7 rules for being successful friends with benefits, according to relationship experts
- To make a friends with benefits relationship work, you should have regular check-ins about expectations.
- It's also important to set boundaries, like wearing a condom with other partners.
If you've ever had a friends-with-benefits (FWB) relationship, you know that things can get complicated — you might not agree about how to approach safe sex, whether or not to sleep over, and one of you might catch feelings.
That's why it can help to set some ground rules. Having regular conversations about what you each expect from the relationship and setting clear boundaries can help your FWB relationship go more smoothly and help you avoid heartache.
1. Decide on your expectations before starting the relationship
Although it's a common phrase, there are a few different definitions of friends-with-benefits, says Zhana Vrangalova, a professor of human sexuality at NYU and author of Open Smarter, a course exploring non-monogamy.
- Some relationships are labeled as "just sex FWBs" which means you don't expect emotional intimacy and you have a mostly sexual and physical relationship, says Lisa van Raalte, a professor at Sam Houston State University who specializes in communication within relationships.
- Other relationships are labeled as "true friends", which means you can be close friends who care about each other emotionally and have a sexual relationship, but don't want to label the relationship as official or exclusive, van Raalte says.
"Not everyone has the same goals. By knowing what you want out of the relationship at the beginning, you can communicate that to your FWB partner," van Raalte says.
2. Set clear boundaries
To make a FWB relationship work, you'll need to discuss what you're each comfortable with. Setting boundaries is an important way to establish trust and a feeling of safety for both partners.
There are several key questions you can discuss with your partner to help set boundaries, Vrangalova says.
- How often are we going to see each other?
- Will we sleep over with each other?
- What are we going to do when we see each other? Will we only hook up or do other friend activities?
- Will we tell other people about the relationship?
- How will we act when we hang out with a group of friends?
- Will we see other people?
- Will we use condoms with each other? What about with other people?
Having a transparent discussion early on gives you and your partner the chance to decide if the relationship will work out, van Raalte says.
NOTE: Don't start a FWB relationship with the hope of convincing the other person to date you more seriously. It's possible that a FWB relationship can lead to an official one, but it's better to be honest with your friend about your feelings up front — this can help you avoid a one-sided relationship.
3. Check in regularly
"As we get to know others more intimately, our feelings change for that person, and our goals/expectations for the relationship are in flux," van Raalte says.
It's important to "have a series of conversations as things develop," says Racine Henry, a lecturer at Northwestern University and therapist in private practice.
"Having explicit conversations about what will help both (or all) people involved feel comfortable is key to avoid unnecessary emotional injuries," Henry says.
For example, you might start out wanting to see your FWB partner two or three times per week, but then decide you need more space and decide to limit your hangouts to weekends only.
One study found that FWB partners who avoided talking about the current state of their relationship tended to be less satisfied with their FWB bond.
4. Be honest if you develop feelings
"We like to assume that everybody knows what an FWB situation entails and that because it isn't a 'real' relationship, we can keep emotions out of it," Henry says.
Unfortunately, this isn't always how things work out. "Even if you didn't initially want to catch feelings or develop something more, it can happen — feelings have a mind of their own," Vrangalova says.
Some common signs that you may be catching feelings include:
- Making future plans together
- Wanting more of their time
- Feeling more emotionally vulnerable around them
- Wanting to talk to them more often
One key sign that your feelings are more serious is if your partner can strongly affect your moods. "If they are responding to your messages and making plans, you're in seventh heaven," but you get depressed "if they're being inconsistent or flaky and canceling plans," Vrangalova says.
There are also a few telltale signs that your FWB partner could be catching feelings, Henry says.
- They text you more often
- They linger after hookups
- Try to involve you in their daily life
- They ask your opinion on big decisions
- They rely on you for emotional support
If you think you or your FWB partner are developing feelings, it's always best to have an honest conversation about your intentions, van Raalte says.
"Communication is key to avoiding hurt feelings (though this isn't a guarantee)," van Raalte says.
5. Practice safe sex
Don't assume that your FWB relationship is sexually exclusive — "it's important to discuss whether you're going to have other partners," Vrangalova says.
In a lot of FWB relationships, both partners agree that they can have sex with other people. But when more sex partners are involved, this can open you up to a greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
It's important to discuss sexual health practices — Vrangalova says that some possible protocols include:
- Using condoms with each other and with any other sex partners
- Being 'fluid-bonded' — meaning you use condoms with any outside partners, but not with each other
If you decide to stop using condoms with a FWB, it's important to get tested for STDs first.
6. Explore your sexuality
"I think friends-with-benefits is a great opportunity to explore your sexuality," Vrangalova says.
"If you're just doing one-night-stands, you don't have the opportunity to explore," and the person may not care as much about your pleasure, Vrangalova says. In a serious, long-term relationship, you may fall into a sexual routine.
FWB are the sweet spot — "you have enough connection and mutual liking that you're really invested in each other's sexual pleasure but it still has that novelty spark that's so important for sexual exploration," Vrangalova says.
There are several ways you can try new things and figure out what you like sexually, Vrangalova says.
- You can share your fantasies with each other — if you're feeling shy, you can use an app like Kindu or XConfessions, which can show you which of your fantasies match with your partner's.
- You can try watching porn together — show each other porn clips you each like or read erotica together.
- You can go to a sex shop and get some toys to try out.
7. Know that it might affect your friendship
"Adding sexual activity to any friendship is risky in the sense that there may not be mutual agreement about what the future relationship will look like," says van Raalte.
"If both parties are on the same page, sincerely, then the friendship may stay intact. This is often not the case, however," says van Raalte.
"You may learn things about that friend which change your opinion of them" Henry says. For example, they might be a great friend, but aren't as respectful of your emotions or boundaries in a sexual situation.
"Also, you may develop deeper feelings that can end the friendship if those feelings aren't reciprocated," Henry says.
However, it is possible for a FWB relationship to transition successfully into a friendship — especially if you're on the younger side. One study found that in a sample of college students, more than 80% of FWB relationships ended by returning to a normal friendship.
"Friends-with-benefits relationships can be really amazing," Vrangalova says.
If you have open conversations, check in with each other, and take the opportunity to explore your sexuality, "you can learn a lot about yourself, others, and how to be in a relationship," Vrangalova says.
Just make sure you know what you want and what you're comfortable with — "be very, very clear with yourself and your friend if you decide to take it a step further," Henry says.
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