In pop culture, "friends with benefits" relationships are often portrayed as doomed, taboo or simply sham cover-ups for actual romantic feelings. It's no surprise they are: In real life, it's a set-up many attempt but few actually get right.
But for those who do, there's a reason why. New research indicates that the key ingredient for successful friends with benefits relationships is actually having up-front conversations about what you're doing. It all comes down to being honest enough to talk.
When FWBs really work: The theoretical point of friends with benefits is that two people can be intimate while ultimately staying friends. So does that actually happen?
Social psychologist Justin Lehmiller led a one-year study examining 191 people — mostly white straight women, with an average age of 30 — who currently had a friend with benefits. Researchers initially surveyed participants on what they hoped would happen to their FWB situation, then followed up a year later to see how the relationships played out.
Lehmiller's results, reported on his site Sex and Psychology and reprinted by Business Insider, showed that after a year, 26% were still FWBs, 28% went back to just being friends and 15% had become "romantic partners." On the other hand, 31% reportedly suffered the dreaded fate of FWBs: After a year, they no longer had any relationship at all.
What made the difference for the pairs who managed to maintain their relationship? It all came down to communication. Lehmiller found that both the friends who were still FWBs, the ones who had gotten romantic and the ones who went back to being friends had all "reported more communication about setting ground rules" at the beginning of the year.
The less the FWBs in the study talked openly about their relationship, the less likely they were to be friends, partners or even FWBs down the road.
Why adding benefits gets complicated: It's important to know how to navigate these types of relationships, because let's face it, many of us are having them. A survey conducted by Betty Confidential of 1,000 undergraduates found that 51% had experience with a friends with benefits situation.
But much as we want them, we also realize how complicated they can be. A 2007 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior pointed out the irony: Friends with benefits arrangements appeal to us because our friends are the ones we trust the most and feel closest to. Yet for fear of messing up that valuable friendship, FWBs avoided talking about potential romantic feelings, making these relationships "problematic for the same reasons that they are attractive."
Complicating FWBs arrangements are stereotypical but powerful gender differences. Men are more likely to want a FWB relationship to remain the same over time, whereas women are more likely to want it to develop into a romance or back into platonic friendships, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found.
Biology also gets in the way. Our bodies release bond-enhancing neurotransmitters, including that "love hormone" oxytocin, when we have sex. That doesn't you fall deeply in love with every person you have sex with (that would definitely complicate things), but it does mean there is an element of connection and bonding at play, one that is bound to toy with your emotions for the friend lying next to you.
The friends who ace it: That's why the best friends with benefits are the ones who do the most talking.
"The single best way to reduce the likelihood of finding yourself in this awkward situation is to communicate with your partner up front," Lehmiller writes. He adds, "Some people also find it helpful to establish rules about sleeping over, how often they will see one another and how they will greet the other person in public."
"By setting a time limit of a few weeks or a few months on the sexual aspect of your relationship," he writes, "you can reduce the odds that unreciprocated feelings will develop before the sex ends."
It may sound wholly unromantic, but that's theoretically the point. It can be as simple as stating how you really feel about the person from the get-go. Just take a tip from the protagonists of the film Friends With Benefits:
"I don't like you like that."
"I don't like you like that either. That's why it's perfect."
Now that's solid communication.