Highlights reel (TL;DR)
- Beginning a friends-with-benefits (FWB) relationship involves ditching traditional relationship scripts and going into the uncomfortable grey area of asking yourself what you want and need.
- FWBs can be an empowering setup to get your needs met and learn more about your sexual self.
- It will benefit you to be selective when choosing a f-buddy and communicating wants, needs, and limits.
- Be cautious of moving forward if the relationship has an imbalance of power, if the setup doesn’t meet your needs, or if you’re using the setup to avoid something.
If you’re considering this kind of relationship, you might have a lot of questions, like “do friends with benefits talk every day?”
The answer? That’s up to you and the other person.
Setting up a friend-with-benefits arrangement can be challenging. There aren’t any set rules or expectations, which means it’s up to you and the other person to communicate and set boundaries.
Read on for more expert advice on this type of relationship.
What does it mean to be friends with benefits?
Friends-with-benefits (FWB) describes an arrangement where sex occurs outside of a committed relationship and without the intention of becoming committed. The glue that usually holds this type of relationship together is sex. Some use the terms “fuck buddies” or “no strings attached” sex to refer to the same type of setup.
One older study surveyed 125 young adults (60 men, 65 women) on their understanding and experience of friends-with-benefits. Of the participants, 60% reported experience in a FWB relationship, with one-third involved in such a relationship at the time of the interview.
Most people said that they “occasionally” (52%) participated in a FWB arrangement, 28% of people said that they “frequently,” and 19% said “just once.”
Respondents listed the following as the most appealing aspect of a FWB arrangement:
- a chance to have sex
- the chance to connect with someone without the commitment
People also said that they were drawn to FWB relationships because it’s a situation where they already trust the person, and there’s also the chance it could bring them closer to their friend.
Interestingly, lack of commitment was listed as a drawback. People also listed the following as FWB drawbacks:
- risk of developing feelings
- potential for harming the friendship or creating negative emotions
- potential for negative consequences from having sex
The average length of time people in the study reported being friends before engaging in anything sexual was 14 months.
Over half (62%) of the participants believed you could stay “just friends” with your FWBs. The outcomes of FWBs for the participants were as follows:
- 28% remained in an ongoing FWB arrangement
- 36% stayed friends but stopped having sex
- 10% turned into a romantic couple
- 26% ended their sexual relationship and friendship
Is it okay to be friends with benefits?
Over the past few decades, we’ve seen more acceptance and understanding of alternative relationship styles. But there’s still some stigma attached to the idea of FWB.
The increased visibility of people who practice non-monogamy has allowed people to consider that relationships can happen outside of traditional expectations. This is good news because it means fewer people will try to contort themselves into making a relationship work based on what they think they should do rather than what really makes them happy.
I believe this tension of trying to make something like a monogamous marriage work when it isn’t authentic to you is a source of a lot of infidelity, heartbreak, and dissatisfaction. And so, with more permission to custom-build relationships, FWB can be a fantastic way for you to meet your needs — emotionally and sexually.
Is it ethical? What are the risks?
As a sex and relationship therapist, I see clients who look to FWB arrangements as their sole source of sexual intimacy with others. I also see others in committed relationships and seek additional partners to meet other needs, such as sexual connection.
A person who identifies as non-monogamous may be more likely to call the person they’re in a FWB arrangement with a partner, a date, or simply a friend. Some non-monogamous folks follow a hierarchical arrangement where they have a primary partner and other secondary partners. These arrangements seem to be the most successful for clients who are emotionally mature and communicative with all people involved. They can handle complicated feelings such as jealousy and anxiety with care and empathy
A lot of non-monogamous people hold the belief that it’s unreasonable to expect one person to meet all their relationship needs. Instead, they put time and effort into cultivating other relationships outside a singular romantic partnership. Some of these relationships may include involvement in daily life events, tasks, and experiences, and others may be purely sexual.
One helpful piece of wisdom from the non-monogamous community is the normalization of creating relationship agreements. As a couples therapist, I strongly believe that clearly communicating needs and setting expectations is something we should all engage in — monogamous or otherwise.
The following are suggestions for making your FWB arrangement as satisfying and respectful as possible.
