Popular media portrayals of ‘friends with benefits’ often portray these relationships as, well, kind of messy. Someone inevitably starts to ‘catch feels,’ and then things get complicated.
That’s sometimes (but certainly not always!) how they go in real life, too.
I’ve conducted longitudinal research on people who were in the midst of a friends-with-benefits relationship to see how they turned out over time. What I found was that these relationships tended to be fairly short-lived (most ended in less than a year), and things often did not go as planned.
Some people ended up losing their friendships over it, while others managed to stay friends but weren’t as close afterward.
But at the same time, other people had very positive experiences. Some friendships grew stronger as a result and, in a few cases, romantic love even emerged.
As you can see, the results are a mixed bag. Having a friend with benefits can potentially be a great thing, but they sometimes go off the rails. So if you’re thinking about becoming friends with benefits, how can you increase the odds of a positive experience for everyone involved and minimize the chances of things getting complicated?
Having studied friends with benefits extensively, here are four key things I’ve learned that are important to keep in mind.
Rule #1: Be honest with yourself
Before jumping into a friends-with-benefits situation, ask yourself what it is that you really want right now. Do you genuinely want something casual?
There are plenty of good reasons to want a casual relationship. For example, perhaps you’re on the cusp of some major life changes and don’t want to get tied down. Maybe you went through a breakup or divorce recently and want to stay single for a while. Or perhaps you just want to explore and experiment with your sexuality or take a break from dating for a while.
Just be honest with yourself. If romance is what you truly want or you’re only looking at a friend with benefits as a pathway to love, proceed with caution because you might be setting yourself up for unnecessary grief.
In my longitudinal study of friends with benefits, I compared what people said they wanted in the beginning to where things ended up later on. It turned out that very few people who were looking for love actually found it—and some of them lost a friend in the process. That’s a double whammy. Take care so that you don’t set yourself up for heartache.
Another question to ask yourself is what your previous experiences with casual sex have been like. Do you tend to like and enjoy casual encounters, or do you find them unfulfilling? Are you quick to catch feelings? Do you get jealous easily?
Know thyself. Casual sex can be great—but it isn’t for everyone.
Rule #2: Choose your partner wisely
Something else I’ve seen in my research is that the friends with benefits who had the best experiences and who were eventually able to go back to being just friends were the ones who had stronger friendships to begin with. So one way to look at this finding is that if you start this kind of arrangement with someone who is already a good friend, you stand a better chance of keeping the friendship alive long-term.
This makes sense. After all, at the core of a solid friendship, there’s usually a lot of trust, respect, and communication—all of which are important components of a healthy sexual relationship, too.
However, there is also some risk in turning your best friend into a friend with benefits because there are no guarantees that everything will go according to plan. If one of you develops unreciprocated romantic feelings, if jealousy emerges, or a trust violation occurs, it can be difficult to come back from that. And a rift in your friendship could potentially spill over into your broader friendship network.
Take some time to evaluate the potential risks and rewards. If you both still want to proceed, great—just be sure to take steps to prioritize and preserve the friendship.
Rule #3: Clearly establish what the relationship is—and is not—and communicate the rules and boundaries
Having a healthy sexual relationship, whether casual or committed, is all about communication and matching expectations. Problems start to emerge when partners aren’t on the same page. When you have different relationship understandings, it becomes very easy for one partner to inadvertently do something that hurts the other.
Start by establishing what your arrangement is and isn’t, and take time to clearly establish the rules and negotiate each of your boundaries. Some things to consider:
- Is this relationship exclusive or non-exclusive? In my research, I see that most friends with benefits are non-monogamous, but some choose to be exclusive for various reasons, such as mitigating STI risk.
- Discuss safe-sex practices. What is everyone comfortable with, and what steps will you take to protect yourselves and any other partners you might have?
- Are any activities off-limits? For example, is kissing permitted? What about cuddling or spending the night?
- Is this arrangement going to be a secret?
This is not an exhaustive list—it’s just a starting point. And every situation will be a little different depending on the people involved. Just keep in mind that you may need to revise or add new rules as it goes along because it can be difficult to anticipate everything up front, especially if you’ve never had a friend with benefits before.
Rule #4: Know when to call it quits
Where do the two of you see this thing heading? As mentioned above, most friends with benefits are temporary, but others can go on indefinitely—and sometimes they’re on-again, off-again arrangements in between other relationships.
If you’re viewing this as a placeholder until one of you enters an exclusive relationship with someone else, be clear about that, as well as the rules for communicating this so that one person doesn’t feel like they’re being left high and dry.
Also, pay attention to signs that it might be time to call it quits. For example, if it stops being fun or if it becomes clear that one of you wants more than the other and this is starting to cause tension, it may be time to reevaluate the arrangement.
You might even consider setting an “expiration date” or “renewal date” for the benefits—or doing some regular check-ins to ensure that this relationship is still serving everyone’s interests.
Odds are, this isn’t going to be a long-term thing, and that’s OK. Short-term relationships can be every bit as meaningful and provide as many opportunities for growth as long-term relationships. But if you know when to call it, you increase the odds of parting on positive terms and maintaining a friendship afterward.
Friends with benefits can be both fun and fulfilling. But, just like any other relationship, they require some degree of care and thoughtfulness if you want to avoid complications.
The keys to success are: to be honest with yourself—and your partner—about what you really want, to not lose sight of the friendship, to communicate early and often, and to know when things have run their course.
Bisson, M. A., & Levine, T. R. (2009). Negotiating a friends with benefits relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(1), 66-73.
Hughes, M., Morrison, K., & Asada, K. J. K. (2005). What’s love got to do with it? Exploring the impact of maintenance rules, love attitudes, and network support on friends with benefits relationships. Western Journal of Communication, 69(1), 49-66
Lehmiller, 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.
Lehmiller, 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 Research, 51(1), 74-85.
Machia, L. V., Proulx, M. L., Ioerger, M., & Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). A longitudinal study of friends with benefits relationships. Personal Relationships, 27(1), 47-60.
Owen, J., Fincham, F. D., & Manthos, M. (2013). Friendship after a friends with benefits relationship: Deception, psychological functioning, and social connectedness. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(8), 1443-1449.