The Cruel Paradox of Friends-With-Benefits Relationships

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

Friends with benefits” has a pretty simple definition: It’s when two people who like each other and hang out outside the bedroom fool around, but don’t call what they’re doing a full-blown romantic relationship. Many people have dabbled in this arrangement, and the concept has received a lot of cultural attention (some of it from older people complaining, as they forever will, about Kids These Days), but social scientists don’t yet have a great sense of exactly how these relationships are formed, maintained, and cut off. To find out more, one researcher went straight to some of the world’s most enthusiastic friends-with-benefiters: college students. 

For a new study published in Emerging Adulthood, Kendra Knight, a communications professor at DePaul University, interviewed 25 students with friends-with-benefits-relationship (FWBR) experience at a large university in the southwest. This was a so-called qualitative study — she wasn’t trying to gather (much) quantitative data, but rather, through interviews, to develop a sense of these kids’ subjective experiences with FWBRs.

Past work had shown that on the one hand, most people in these relationships agree that communication is important for setting boundaries and the like. But on the other hand, actual, substantive communication in these relationships is rare. So one of the key questions Knight entered this study with was “[W]hy relational talk, if valued, should be so difficult to enact in FWBRs?”

Her interviews revealed four main reasons:

1. Those in FWBRs think that even having a conversation defeats the purpose of such relationships in the first place. Doing so, reported some of the interview subjects, “constitutes effort or relational work that is expected to be absent from FWBRs.” The whole point of these relationships is that they’re fun and easy, in other words, so why bog all that down with boring, potentially emotionally draining talk?

2. People are worried they will be seen as clingy or unstable if they open up a substantive conversation about their FWBR. This was especially true for women, who are, of course, more likely to get the “crazy” label after a relationship, casual or otherwise, ends. One interview subject said she wanted to “kind of protect myself, [so] that if it did really go wrong then at least no one could say anything more than ‘oh they’re just not hooking up anymore.’”

3. People don’t want to show their emotional cards. Despite the ostensibly fun, unserious nature of FWBRs, many respondents reported experiencing jealousy “when their FWB partner was talking, flirting, or interacting with other partners.” At the same time, though, they weren’t sure they had a “right” to bring up this jealousy, since FWBRs are, after all, casual. To communicate jealousy would be to show weakness, in other words.

4. When one partner does want to talk, the other often shuts it down. This was maybe the saddest finding: There were a lot of situations in which one partner would try to open up a conversation, but the other, wanting to keep things casual and not introduce any complexity to the relationship, would shut down the attempt. It’s less fun “just hooking up with” someone when you’re worried they want to become your boyfriend or girlfriend.

All of this leads to the aforementioned tricky paradox: FWBRs tend to go smoother when both participants are on the same page, and everybody realizes this, but not enough people have these conversations since they can be a bit fraught and awkward. And sure, to a certain extent Knight’s findings were skewed by her sample: College kids, being inexperienced in this stuff, are probably less qualified to have adult conversations about it than older, more seasoned folk (not that twenty- and thirtysomethings are always paragons of mature relationship communication). But we can learn from these kids nonetheless. Communicate, people!