Advice columnists and best friends all over the world will tell you that the secret to success in having regular, no-strings-attached sex with a friend is to, well, not get attached. According to a study published in the August edition of Archives of Sexual Behavior, it's a little more complicated than that.
As with all things in life, there are ups and downs to hooking up with a friend, including, the study's authors point out, "having sex and lack of commitment on the positive side and feeling deceived, lack of clear expectations, and poor communication quality on the negative side."
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In order to better understand how facets of commitment intersect in casual sexual relationships between friends, researchers tapped 171 people (118 women) who'd had such a fling within the past year to participate in their study. They focused on two dimensions of the functionality of these relationships: whether people thought their friends-with-benefits (FWB) situation was healthy and functioning well (referred to in the study as "relationship adjustment") and sexual satisfaction.
Participants were asked questions about how much they trusted their FWB partner and how happy they were with their sex life. They also rated how much they agreed with statements that measured how committed the subject was to his/her FWB partner, specifically in terms of couple identity, sacrifice, and availability of alternative partners. Sample statements included: "I tend to think about how things affect 'us' as a couple more than how things affect 'me' as an individual"; "It makes me feel good to sacrifice for my FWB partner"; and "I would have trouble finding a suitable FWB partner if this one ended."
Ultimately, researchers found that in addition to sexual satisfaction, young adults who acted as if they were a couple, sacrificed personal interests for the betterment of their relationship, and spent less time looking for alternative partners reported being happy with their FWB situation. When they controlled for other variables, however, the study's authors found that the only "significant predictor" of contentment in a FWB relationship was being OK with doing something for someone else.
"It shows a higher level of investment," says Jesse Owen, head of the counseling psychology department at the University of Denver and lead author on the study. "When people do that kind of activity, their FWB relationship tends to be better: They tend to have less strife and less conflict than other FWB relationships, and a lot of it is that sacrifice that most friends actually do for one another is as true as it is in FWB."
The study also acknowledges the "potential conflict" that could arise in a FWB relationship if both people aren't on the same page. "The results suggest that it is important for young adults to be aware of commitment as they enter these FWB relationships," they write. "Specifically, our work highlights the fact that satisfaction with sacrifice seems to play a vital role in FWB relationship adjustment, suggesting that young adults should be aware of the investments they have in these relationships."
According to past research led by Owen, 25 to 40 percent of young adults who have FWB hope the relationship grows into something more; approximately 20 percent actually do, and, generally speaking, most people remain friends after they stop hooking up.
"We're seeing from the participants in our study that there's a different side to the FWB relationship than the stereotypical, selfish, me-focused glamorized version of these relationships," Owen says. FWB situations are common among young adults, he says, and "not necessarily a replacement for romantic relationships but function as a romantic relationship. It's a different type of commitment—a different type of dating."