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The Science Behind Making Friends With Benefits Work

The Science Behind Making Friends With Benefits Work: HEX / Getty

HEX / Getty

In theory, having a reliable sex partner who’s always down for no-strings fun sounds like a sweet deal. No commitment? No expectations? “Sure, why not?”

I hate to be the bearer bad news, but fantasy rarely matches up with reality, especially when it comes to friends with benefits. A lot of people end up finding these arrangements to be more complicated—and a lot messier—than anticipated. But is there any way to avoid the drama? Is it possible to get the “benefits” without the baggage?

As someone who has studied friends with benefits relationships for the last six years, let me offer you some hope (and the research-based insights to back it up).


DEFINE EXPECTATIONS
One of the biggest concerns people have about entering friends with benefits relationships is that one person will end up developing feelings that aren’t reciprocated. There’s good reason to worry about this. People often come into relationships wanting very different things. In 2011, I asked men and women who currently had a friend with benefits why they started their relationships and what they hoped would happen to it in the future. People’s responses were all over the map.

Although most people were in it for the sex (duh), a sizeable minority of mostly women said they started the relationship mainly because they wanted to connect with their partner emotionally. And 43 percent of women and 24 percent of the men even said they hoped their friend would eventually become their romantic partner. (You can check out the entire study in the Journal of Sex Research)

Obviously, people can bring wildly different expectations into these relationships, and more than that, these expectations seem divided by gender. When seeking a friend for benefits, then, clarify what you want from the get-go and make sure that your partner wants the same.

FROM THE BAR TO THE BEDROOM, MAKE GROUND RULES
Research finds that most people who have a friend with benefits don’t take the time to set up rules. One study of college students found that 73 percent reported not discussing any relationship ground rules with their friend with benefits. This lack of communication can be costly in the long run. In a longitudinal study I conducted on people in friends with benefits relationships, I found that the people who took the most time making rules and communicating were most likely to be on good terms with their partner a year later.

Think about these questions: Are you only going to have sex with each other? Or can you see other people? This isn’t something you want to assume, if only to protect yourself from the risk of STIs. Beyond this, you should also discuss whether you’re going to tell other people about your arrangement and what rules, if any, you need to lay down about how the two of you interact in public. Does kissing cross the line? Oh, and what about spending the night?

DON’T LOSE SIGHT OF THE SITUATION
Above all else, be realistic and be prepared for the unexpected. Even if you clearly establish what this relationship is early on, it’s possible your friend may not be totally honest about their true motives. Also, consider that neither you nor your friend may be able to predict how you’ll feel once you start having sex. Psychologists have found that, in general, we tend to be pretty bad at affective forecasting, or predicting our future emotional states. As some evidence of this, research has found that people overestimate how happy they’ll be when entering a new relationship. In other words, just because you think everything is going to go well doesn’t guarantee that it’ll actually happen.

THE BOTTOM LINE
Many people find it difficult to navigate a friend with benefits situation; however, the difficulty stems largely from poor communication patterns. If you want to make one of these relationships work, it’s important to talk early and often. Keep in mind, though, that even with a lot of communication, situations like this are often still unpredictable and don’t always end happily. (Only about a quarter of these relationships last a year, according to my research.) The unfortunate reality: sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t turn out to be the best way of getting laid.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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