Friends with benefits

We give the guidelines for negotiating relationships with the pals you see naked.
By Debby Herbenick Illustration by Ian Dingman |

Friends with benefits (FWB). Hookup pals. Fuck buddies. Whatever the moniker, many people have had at least one friend with whom they’ve had no-relationship-attached sex.

What’s the attraction? Some people want physical companionship but aren’t seeking a committed relationship. Others are happy to be getting some while shopping for the real thing. As Jim*, 27, of Lakeview (whose most recent FWB arrangement lasted four months), notes, hooking up is convenient. “I didn’t have to try very hard for sex,” he says. “We both knew what would happen when we hung out.”

While sex may be predictable, the course of a FWB relationship rarely is. FWB is generally regarded as easier for men than women, who often find it harder to separate sex from love. Consequently, women may more often begin or end the arrangement with hopes for something more.

But because FWB is, by definition, not a love relationship, wanting “something more” can be disastrous. Rebecca, 22, of Lincoln Park, is fresh out of a yearlong FWB relationship with a guy she fell for (who didn’t fall back). “I think girls are more possessive of their friends in general,” she says. “Add the sex factor and it becomes messy.” Given potentially competing—or changing—intentions, can FWB work? If so, how?

In a 2005 study at Michigan State University, researchers asked 143 FWB-ers to identify “rules” for a successful no-strings-attached arrangement. The most common “must”? Just like every relationship: communication. People embarking on a FWB relationship should discuss how to deal with emotions like jealousy (e.g., don’t spy on his or her Facebook flirting). Another important presex discussion point: how often to talk, call or text, lest one end up in a needy “why didn’t you call?” scenario. As for sex, only a third of those polled prioritized sex talks, as in “we should use condoms” (not a great idea given the extremely high STI rate in the U.S.). Friendship rules, such as deciding how much time you should spend hanging out, not hooking up, were considered key to maintaining a good friend/sex balance.

Still, even when you follow all these edicts, people can get hurt. “I think the hardest part is hearing about girls he wants to date,” Rebecca says. “It was fine when no other girls were in the picture, but now that there are, it can be brutal. It’s hard to just turn off [the emotions] like he was able to do.”

Another detraction: When FWBs inevitably end, the fallout can be painful. “The sex was terrible—it had to stop, and I lost the sex and my friend,” says Gabrielle, 32, of Lakeview. Jim stopped his FWB because of intense guilt. “In the end, I didn’t like her as a girlfriend,” he says. “I only liked her as a friend, and it got to the point where I wanted more in my life, so it caused a shame spiral.”

That’s not to say these arrangements can’t work. “If both parties understand what the relationship is, then I don’t see a problem with it,” Jim says. “People like to [be] touched. The problem is when one party wants more than the other can offer.”

As such, I’d add two additional rules to get naked by: First, check in about each other’s boundaries from time to time. Did she try to sabotage your date with someone else? Did he give you an “anniversary” card? Call each other out and try to get back on track, keeping in mind that just because you agreed to a FWB relationship doesn’t mean feelings stay the same. Finally, transition with grace. All FWBs end—whether that means becoming just friends, frenemies or relationship partners. Try to exit with the integrity that friendship deserves by having a clear FWB “breakup” talk. This time, when you tell your f-buddy you can still be friends, you might actually mean it.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.