Navigating Friends with Benefits

Mature man and woman in bed peeking out from under the covers

In the world of relationships, the concept of “friends with benefits” (FWBs) often sparks curiosity and questions. In fact, this Oldish 2017 article on the subject remains one of most read. Can these relationships work without complications? Is it possible to stay friends afterward? To shed light on these questions, Justin J. Lehmiller Ph.D. embarked on a research journey that offers valuable insights into FWBs, their dynamics, and their outcomes over time.

The Motivation Behind FWBs

Dr. Lehmiller’s interest in FWBs began during his early years of teaching college courses on human sexuality. His students frequently asked about the feasibility of maintaining friendships after being FWBs and how to navigate these relationships. Realizing the lack of substantial data, he decided to explore the topic himself. Through his research, Dr. Lehmiller discovered that people enter FWBs for various reasons, leading to diverse expectations for the future. Some hope to transition into romantic partners, others wish to revert to being just friends, and some aim to maintain the FWB status indefinitely.

The Study: Tracking FWBs Over a Year

To understand the outcomes of FWBs, Dr. Lehmiller and his colleagues conducted a one-year longitudinal study involving 192 participants. Predominantly female (70 percent), white (74 percent), and heterosexual (72 percent), with an average age of 30, these individuals had known their FWBs for about three years on average at the study’s onset.

Participants were surveyed twice, a year apart, to gauge their satisfaction, communication about relationship rules, and their hopes for the future of their FWBs. The findings revealed intriguing trends:

  • 26 percent were still FWBs after one year
  • 15 percent had become romantic partners
  • 28 percent had reverted to being just friends
  • 31 percent had no relationship of any kind with their former FWB

These results indicate that FWBs are largely temporary, with most relationships either dissolving or transforming over time. However, many participants maintained some form of relationship, with only about one-third severing all ties.

Realistic Goals and Communication

One of the key takeaways from Dr. Lehmiller’s study is that certain goals within FWBs are more attainable than others. Those who initially aimed to revert to being just friends were mostly successful, with 59 percent achieving this outcome. On the other hand, individuals hoping to maintain a long-term FWB arrangement were less successful, with only 40 percent remaining FWBs after a year. The least successful were those aiming to transition into romantic partners, with just 15 percent realizing this goal.

Communication emerged as a crucial factor in maintaining any form of relationship post-FWB. Participants who communicated extensively about ground rules and boundaries were more likely to sustain a relationship, whether sexual or nonsexual. Conversely, lack of communication often led to the dissolution of the relationship. Those who were happier with their friendship from the outset were also more likely to maintain some form of connection over time.

Making FWBs Work

While more research is needed to fully understand FWBs, Dr. Lehmiller’s findings suggest several important conclusions:

  1. Temporary Nature: Most FWBs are short-lived, either dissolving or changing form within a year.
  2. Success in Goals: Individuals focused on preserving the friendship tend to be more successful, while those seeking love often end up disappointed.
  3. Communication and Friendship: Clear communication about expectations and boundaries, along with a solid friendship foundation, are key to making FWBs work.

To navigate FWBs successfully, it is crucial to have aligned expectations, open communication, and a strong friendship from the start. The Oldish would like to see some data specifically on adults over 50. As various articles have suggested having ‘been there, done that’ in previous marriages, older adults may enjoy their private time and personal space while still reaping the benefits of having someone a phone call away.