com reports that 50% of college students have given “friends with benefits” a whirl, while a full 60% of older adults report being romantically involved with a friend at least once in their lifetime.

But even those high figures might be a little fuzzy. After all it’s hard for researchers to know how many people are really engaged in a friends with benefits relationship, since these relationships often happen under cover. The couple isn’t outwardly dating or engaged, and there’s no marriage certificate of course. As a result, no one is 100% sure how many people–if all were being truthful–would claim this status at any given time.

Does having friends with benefits actually work?!

Even if you’ve never tried friendship with benefits yourself, you’ve probably seen movies like Friends With Benefits or the similar film No Strings Attached, which sometimes painfully demonstrate why this arrangement can be one big, dramatic mess.

Plus, even when fictional characters manage to pull off friends with benefits arrangements on screen, there’s always that minor detail about how real life rarely works out as well as it seems to in the movies.

It won’t be simple.

When you’re tempted to get involved with a friend, emotions often inject themselves into your stream of logic: We can be the exceptions. We will keep it simple.

But the data just isn’t on your side.

Researchers have found time and time again that even just friendships with the opposite sex (without the romantic ties) are not always simple.

And once you add the physical elements, it only gets more complicated from there.

It’s not a no-risk relationship.

Getting involved with a friend can seem like an attractive option because, after all, your friend is a known quantity. You likely already have a history of trust so there is less perceived risk.

As follows, friends with benefits may seem like a quick and easy way to enjoy physical pleasure without risking intimate interactions with a lot of strangers.

The trouble is, the seemingly commitment-free, risk-free arrangement is not really free of relationship stress.

For starters, the relationship can change.

Even if the relationship seems to be progressing by the friends with benefits “rules,” often there is still some lingering discomfort because you understand that things could get complicated at any moment. For example, 65% of those involved in a friends with benefit relationship fear developing feelings for the other person which will not be returned. And 28% fear the physical involvement won’t just create some awkwardness, but will completely ruin the friendship.

It’s pretty easy to see why this fear surfaces too. If you spend many months romantically involved with the same person, spending multiple hours per day, frequently talking on the phone, and so on, you’ve pretty much thrown all the ingredients of a dating relationship into a bowl and started mixing.

And there’s good reason to fear, it turns out.

If instincts tell us to beware, there’s good reason. Studies conclude that 69% of women in friends with benefits relationships expressed hope that their relationship would change over time. Most of these women, perhaps predictably, wished they could transition to a normal exclusive dating relationship. On the flip side, the majority of men (60%) aren’t trying to change anything. They want to keep the friends with benefits thing just like it is.

So already we see the makings of an imbalance…if not a disaster. 69% of women want a true dating relationship, this study tells us, but reality–according to Psychology Today–is that only 10-20% of friends with benefits actually end up dating officially.

This leaves 49% or more of women disappointed, and it doesn’t take a math degree to figure out that’s not the formula for a happy ending.

And apparently that’s not the only evidence of dissatisfaction.

Studies about friends with benefits also report that these types of non-relationships are often less satisfying than just plain friendships. They are known to lead to bad feelings and conflict, as well as less satisfying sex than romantic partners.

So if and when it breaks off, do friends with benefits stay friends?

According to the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality which conducted a one-year longitudinal study following friends with benefits, after one year, 28% had gone back to being friends. Were they still friends at the same level? Did they still hang out? Was it possible to have a girlfriend or boyfriend and still regularly interact with a past lover? 30% said they had become less close following the end of the non-relationship.

Researchers also found the greatest number of people involved in friends with benefits (31%) were no longer even friends.

That’s right. Almost one-third of participants no longer had any relationship of any kind.

So what’s the secret to successfully pulling off friends with benefits?

So that leads us back to our earlier question: At the end of all the drama, when the friends with benefits bit has run its course, did it benefit anyone? Is anyone happy? If so, who?

Likely, the happiest participants–ironically–are the people who shed the “non-relationship” and opted into a full fledged dating scenario. Which means the happiest kind of friends with benefits are…the non-existent kind. Or the officially dating kind.

So the biggest difference between friends with benefits and boyfriends/girlfriends? It may only be whether or not we fully own up to the type of relationship we have.



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