Can we really be friends with benefits?
For the first time since I started Sex With Syd, I am writing on a topic that was requested by peers. As if my control of this section of the Cardinal (paired with my job at Sex Out Loud) automatically linked me to being some sort of life expert, my cell phone and inbox have suddenly become flooded with all sorts of questions regarding sex and relationships (I’m not complaining, this is the best outcome that I never expected to happen).
For this piece, I am drawing inspiration from a person who wrote, “I don’t know how you stay friends with the guys you have been with. I have such a hard time separating emotions, sex and friendship.” While that text led to a spiral of introspective reflection on my end, instead of writing an article on how I choose to navigate my own (slightly messy? unique? creative? different?) love life, I decided to investigate further into this topic of sex and friendship. The good ol’ classic Friends With Benefits relationship… This relationship typically involves two individuals using each other for sexual relations but not having to deal with all of the other “emotional” aspects that sexual relationships tend to bring about. While there are millions of “FWB Survival Guides” online, I decided to explore on my own and get to the root of this idea. Do successful FWB relationships actually exist? How do they end? Are there really not feelings involved? More importantly: Can we be friends once the benefits end?
In order to start this, I sent out texts to a handful of people with the following questions: Is FWB a real thing? Have you ever been in a FWB situation? Did you develop feelings? Did they? How/why did it end? Are you still friends?
While the answers varied, there were some salient themes that warranted further investigating and questioning. This led me to ask more questions of those original people and I then began asking these questions to friends who I randomly encountered. Every single person agreed that there is no static definition of what a perfect FWB situation looks like, and almost everyone either said they are no longer friends with that person or, if they remain “friendly,” there is a lot of underlying tension and awkwardness. While some have managed to remain friends with that partner, they said it took a little bit of time to get back to normal. A couple individuals even circled back to this idea that FWB is not possible, that you cannot separate emotions from sex because, “Someone always catches feelings. Always.”
Is this true?
As evolved of a species as humans are, is it true that we cannot have sexual relationships without developing attachments to the other person? Certain relationships that deviate from the hegemonic definition of what a normal relationship “looks” like often involve a lot of communication and boundaries before the relationship even begins (think polyamory, open/non-monogamous, BDSM relationships, etc.). Should we group FWB with these types of relationships that need to prioritize strategy and rules versus spontaneity? In the movie “Friends With Benefits,” Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake have a conversation setting the ground rules of their situation before they even have sex for the first time. While their characters end up falling in love and, presumably, live happily ever after, just before getting into bed with Timberlake’s character for the first time, Kunis’ character clarifies, “No emotions. Just sex.” Is that warranted?
Does sex always mean more?
In a response to my unofficial survey, someone wrote, “I’ve had experiences where I’ve hooked up with guys for long periods of time but it was never clear what the title was... I would probably have called it ‘friends with benefits’ but then after the benefits ended it was just like ‘see ya never friend,’ and we never really talked because there wasn’t a friendship foundation there in the first place. I have had zero motivation to be friends with a guy after just hooking up for a while if hooking up was the basis of our relationship.” She then clarified, “Also I’ve never had a FWB situation where we literally sat down and were like, ‘Let’s be friends that fuck!’”
Someone else wrote, “Yes FWB is real but also no it’s not. As someone who genuinely enjoys sex for the sake of sex, some aspect of the satisfaction comes from the emotional bond with the person you’re having it with. If you’re OK with the fact that that’s friendship, then why not?”
What is particularly interesting to me is that the responses to my initial question about feelings ended up being split 50/50. While many responded that either they themselves developed feelings or the other person involved did, the other half stated that feelings were not the reason for the ending. A lot of times the reason for the end was because the other person got back together with an ex or found someone new.
As a human with emotions, I am having a hard time believing there were no feelings hurt at all with that sort of ending. In a Huffington Post article titled “17 Rules For Friends With Benefits,” the author explains this as the difference between a “situationship” and FWB. Carlen Costa writes, “At times the FWB can be confused with a situationship. A situationship is highly based on sexual compatibility and long-term convenience. They are the sexual relationships that straddle the FWB and relationship line; that foggy state of relationship status when there isn’t a label on ‘what this is’ or your situation together, as you navigate what the next steps are … Unhealthy situationships are the bane of my existence. Why? Because they’re complicated and someone always gets emotionally hurt.”
So through all of this, I am gathering that we have created arbitrary titles for certain types of relationships that are completely dependent on situations and the people involved. There is no such thing as the stereotypical FWB relationship because it is completely context dependent. While some friends have sex a couple times and move on, some continue to have sex and avoid talking or some may pre-discuss entering into this type of casual relationship. Other people enter into what was deemed as a “situationship” and hookup for a while without talking about it due to fear of seeming like feelings were getting involved.
What is clearly evident here is that we, young people, have a fear of labeling the relationships that we are in. In one FWB situation, a friend stated, “… people started calling me ‘his girl’ and it sort of made me off limits and made me realize it was maybe something more. Which made me realize I had more feelings for him. But as soon as I realized that it made me all self conscious about myself and what he was up to.” This self-conscious feeling that comes out of wanting to define the relationship is one that I know almost every single person has felt before. When you have been talking to and/or sexually involved with a person for a long time it is normal to want to ask, “So what is this?” or, “Where is this going?” However, because of this anxiety we carry thinking that the other person may be on a different page or not meet us halfway we often shy away from doing that. This causes us to stay in unhealthy FWB or situationships or whatever you want to label it far too long or until we end up feeling hurt.
Regardless of whether we are in a relationship, situationship, FWB, etc., my main question remains: Can we really be “just friends” once sex has been involved? Glamour Magazine has a bunch of rules online for how to “successfully navigate” a FWB relationship and these rules can be seen as extremely limiting and harmful. They warn you not to bring your FWB around your friends, to not convince yourself the relationship is more than it is, to not sleepover, etc. What I don’t like is this mass media rule guide on how to live our lives. If you are comfortable with casually sleeping with someone and bringing them around your friends, so what? If you end up catching feelings for the person you are sleeping with, is that a crime? I don’t think it is a reality to enter into any sort of relationship strictly contractually without mending rules that are comfortable to both partners.
What I am learning is that, just like we cannot define if FWB is a realistic concept, we cannot generalize this question and answer it for every situation. I personally think it is completely possible to stay friends with people you have been sexually involved with as long as there is honesty and a friendship worth holding on to. Sure, you may sometimes feel that twinge of jealousy from seeing someone you have been involved with talk to or about someone else, however, if that relationship was important enough for me to have “more” with, I would have prioritized my emotions and healed before I welcomed being around that person again. Sometimes through sexual encounters you are opened up to new people that you really vibe with on a platonic level, and saving those friendships becomes more important to you than any sort of physicality. For some people, sex and friendship are completely separated and there is no possibility of remaining friends once these relationships end and that is completely OK. The best type of relationship (whether sexual, platonic, romantic, etc.) is one where every party is on the same page and completely comfortable with where they stand. If you are trying to be the person who “remains cool” once the relationship ends but you are secretly hurting inside, prioritize yourself and emotions. If the other person judges that or makes you feel bad then that is not the type of “friend” worth keeping around anyway. If you genuinely feel happy and that the other person has your best interest at heart, do not worry if third party individuals think it’s weird that you remain friends.
In short, do not listen to what movies and books tell you about how you are supposed to live your romantic life; do whatever makes you completely and totally happy.
Do you have any Friends With Benefits stories that you would like to share with Sydney? Have any thoughts or comments? Even any ideas for future sex columns? Maybe you want sex/relationship advice or need to know where to find free condoms on campus? You can always shoot Sydney an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.