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WTF is FWB (Friends With Benefits)

I love a good rom-com that sets completely unrealistic standards for relationships. With a love life as disappointing as my own, spending an hour and a half convincing myself that my knight in shining armor is out there somewhere to sweep me off my feet is one of my many (guilt free) guilty pleasures. If you haven’t had the pleasure of sitting in front of Mila Kunis’ and Justin Timberlake’s Friends With Benefits movie, here’s the link for the iTunes rental: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/friends-with-benefits/id463104305. Kunis and Timberlake deliver a witty, comedic, tear-jerking, and entirely cliché portrayal of why the concept of friends with benefits is more or less ridiculous. Because this is Hollywood, (spoiler alert) the movie ends with the two practically running off into the sunset together. Off the big screen, unfortunately, the sunset is more often than not a box of tissues, Ben and Jerry’s half baked and another shamelessly cheesy rom-com.

What Kunis and Timberlake make up in eye candy, they lack in originality. Boy meets girl; boy completely ruins everything, girl forgives boy regardless, cue the sunset. Combine that plot line with the age-old concept of a friend with benefits, and the script was practically handed to the director. I think the sole reason that such a cliché story line made millions was that the “reality” of the film’s premise makes the happy ending that much more satisfying. And, if I’m being blunt, I think it’s complete bullshit.

According to the always legitimate Dictionary.com, a Friend With Benefits (FWB) is, by definition, “a friend with whom one has sex without a romantic relationship or commitment.” In my humble opinion, an FWB is, by definition, simply a term guys invented to establish a consistent Plan B with all the benefits (sex) of a traditional relationship without the commitment. It’s genius, really. As a college student, I have seen countless friends (including myself admittedly) entering into an FWB relationship convinced they (I) could pull it off. More often than not, I found that their attempt to convince me was more likely an attempt at trying to convince themselves because every one of them secretly knew the idea is anything but good. That off, I will admit that, in very select scenarios, it’s not impossible to pull of an FWB relationship. It requires strategy, honesty, and a very specific relationship to begin with. It requires a compatible mentality, a willingness to open up, and the knowledge of what should be left unsaid. Honestly? It requires a miracle.

When It Works

If maneuvered appropriately, an FWB relationship doesn’t have to end the traditional Hollywood way. If you can pull it off, a successful FWB comes with more benefits than the obvious. The pressure of a relationship is off, and thus you can use this opportunity to experiment and even get feedback. You can explore emotional and physical boundaries, and learn what works (and what should never be done again) in the bedroom.

I firmly believe that 99% of your potential success is attributed to what friend you choose. FWBs that stem from an existing close friendship are a recipe for disaster (skip to the next section). For the most part, successful FWBs should really be labeled Associates With Benefits. The less you know about your partner, the better. His (or her) mom probably shouldn’t know your name, and you shouldn’t be getting drinks on Friday night with his or her friends. The only time you should see each other on a Friday night is when the number on the clock is followed by the letters “a.m.” Unless it’s light outside – if you’re cuddling in the morning and making each other eggs, you might as well put a ring on it. There’s a reason a one night stand isn’t called a sleepover.

Boundaries aside, the MOST important aspect of a successful FWB relationship is open and honest communication. In a survey conducted amongst college students,40.6 percent of young adults who identified as having entered a FWB situation said that they established communication expectations right off the bat. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a conversation if one FWB feels him- or herself starting to develop feelings for the other. The same goes if he or she is interested in pursuing a legitimate relationship with a new individual. I’m not saying it’s easy – it’s not. Thus, establishing trust and an absence of judgment from the beginning is essential for a healthy FWB relationship. If you want out or you want more, speak up. Lastly, if you find yourself exploring, experimenting and communicating a year later, you may want to take a step back. When you’re booty calling your FWB for a second birthday in a row, the line between friend and relationship is too blurred for comfort.

When It Doesn’t Work

Unfortunately, this is the more likely scenario. Given that no interfering external factors come into play, an FWB relationship usually ends in one of two ways. Friendship creates intimacy. Sex creates intimacy. Combine the two, and the result? More intimacy. If you haven’t caught on already, both ways are entirely a result of one (or both) partner(s) feeling the inevitable. The overlying issue is that the FWB definition varies from person to person. Communication solves this to some extent, but communication is easier said than done. While some individuals decide to enter an FWB partnership to avoid the expectations and energy expended in a traditional relationship, others are interested in the reliability and support aspect. The latter is typically the partner who has a more difficult time communicating due to the significant amount of vulnerability involved in discussing a relationship – especially when feelings get involved. For example, a huge no-no when it comes to FWB is jealousy when one partner engages in sexual behavior with a different individual. This is arguably the most important situation for communication, but it can also be the hardest.

While some individuals decide to enter an FWB partnership to avoid the expectations and energy expended in a traditional relationship, others are interested in the reliability and support aspect. The latter is typically the partner who has a more difficult time communicating due to the significant amount of vulnerability involved in discussing a relationship – especially when feelings get involved. For example, a huge no-no when it comes to FWB is jealousy when one partner engages in sexual behavior with a different individual. This is arguably the most important situation for communication, but it can also be the hardest.

This is a psychology website, so if my personal insight doesn’t suffice, perhaps it’s enough that research agrees with me. Our psychological basis for motivation is otherwise known as drive-reduction. Put simply, drive-reduction theory is the scientific term for feeling turned on. When we experience an increasing physical need (i.e. sex), the drive to achieve that need increases as well. Hence the appeal of the accessibility that comes with friends with benefits. When we anticipate sex, our brain releases a ton of happy chemicals (i.e. oxytocin, vasopressin, and norepinephrine). The more sex we have, the more frequently these chemicals are released, and the more we find ourselves craving it.

If you identify as a woman, it gets worse. Repeated studies have found that 75% of women are more likely to orgasm with a consistent partner than with a casual one night stand. The more frequently we have sex with the same individual, the larger amount of the happy chemicals listed above are released. Men experience this as well, though to a significantly less extent. As a woman, if you’re not using a condom, STDs aren’t the only risk. Male semen isn’t composed solely of sperm; 97% of male ejaculate is biochemically designed to make women develop feelings of attachment. While 75% of men surveyed said it was easy to separate emotions from sex in an FWB relationship, 75% of women admitted that emotional involvement was inevitable. In other words, the negative stigma associated with the expectation for the girl catching feelings is hardly fair. If I were you, as a fellow woman, I’d run for the hills.

I think my take on the matter is relatively clear. That being said, I am just coming out of an FWB situation that lasted close to two years. I broke my own rule of limiting the time span to a year at the very most, and it backfired completely. The worst part is that, in the process, I lost one of my closest friends. If I could go back two years and smack my freshman year self over the head, I would in an instant. I divulge this to the internet because there is no better way to learn than from another’s mistakes. Take this opportunity to learn from mine.

 

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Zoe Tierney, B.A. Psychology
Zoe Tierney, B.A. Psychology

Zoe Tierney currently resides in Palo Alto, California. She is a Creative Writing Minor and a Psychology Major with an emphasis on Social Psychology and Child Development at Colgate University. After University, Zoe plans on attending graduate school with the intention of entering the field of adolescent psychology as a counselor or occupational therapist.

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