Friends with benefits dos and don’ts
Do: Be picky
Choose your partner with intention. One of the most appealing reasons to go for a friends-with-benefits arrangement over a casual hookup is that you’re spending time with someone who knows more about you and has an ongoing investment in your well-being.
Your f-buddy should be someone you enjoy spending time with, who makes you feel comfortable, and who treats you respectfully. They should be interested in your pleasure as well as their own.
Do: Set boundaries
Avoid making assumptions about each other’s expectations. The term friends-with-benefits is vague and can mean different things to different people.
There’s no standard around how frequently to see each other or communicate. There’s no playbook about how to move forward if one of you catches feelings or how much you should know about your f-buddies dating life outside of your relationship. This means you’ll have to decide on your own unique boundaries.
Do: Use it as an opportunity to get to know yourself more Intimately
Just because a FWB relationship may be more temporary or casual doesn’t mean it can’t be a very rich experience.
It can be a fantastic opportunity to learn more about your sexual self. This can even be a healing experience if you’re someone who has been raised to focus on caring for others before yourself. A FWB arrangement is based in pleasure — use it as a playground to explore and have fun.
Do: Communicate when sober
If you’re interested in starting a sexual relationship with a pal, do so with a clear head. Be wary of the tendency to bypass this vulnerable conversation by just getting drunk and going for it.
It might feel easier in the moment, but it can complicate things later when trying to preserve the friendship.
Don’t: Use it as an excuse to avoid intimacy
In my practice, I’ve seen how a FWB relationship can be a convenient excuse to practice avoidance. I’ve seen clients struggle in a FWB setup when they’re not honest with themselves about what they really want. Sometimes people initiate a FWB relationship to avoid deeper emotional connections or because they fear rejection.
Ask yourself if this FWB arrangement is a “hell yes,” or if given a choice, you would rather be in a committed relationship.
Don’t: Engage if there is an imbalance of power
Assess if any power dynamics may create an unfair influence. For example, power can be uneven if there’s a significant age gap, if you work together, or if you know they have feelings for you and would want more commitment but you only want something casual. These dynamics aren’t necessarily abusive, but think about whether indulging in what you want might come at the expense of hurting the other person.
Follow long-time sex advice columnist Dan Savage’s campsite rule. Leave your partners the same, if not better, than when you first met them.
Don’t: Forget self-care
Remember to take care of yourself. When you’re excited about a relationship, it can be tempting to let it consume your thoughts and schedule.
Make sure to continue the practices that make you feel grounded, such as seeing your friends, engaging in your hobbies, and nourishing your body with food and rest. If you’re hoping to eventually find someone for a long-term relationship, make sure your schedule still has space for you to date. Fit this FWB relationship into your life in a way that’s proportionate to the level of commitment you’ve set together.
Don’t: Play it cool
One of the biggest issues I see in therapy around FWB relationships is when people go into this type of arrangement hoping it will turn into something else. They usually get hurt when it doesn’t work out. This usually happens when people aren’t honest about what they want.
Sometimes it’s because they feel like they should be chill to try not to scare someone away, and as a result, they settle for something less than what you truly want.
A clue that you might be ignoring your needs is to reflect on your expectations. If you start to notice you feel disappointed that they didn’t get you a birthday present or don’t want to come to your family gathering — this may be a sign you’re looking for more than a FWB.
With FWB setups, there’s often a temptation to just go with the flow and skip communication because it’s casual. I often see this approach end in disappointment and heartbreak.
The clients I see with the most successful FWB arrangements are those who have discussed and clearly understood each other’s capacities and limits. If you’d like to start a FWB relationship, take some time to lay the ground rules. Explore things like how often you want to hang out, talk, or text and if and how much you want to know about the other person’s dating life.
A FWB relationship can be a healthy and empowering experience for consenting adults.
Erin Davidson, MA, RCC, CST
Erin Davidson (she/her) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Sex Therapist working in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a firm believer in the healing power of pleasure and being kinder to ourselves. Erin is the author of two books Break Through the Breakup and Thriving in Non-Monogamy. She is most proud of her new fluffball Marv who recently graduated top of his class in puppy preschool.