How To Be Friends With Benefits — The Kind & Healthy Way
If you're on any dating apps right now, you've probably seen profiles that specify they're only looking for friends with benefits right now. Some people instinctually scrunch up their nose at the very idea—there's an assumption that this type of dynamic is something only flaky, detached people pursue. And to be fair, some people do use this relationship label as a way to avoid having to really care for and be responsible for their sexual partner's feelings.
But both of these perspectives shortchange a lot of the good stuff that can come from being friends with benefits: a consistent sex partner without the commitment 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.
What "friends with benefits" really means.
A friends with benefits relationship is one where two people hang out casually and have sex without romantic feelings involved and without any long-term commitment between them. Typically, the two people genuinely enjoy spending time together but aren't interested in each other romantically. An FWB situation is also typically non-monogamous, meaning the individuals involved may also date and have sex with other people as well.
Some people 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. But the truth is, even the most "no strings attached" casual sex still necessitates kindness and sensitivity for the well-being of whoever you're sleeping with. No matter your relationship status or how you feel or don't feel about them, there's rarely ever an excuse for being unkind or inconsiderate.
What do friends with benefits normally do together?
There are no set rules about what friends with benefits definitely do or don't do together. It all depends on the personal preferences of the two people involved.
The term usually implies the two people are having sex, but some friends with benefits may simply want to cuddle, make out, and share all types of physical intimacy except for sex. Some friends with benefits also go on casual dates, watch shows together, sleep over each other's places, cuddle, and other things associated with romantic relationships. Other FWBs may prefer to only meet up at night for sex. Some might want to learn about each other's lives and support each other emotionally like any other friends do, while others may prefer to keep conversation light and not go in too deep with each other.
The key is that both partners are on the same page about the expectations, feel good about the level of engagement between them, and feel comfortable with what is and isn't happening between them.
Is it a good idea?
"Any relationship experience is 'worth it' as long as it reflects what a person really wants and is a comfortable and safe space," couples' therapist Racine Henry, Ph.D., LMFT, recently told mbg. The key, she notes, is being really honest with yourself about what you want and why you're pursuing a particular kind of relationship.
A friends with benefits relationship can be a great fit for some people and not really work for others. It's great for those who are comfortable with the openness and lack of commitment involved, and with being in a relationship that's not "going anywhere." It may not be as good a fit for those who form deep emotional attachments easily, have difficulty with boundaries, or are prone to jealousy or insecurity.
Although it may not be right for everyone, in general, it's certainly possible for a friends with benefits situation to be a wonderfully healthy and positive relationship, provided it's carried out with a ton of care, thoughtfulness, and honesty.
Tips for navigating friends with benefits situations.
Get clear on your definition 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."
Take time to define the relationship. The two of you should directly discuss what you want and what you don't want. What are the 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? What are your boundaries? Are sleepovers on the table? Cuddling? Are you going on dates every now and then, or just shooting the shit at someone's apartment?
Understand what your partner wants from the relationship.
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."
Check in with each other regularly.
"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.
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."
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. Be considerate. Care about each other.
Likewise, if you notice the person you're with is not respecting your feelings or your boundaries, 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."
The bottom line.
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.
Remember, you don't need to be in love to care about someone.
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter