What It Really Means to Be ‘Friends With Benefits’

Whether it’s online dating or out in the physical world, there are a lot of people looking for and trying to establish a friend with benefits arrangement, or “FWB”. The problem is, when an FWB hasn’t had time to develop organically, the label doesn’t fit and may add pressure when it’s intended to take pressure off. When you’re entering a new arrangement, calling it an FWB is confusing because it doesn’t reflect the complicated nature of what you’re trying to create with someone you barely know.

The sex part of any new connection can be easy to fall into, of course. But what about the “friends” part? The first word in the FWB title, is “friend.” A friend is typically someone you trust and who trusts you—a relationship that develops through shared history, experiences, situations, circumstances, compatibility, or mutual interests. When you’re looking for an FWB from the start, you’re forcing a new potential relationship into a box that doesn’t fit, with a label that misrepresents it. Since it takes time to cultivate a friendship, it logically follows that it takes time and dedication to cultivate a friendship with benefits.

Why? Because the benefit is sex! Any time sex is involved, it complicates matters even when both people maintain communication and mutual respect. For an FWB arrangement to work, you have to know each other, at least somewhat, and have a sense of who both of you are with and to each other, and what feelings the emotional and sexual dynamic evokes in you. But maintaining your FWB in a healthy way means communicating about what each person expects and where each person is as the relationship continues to evolve. Whether it feels comfortable and safe, or problems arise, if there is room to work through challenges to maintain the friendship, even at the expense of the benefits, then you are in a successful FWB. There is a mutual investment in each other’s well-being, because you’re friends first.

Regardless of how the relationship is labeled, when you’re sexually involved with someone you already care deeply for, emotions build, as does trust, intimacy, connection, and familiarity. And, no matter what the arrangement, it can still get tricky. Check in to make sure that your friend is still your friend and that it’s not getting more challenging to maintain the current state of your relationship, or is in any way off-putting for you or for them. Because sex is involved, problems can become magnified. What if the person you’re sleeping with is actually feeling strung along, or is still going along with the title of “FWB” because they are falling for you? What if it’s a way of keeping the intimacy going, or they are hoping the sex will lead to deeper love and a committed relationship? What if that person is afraid to bring up complications because they don’t want to jeopardize the friendship?

Of course this dynamic occurs the other way around as well: you may long for more and feel hopeful that the sexual part of your friendship will help your friend engage in a more romantic, committed way. You may continue calling the relationship FWB for fear that if your friend knows you want more, you will scare them off. You have boxed yourself into an FWB title when your feelings don’t even remotely reflect that arrangement.

Under these circumstances, FWB is not an accurate label, because it does not reflect what you’re actually experiencing. And, because your relationship is mislabeled, it can contribute to feeling less deserving of the feelings you’re having. You’re hiding what you feel, which delegitimizes the relationship, and since you’re “only” an FWB, you’re not “allowed” to feel emotionally invested. When the other person wanders off, you have to pretend not to be heartbroken.

FWB is also not an accurate description when it feels like your new friend is imposing an arrangement on you that is convenient for them, at your emotional expense, whether they are aware of that or not. It’s confusing to try to develop friendship founded on a sexual relationship which is guided by a rule system where many of the rules, have to be invented as you go. Or, when you’re trying to force a friendship so that you can add sex as a benefit, where does the friendship part fit in? That’s putting the benefits before the friendship. You may have started out thinking that the label of FWB was a good idea, but since the territory can be so uncharted, yours and your friend’s feelings may change in infinite ways, and the label can quickly become a hindrance, not a help.

That’s not to say an FWB arrangement isn’t possible. Sexual exploration can and often does become a part of an existing friendship between consenting people. Or you may have been in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with this person earlier in your life, but now it’s morphed into a friendship. In any of these circumstances, the sexual connection may remain or may be reintroduced. But the common thread is the history between you, the investment you share in the friendship, and trust that has formed as a result. You recognize that you both enjoy the chemistry, but that you may not be as compatible emotionally as you are sexually. It’s a mutually understood experience. The connection you have as friends determines whether this time in your life and in your relationship is a good time to be sharing benefits, then it’s a label that better fits.

However, when you ask to be FWBs with someone you don’t know, or barely know, or before you’ve developed a connection, you’re putting stress and expectations on a relationship that hasn’t even formed yet. There are many flaws in this formula, the greatest of which is that it has the potential to cheapen what you call a friend.

Rather, when you recognize that you would like to connect and have intimacy and trust with someone, but you’re not ready to be in a committed relationship, or you don’t want to manage expectations early in a relationship, what is really happening is that you are figuring it out as you go. You are figuring out what you want and don’t want. It’s more freeing and less constricting than giving the wrong label to what you’re trying to create.

Not labeling a new arrangement, situation, or relationship takes some of the pressure off, sets up more room to get to know each other as friends and keeps the communication lines open. The good news is that developing an investment in the “friends” part solidifies the foundation for friendship, and can also enhance the benefits.

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