I came across an interesting article in Psychology Today about friends with benefits. The article summarizes some interesting findings from three academic papers that take an in depth look at the largely vague subject of FWB and provides a fairly decent description of what it entails:
“FWBs alleviate many of the risks inherent in more casual hookups, such as ending up with a bad/inattentive/inadequate lover, a crazy person, or slutty reputation. But FWBs are not quite romantic either – they lack the explicit commitment to being a couple and building a future together, and also the expectation of sexual monogamy inherent in most serious relationships. As such, they alleviate the burdens of too much commitment too quickly to the wrong person.”
The academic papers provide a lot of additional insights on the subject. The first paper, called “Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship”, notes how the “the primary advantage seemed to be recreational, non-exclusive sex with a known and trusted other”. At the same time, there is a fear that the hassle-free recreational sex will ruin the trust. In this way, sex is both the pull and the push.
The next paper, called “Four Functions for Four Relationships”, tries to further define an FWB relationship. The authors state that “friends with benefits relationships were motivated by seeking a placeholder until someone better came along and as a trial run for a more serious relationship”. In other words, FWB relationships are inherently transitional and are predisposed to fizzling out. Most research on the subject shows that only about 15% of FWB relationships evolve into something exclusive.
The last paper, entitles “Friendship After a Friends with Benefits Relationship” looks at what happens with the remaining 85% of FWB relationships that die out. Interestingly, the researchers find that an overwhelming bulk (over 80%) of former FWB maintained or even strengthened their friendship after the sex stopped. As the author’s state: “Our results suggest that FWB relationships can transition back to friendship and, for the majority of young adults, this friendship was not negatively affected.”
All of these are interesting initial findings, but there is something lacking that needs to be addressed. Specifically, all of these papers, and countless others, rely on the fickle and foolhardy minds of undergraduates who live in a collegiate bubble of budding sexuality and minimal repercussions. As all of the academic papers state, no study has looked at FWB relationships in adults.
But I have a theory.
“Casual Dating” is just the adult version of “Friends With Benefits”, but with one small caveat. Like FWB, Casual Dating is all about having your cake and eating it to: Enjoying the benefits while waiting for something potentially better to come along. The only difference between FWB and Casual Dating is that casual dating has finality. Young Adults, aged 25-35, already have a core group of friends, and unlike undergrads, are not focused on building a peer support network. Therefore, when Casual Dating ends, so does the interaction between the two involved, as opposed to an FWB relationship.
At the core of it, undergrads and young adults are simply less interested in settling down (for a number of different reasons that I have already written about here and here) as they were two decades ago. It could be that it has always been the case, but due to social constructs and norms people opted for serious commitments.
The world of academia started to take note of this in the past ten years. Up until then, research into relationships was largely binary: monogamy or singlehood. Today the view is much more nuanced, a veritable spectrum of possibilities, from traditional monogamy through polyamory and everything in between. Unfortunately, it is too soon to know what the larger implications of a more sexual open and nuanced world entail.
Image via Sony Pictures