One of my dearest female friends is in a relationship with a friend of her own. It’s not an unhealthy relationship, but the man has made it clear to my friend that it has a definite ending as he needs to move away for a job. She understands this, intellectually anyway. But there’s some question as to whether our intellect can overrule our emotion in every instance and in every situation.
I suspect that the more time we spend with another person involved in intimacies, the more intimate we get regardless of our overall intentions. I would even go so far to say that it’s inevitable. That like that old premise in “When Harry Met Sally,” men and women can’t just be friends. Well, I mean that they definitely cannot just be friends if they’re actively engaging in a sexual relationship.
I know my friend knows that, so intellectually, she’s cool. But I also know that matters of the heart can often short-circuit our rationality, leading us to engage in behaviors that, in the long-run, may not be emotionally the most healthy for us.
These thoughts led me to look up the research literature on “friends with benefits,” and I was pleasantly surprised to come away with a few citations where this phenomenon has actually been studied. These kinds of relationship most often occur in younger adults (high school and college-age students) who are still actively exploring their sexuality.
Puentes and his colleages (2008) collected over 1,000 surveys of undergraduates and came away with the following observations on these “friends with benefits relationships” (FWBRs):
1. Males. Over sixty percent of the men (63.7%) compared to slightly over half (50.2%) of the women reported experience in a friends with benefits relationship. While not statistically significant, McGinty et al. (2007) also found men more likely participants and concluded that, “men focus on the benefits, women on the friends” aspect of the friends with benefits relationship. Previous research comparing men and women has emphasized that men think more about sex, report a higher number of sexual partners, and engage in more frequent sexual encounters than women (Michael et al., 1994).
2. Casual daters. Respondents who were casually dating different people (76.3%) were significantly more likely to report experience in a FWBR than those emotionally involved with one person (49.3%) or not dating/involved with anyone (49.9%). It is clear that while the respondents were having sex with a friend, they did not define the relationship as a dating relationship that was going anywhere. To the contrary, the participants had a dating life (or were open to one) with different people that was separate from the friends with benefits relationship.
3. Hedonist. Undergraduates selecting hedonism (82.2%) as their primary sexual value were significantly more likely to be involved in a friends with benefits relationship than those selecting relativism (52.3%) or absolutism (20.8%). Unlike relativists who prefer sex in the context of a love relationship and absolutists who won’t have sex outside of a marriage relationship, hedonists are focused on sexual pleasure, not the relationship with the person.
4. Sex without love. It comes as no surprise that participants in a FWBR were adept at having sex independent of love. Indeed, over 80 percent of participants in a FWBR reported that they had had sex without love, compared to 13.4% of non participants who preferred sex in the context of a love relationship. This difference was statistically significant.
5. Nonromantic/realist. In contrast to romantics who believed that there is only one true love/love comes only once, nonromantics (also known as realists) viewed this belief as nonsense. Analysis of the data revealed that undergraduate realists who believed that there were any number of people with whom they could fall in love (57.9%) were significantly more likely to be a participant in a friends with benefits relationship than were undergraduate romantics who believed in one true love (44.7%).
In effect, nonromantics believe that they would have many opportunities to meet/fall in love and that a friends with benefits relationship would not cancel out their chance of doing so. Hughes et al. (2005) also found that persons involved in a friends with benefits relationship had a pragmatic view of love.
6. Question deep love’s power. Participants were less likely than nonparticipants to believe that deep love can help a couple get through any difficulty. Slightly over half (52.7%) of participants in a FWBR reported they did not believe in the power of deep love compared to over 60% (62.3 %) of nonparticipants who did believe in such power. We interpret this finding as another example of participants being nonromantic realists who were not focused on romantic love in their relationships.
7. Jealousy. Undergraduates identifying themselves as a jealous person (58.8%) were significantly more likely to be involved in a friends with benefits relationship than those who did not view themselves as jealous (51.1%). We are not sure how to interpret this data as we would assume just the opposite. Nevertheless, the data show that participants are more jealous. Perhaps those having sex with a friend wonder how many other sexual partners their “friend” has and want to feel that they are “special” and “unique.”
8. Blacks. In regard to racial differences, over sixty percent of blacks (62.5%) in contrast to over half of the whites (52.9%) reported involvement in a friends with benefits experience. Previous research comparing blacks and whites on interpersonal issues revealed that blacks valued romantic relationships less than whites, were less involved in an exclusive relationship, and were less disclosing in intimate relationships (Giordan et. al., 2005). Data from the National Survey of Family and Households also revealed great instability of black compared to white marriages (Raley 1996). A “friends with benefits” relationship which provides minimal emotional investment for a sexually involved couple is not inconsistent with relationship instability.
9. Higher class rank/age. The more advanced the undergraduate in class rank, the more likely the undergraduate reported involvement in a friends with benefits relationship: freshmen = 45.4%, sophomore = 55.1%, junior = 55.2% and senior = 62%. As might be expected, the older the student, the more likely the FWBR involvement with those 20 and older being more likely. We suspect that age increases one’s opportunity for a FWRB experience and that older undergraduates given the opportunity for a FWFR are more likely to cash in.
10. Money focused. When asked about their top value in life, undergraduates identifying financial security (67.9%) were significantly more likely to be in a friends with benefits relationship than those who identified having a career that they loved (53.9%) or having a happy marriage (48.5%) as their primary life value. Seemingly, the pursuit of money was more important than a love relationship moving toward commitment or marriage and they (participants in a friends with benefits relationship) took sex in whatever convenient context they could get it.
Frankly, the more I read about friends with benefits relationships, the more convinced I am that my friend isn’t actually involved in one of these (since they occur with increasingly less frequency as one ages and matures).
Perhaps she’s simply in a relationship in which the man is simply unawares or purposely ignorant. As long as she is aware, and isn’t expecting more from the relationship than he’s willing to give, then I think it’s fine.
But I also think it’s difficult for us, as humans, to separate sexuality from our emotions (even though it appears men are more able to do so than women). Even when men do so, I believe many do so only outwardly. Inside, perhaps unconsciously, they still feel the connection they’re making through sex.
Because sex is more than just a physical act of pleasure. It strips us, if just for a moment, of all of our social masks, and bares our physical desires (and some might argue, our souls) to the other person. While men may deny that happens, I can’t help but believe it does. Maybe not in everyone, but I think in more men than research shows.
As for my friend, I worry about her. While she’s a smart, attractive, and wonderful person, I think she may be blinded by her own cynicism about relationships, love, and attraction. But after awhile, it’s hard not to. When you meet so many people who are just interested in relationships on their own terms (and for their own ends), it can be hard to see the forest through the trees.
Or the man who has feelings for you, despite his protestations to the contrary.
Puentes, J., Knox, D. & Zusman, M.E. (2008). Participants in ‘friends with benefits’ relationships. College Student Journal, 42(1), 176-180.