The 4 Foundational Rules Required for a Healthy Friends With Benefits Relationship—And What To Do When Things Get Complicated

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The meaning behind “friends with benefits” often gets bungled based on preconceived notions at two equally inaccurate extremes: It’s either seen as no-strings-attached sex pursued by flakey commitment-phobes or, as the final scene in any number of circa-2011 rom-coms will convince you, a mere stepping stone on the path toward a loving, monogamous relationship. Clearly, there's a need for better clarity about the rules for being friends with benefits.

Because, as a 2021 study published in the Journal of Counseling Sexology & Sexual Wellness points out, the idea of friends with benefits (FWB) simply involves having a consistent sexual partner without the commitment of a romantic relationship. And according to many experts, it can be a perfectly healthy partnership—despite what movies may have you believe.

Experts In This Article

“For most people, friends with benefits allows friends to enjoy sex while agreeing to avoid developing deeper feelings for one another,” says Lisa Lawless, PhD, a psychotherapist specializing in clinical psychology, relationships, and sexual health. “Some may choose to focus more on the sexual benefits, while others may focus more on the friendship aspect. And the dynamic can also allow people to explore sexual preferences and identities without the pressure of a committed relationship.”

Nazanin Moali, PhD, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, notes that FWBs often stem from pre-existing friendships that evolve to include sexual activities, but for others, “it could involve previous partners or exes with whom they maintain a friendship and continue to engage in sexual encounters.”

Unlike “situationships”—as Dr. Lawless calls casual sexual encounters with few, if any, rules or agreements—a successful FWB setup requires greater care. Dr. Maoli adds that, “as with any relationship, communication and mutual understanding of well-defined boundaries are essential for maintaining a healthy and satisfying arrangement."

4 rules for being friends with benefits in a healthy way

1. Establish your own intentions up front

Before embarking on a FWB relationship, Dr. Moali says, reflect on “why you are choosing this type of relationship with this person instead of pursuing a committed partnership.” Dr. Lawless, who is also the CEO of the sexual product line Holistic Wisdom, concurs: “It is essential to make sure to explore psychological factors that may drive a desire for this type of relationship, such as a fear of commitment from past traumas or negative relationship experiences. There's nothing wrong with exploring a FWB relationship, but it's critical to be honest with yourself about whether or not this is what you really want.”

2. Select your FWB partner carefully.

“Not everyone is cut out for a FWB relationship,” says Dr. Lawless. “If you suspect this person is in love with you and sees this as an opportunity to start a relationship, or vice versa, it is best not to start down this path.”

3. Communicate boundaries clearly and honestly

Casually entering into FWB territory won’t serve either of you—and neither will speaking in generalities. “Clear communication with your partner is crucial,” says Dr. Moali. “Share your intentions, preferred modes of communication, and any specific preferences you have for interactions before, during, and after engaging in sexual activities.”

If you want to cuddle or expect to spend the night and share a morning coffee the next day, make that known up front. Dr. Lawless also recommends deciding jointly if you will discuss the nature of your relationship with others, if you will spend time with one another’s friends or family, and if you will post about each other on social media.

It’s also vital to come to an agreement on additional sexual partners. “If you plan on being exclusive sexually until one of you finds a relationship, you need to express that,” Lawless says. “If not, neither of you should expect exclusivity.” No matter what, practice safe sex. Discuss STD testing and, if necessary, birth control.

4. Have periodic check-ins

Like a job with performance reviews, there are no drawbacks to touching base every so often with your FWB partner. “Keep checking in with each other to see how you’re managing participating in the relationship and if you would like to change anything,” says Dr. Lawless.

She also warns that participants should be prepared for these relationships, however healthy, to eventually end. “These types of relationships have a low long-term success rate—the bonds in FWBs are often temporary and conditional,” says Dr. Lawless. “It’s best to accept that as a possibility up front.”

3 common friends with benefits complications—and solutions

Even the most carefully orchestrated friends with benefits setups are not without risk. Like all relationships, they evolve in ways the participants might not expect—or want.

1. When jealousy strikes

It’s normal for people in FWBs to experience a range of emotions, but one that often comes as a surprise is jealousy, especially as it appears in the context of a non-exclusive arrangement. “Understanding the stories behind each emotion can help manage the situation more effectively,” says Dr. Moali. “For example, two people may see their ‘friend with benefits’ with another partner and both feel uncomfortable. One may feel disrespected while the other feels hurt.”

Understanding the underlying reason for the jealousy will also help inform how you reset boundaries within your FWB relationship. “Having those crystal-clear boundaries is one of the most important things you can do to prevent either of you from hurting one another,” says Dr. Lawless.

2. When you want to explore a new relationship

Having a FWB relationship can make dating other people challenging. “It may keep you from exploring a relationship that may be ideal for you, or it may be a turn-off to a potential romantic partner,” says Dr. Lawless. “If you want to explore a romantic relationship in the future, outside of your FWB, understand that it’s not without complications.” Again here, communication is key. The more open and honest you can be upfront with your FWB, the better the odds are that you can remain friends when your sexual relationship ends.

3. When romantic feelings develop

Even the most well-intentioned FWB partnerships can find themselves dealing with this scenario. “Despite the intention to remain just friends, it is possible, even common, for people to develop affection when they have regular sexual encounters,” says Dr. Moali. Although she cautions ever trying to change a partner’s mind or persuading them to commit, these emotions shouldn’t be swept under the rug. “If this happens, acknowledge the neurochemical changes in the brain that can lead to these feelings and approach them with self-compassion and curiosity,” she says. “Ask yourself what it is about the arrangement that is intriguing—are you interested in this particular person, or do you find the idea of being in this context attractive?”

Lawless adds that if one partner develops feelings that another can’t reciprocate, the lack of mutual feelings can be too painful to process.

“Sex with a friend will change your relationship and in some cases ruin it,” she says. “Understand the risks you are taking, and do some of that work up front. Consider ahead of time how you would like to manage such emotions if they arise. Determine whether you would feel comfortable sharing your feelings with your partner or prefer to process them independently. Open and honest communication with your FWB partner, and yourself, is the key to making it work.”

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