Friends with benefits: when can casual romance lead to love?

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If TV & film is anything to go by, so-called ‘friends with benefits’ (or FWB) relationships are extremely common, and the advantage of comfortable, no strings sex might appear obvious to some. But what if one or both parties ever want more? Is it best if friends with benefits remain friends, or might these situations be a great way to judge someone committing? To find out, we spoke to top sexual psychologists Dr. Justin Lehmiller and Dr. Heidi Reeder, to find out what – if any – rules there are for people in a similar situation.

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Why friends with benefits?

As Dr. Lehmiller explained, “When we ask people the primary reason they began their friends with benefits relationship, the most common answer is that they just wanted to have more sex. For some people, these relationships are only about access to sex and nothing more”. Research shows that the majority of these relationships remain purely for sex –and that this often has no negative effect. As Dr. Reeder told us, studies show “that having sex with a friend once or twice doesn’t damage the friendship”.

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Hoping for more?

But does this tell the whole story? It seems like it is becoming more normal to begin a serious relationship like this, too. By ‘testing’ the other person, a FWB situation seems like a perfect way to assess their long-term potential –without dealing with the stress that comes as problems emerge. As Dr. Lehmiller explained, “My research has revealed that a significant number of friends with benefits are hoping that their relationship will eventually transition into romance… [it] may therefore be a way some of us establish intimacy and sexual compatibility before pursuing something serious”. Dr. Heidi Reeder shares this view, telling us “if you’re friends first then you’ll know that you not only love your partner, but you also like them”.

The importance of communication

Dr. Reeder recommended some caution, however, in beginning a relationship like this. While in many instances what was once a friends with benefits situation seems to naturally evolve into something more serious, the two emphasise that there should be a conversation to work out exactly what both parties want. As Lehmiller explains, “the best advice I would give to someone in a FWB relationship would be to communicate with your partner. If you can establish what the relationship is and is not and what your expectations are, that should reduce the risk that one of you will end up getting hurt”. Reeder says “at some point you’ll have to actually talk about what each of you wants”. Though it often occurs naturally, there should at some point be a clear conversation when you ask each “do we want this to progress?”

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Don’t change!

Another important consideration is that “if your friend feels the same way as you do, and you transition into dating, work to continue acting the same way you did before the relationship started. Don’t suddenly act closed off or start trying too hard just because you’re dating. Your friend was attracted to you for who you are as a friend, so keep being you”. Even so, research shows that these relationships, if the ‘transition’ is managed well, are just as successful as relationships that don’t arise from a friends-first scenario. Evidently the determining factor is simply whether the decision to start a relationship is well-discussed and mutually wanted.

We spoke exclusively to Dr. Heidi Reeder, professor at Boise State University, USA, and Dr. Justin Lehmiller of Harvard. You may find his blog here.

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