The Most Important Friends with Benefits Rules
Even if you've never been in a friends with benefits situation, then you've at least probably heard about them — or, better yet, seen them played out in movies. (We've all seen Friends with Benefits with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis and No Strings Attached with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, right?)
While Hollywood makes what can be a complicated situation into a happily-ever-after ending, in the real world, that's rarely how FWBs go down. In fact, they can extend past complicated into a total mess if some friends with benefits rules aren't put into place from the start. Namely, the one thing you're not "supposed" to do when you have a friend with benefits? Fall in love.
But are there other ground rules to a friends-with-benefits situation? And what happens if someone breaks the friends with benefits rules — or (gasp!) catches feelings? Here, pros explore these Qs and more.
What Exactly Is a Friend with Benefits Arrangement?
In the simplest terms, a relationship labeled as "friends with benefits" is when two friends hook up on a fairly regular basis with the agreement that it's just about sex, and not about pursuing a romantic relationship or long-term commitment.
"Friends with benefits is a sexual relationship without the assumptions that generally go along with romantic or partnered relationships — it's a friendship or more casual connection that has a sexual component," says Carol Queen, Ph.D., staff sexologist at sexual health brand Good Vibrations and author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone. "Getting together for sex might be a regular thing or not so much, but identities like 'girlfriend,' 'boyfriend,' and even 'lover' will not be used to describe the relationship because it's generally less committed, and more casual than that."
Ultimately, you're benefiting, sexually speaking, without all the commitment, obligations, and expectations that come with a relationship. You're both free agents. (See: Are Situationships Always Bad News?)
What Are the Rules of Friends with Benefits?
Even though this type of relationship has a specific name and some general parameters, there are no specific friends with benefits rules that automatically apply. All relationships are different, and as such, will have their own rules.
"I like to think of relationships as a blank canvas — they start out blank, with no rules," says Erica Caparelli, licensed master social worker and counselor at A Good Place Therapy. "Each person brings their own sets of wants, needs, and boundaries onto that canvas, and the people involved decide on — negotiate — the best arrangement that fits their unique personalities. By doing this, they create their own unique art piece. In Western society, we live in a culture that normalizes monogamy as the standard of romantic relationships… but there are many, many, different types of relationship styles out there: monogamy, open, non-monogamy, polyamory, and relationship anarchy, just to name a few."
People in friends with benefits arrangements can come up with their own rules that fit their unique situation. For some, that could mean only meeting for sex — not for dinner, social outings, etc. For others, that could mean actually having a deep and close friendship, with no-strings-attached sex thrown into the equation. It's all depends on what both people are looking for and want, without the hardline expectations that come with serious romantic relationships. While there may not be a commitment in the monogamous sense of the word, there's still a commitment to the arrangement.
Even though it's "casual" and there are no must-have rules, there's a certain standard that all human interactions and relationships should meet. "There should always be a commitment to communication and respect in all relationships, regardless of the style, to ensure it is consensual and mutually satisfying to all people involved," says Caparelli. (See: What Is Consent, Really?)
Why Friends with Benefits Rules Are Important
As someone who's been in a handful of friends with benefits relationships, I can confirm that they all happen under different circumstances — and that rules make a big difference in the outcome. One situation started as a one-night stand with a co-worker that evolved into a true connection with someone who would eventually become my best friend. We never discussed the fact that we were just FWBs, as our friendship was always paramount and we were very much inseparable. But looking back, we probably should have discussed it because I was the one who ended up getting hurt when I made the mistake of falling in love. In the process, I lost my best friend and the heartache from that loss lasted for years.
On another occasion, with a different person, rules were discussed; we specified that it was just about sex: no dates, no hanging out (even just as friends), no jealousy, and no expectations for it to evolve. It was agreed upon and understood by both parties — and that's ideal when you're entering this sort of relationship.
"I've seen FWB situations that end with hurt feelings because the boundaries were never made clear," says Queen. "Unless you work out the details with someone, it's very easy to project your assumptions and desires onto them and the relationship. But because friends with benefits is potentially fluid [relationship], it's very important to be clear about what it is and what it isn't, because of this kind of misunderstanding that can lead to people being hurt."
The problem (in a good way!) is, there are lots of different ways to have a relationship — but each one requires a discussion to protect everyone involved.
"Getting on the same page with each other helps an FWB duo find an equitable balance, not one where someone winds up feeling like they've been used or wasted their time," says Queen. "Friends with benefits situations can be really perfect for some people, and I'd urge anyone who doesn't want what the other person has to offer (or, you know, who actually wants more) to say 'no' to such a connection unless they can come to a place of actual comfort with it."
FWIW, this boundary discussion isn't just a good idea for FWBs — it's something that you should have in all relationships. "I think it's important for pretty much all relationships to discuss boundaries because so many people in our culture want there to be one norm and not so many options," says Queen. For example, how do you and your partner define emotional cheating or physical cheating? What "counts?"
How to Define Your Friends with Benefits Rules with a Partner
Although the rules vary, a successful friends with benefits relationship is about communication, setting boundaries, and not crossing those boundaries.
"One way to have conversations about boundaries is to simply say to your partner(s), 'Hey, I'd love to know the kind of things in this relationship that are okay and not okay with you, and I'd like to tell you some of my boundaries, too," says Caparelli. Are you sleeping with other people? Do you want to know about other sexual connections? Will there be no cuddling post-sex or talking on the phone?
"Keep it simple and honest," says Caparelli. "There's no point in beating around the bush here — otherwise, you may be signing up for a relationship that doesn't work for you. You want to make sure that you and your partner(s) feel safe and secure with the unique boundaries you create together, as you're creating your unique art piece." (More here: How to Set Boundaries In the Bedroom That'll Vastly Improve Your Sex Life)
Also, as is the case with all non-monogamous situations, there needs to be an agreement about safe sex practices. Are you and your FWB going to be fluid bonded, but use protection with everyone else? Or will protection always be used between you two? Will you both get tested for STIs after a new partner?
Of course, even if you do everything "right," there's some emotional risk involved with FWBs. While it's easy to say upfront, "this is just sex and there will be no feelings," you don't really have a say in who you fall in love with. Even if you continue to deny what you're feeling, it doesn't mean those emotions cease to exist. If one-sided feelings arise, it's best to put the brakes on the arrangement. (See: How to Know When a Relationship Is Over)
In an ideal world, friends with benefits can be just what people need when they're in between serious relationships or have zero desire to be in a relationship, but still want some level of sexual intimacy. But FWBs can be a slippery slope if there isn't proper communication, boundaries, and an understanding of what it means for both people, says Queen. Sure, the ending of Friends with Benefits is great, but IRL Justin Timberlake isn't likely to set up a flash mob in Grand Central Station and tell you he's in love with you.
So before you jump into a friends with benefits arrangement, in addition to setting boundaries, you should also weigh the pros and cons for yourself and gauge what you're capable of and what you're not. Some people simply can't have casual sex without catching feelings and that's totally okay.