How To Be Friends With Benefits — The Kind & Healthy Way
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
People these days are pretty ambivalent about "friends with benefits" situations.
Among a certain crowd, they're a very desirable arrangement being actively sought out as an alternative to being in a "real relationship"—if you're in the dating market right now, you've probably heard somebody say or write in a profile that they're only seeking friends with benefits right now. Often it's a way of stating they want to be able to keep their distance emotionally and maintain their freedom to keep seeing other people. Meanwhile, there's another crowd of people that instinctually scrunches up their nose at the very idea of a FWB—there's an underlying assumption there that the type of dynamic in question is something only flaky, detached, shallow, or morally gray people pursue.
Both these perspectives shortchange a lot of the good stuff that can come from being friends with benefits: a consistent sex partner without the promises involved in a romantic relationship and with all the fun, connection, and genuine care for each other that comes with a friendship.
The "genuine care" part is where a lot of people get tripped up when it comes to friends with benefits: A lot of folks seem to think that just because you're not making a romantic commitment, it means you also have no obligations to one another whatsoever and that you don't need to care about each other's well-being. That's just not true. Even the most "no strings attached" casual sex still necessitates kindness and sensitivity with whoever you're sleeping with. No matter your relationship status with a person or how you feel or don't feel about them, there's rarely ever an excuse for being unkind or inconsiderate.
Friendships oriented around sex can be wonderfully healthy and positive relationships, provided they're carried out with a ton of care, thoughtfulness, and honesty. We reached out to two sex educators to get the lowdown on how to mindfully and compassionately navigate friends with benefits situations:
1. Get clear on your definitions of what it means to be friends with benefits.
What "friends with benefits" means is different to everyone, so don't assume what you're envisioning is the same as what the other person is thinking.
"The most common pitfall that leads to dissatisfaction and heartbreak in FWBs is lack of honest and clear communication between the partners regarding their expectations, agreements, and boundaries," says Zhana Vrangalova, a New York University human sexuality professor, LELO sex expert, and researcher who's done lots of studies on casual sex and nonmonogamy. "This leads to all sorts of issues—mishandling of romantic feelings and attachments, especially when one person starts to develop such feelings and the other person does not; haphazard use of safer sex strategies; misunderstandings regarding sexual exclusivity, etc."
The two of you should directly discuss what you want, what you don't want, expectations around exclusivity and safe sex (Are you sleeping with other people? What kind of sexual protection are you using with others and each other?), and what your boundaries are. Are sleepovers on the table? Cuddling? Are you going on dates every now and then, or just shooting the shit at someone's apartment?
Not only should you be totally honest about these things, but Vrangalova stresses the importance of encouraging your partner to share exactly what they want too. That's the only way to make sure you're both on the same page and that you're honoring what they want from the relationship—yes, you should care about what your partner wants, even in an FWB situation!
On the flip side, harboring secret hopes about what the relationship might become will help nobody, least of all you. "Sometimes people can believe that the relationship is something that it's not," says certified sex coach Myisha Battle. "It's really important to listen to what the other person tells you they want, believe them, and act accordingly."
2. Pay attention to each other's emotions, and check in.
"Check in periodically to make sure what's happening is still OK," Battle recommends. "Should there be more boundaries or fewer? Whether we like to admit it or not, friends with benefits is a type of relationship. You are relating to each other in specific ways, but that doesn't mean you won't have to talk through some things occasionally."
It's normal for things to change over time, Vrangalova adds. As you get into a groove, you might notice some things aren't working quite as you'd expected. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe that's not so good, but either way, communicate about it so you can adjust as necessary.
One more thing: "Don't ghost them: If you're starting to lose interest in spending time with them, have a conversation about it," Vrangalova states.
3. Talk about your feelings.
A lot of people think FWB is an easy way to get sex and have fun without actually needing to talk about the squishy stuff. Battle and Vrangalova disagree completely.
"I don't think that talking about your feelings is ever off limits in any type of relationship," Battle explains. "Emotions are going to come up, and it is better to express them as they do rather than hold on to them and have them bubble up in ways that could harm the relationship you have with this person."
Talking about your emotions is the only way to make sure neither person is getting hurt by the situation.
"For example, if one of you starts developing feelings that are not reciprocated, talk about what's the best course of action—should you limit how often you see each other or how you spend your time together? Should you stop seeing each other or take a break? Should the person who's getting more attached start seeing other people?" Vrangalova says. "On the other hand, sometimes both partners start developing feelings, and FWBs can turn into something more serious—you need to talk to one another to figure this out and transition the relationship into something more serious."
4. Be considerate and empathetic.
There are plenty of ways to draw boundaries, to ask for space, to withhold commitment, or even to break up with someone without being a jerk about it. If you notice the other person seems upset by some situation or dynamic between you, the FWB label is not an excuse to throw up your hands and say, "We're not dating, so I'm not responsible for this!" You're not dating, but you are friends ostensibly—so treat their emotions the same way you'd treat your friends' emotions if they were upset with you.
Likewise, if you notice the person you're with is not respecting your feelings, you don't have to just put up with it. "You have every right to set the parameters of your FWB situation. If someone is disrespecting you, your time, boundaries, or the terms you've set for the relationship, you should definitely consider whether this situation is still serving your needs," Battle says. "Communicate that to see if you can reach an understanding, and if not, it might be time to move on."
Friends with benefits can be a fun, warm, and satisfying way to connect with another person. The biggest rule to successfully pulling it off is just like with any other relationship: Be kind, be kind, be kind, and communicate.
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