Reader question #107: Can friends-with-benefits work? (A qualified yes).

Superman and Wonderwoman companionably grab each other's asses.Dear Captain Awkward,

It was perhaps my hookup starved, commitment-phobe, idealistic and naïve side that encouraged me to start a Friends With Benefits thing. Obviously there was the consent of The Friend, but prior to our first, drunken “Oh, what? We’re making out?”-night that began FWB, I had given the whole concept some thought and considered him as a viable candidate. (Cue lightbulb thought that I am insane.) So obviously, mid-fun this is awesome, I can hook up with someone I like and trust and can talk to, and I don’t need to shower more often for or hang out with him when it’s inconvenient for me or expend a lot of emotional energy on besides friend-emotions. FWB not only means no icky-boring boyfriend situation, but no need to look for random dudes/d-bags at bars and parties! Seems perfect!

However, I am both paranoid and awkward. I don’t have a great track record in ending things/flings. I watched “No Strings Attached” and lamented the fact that they ruined a great thing with emotions. Augh. I barely have enough time to hang out with my friends let alone let FWB rom-com its way into a real relationship! I think I’ve been clear with him that I’m only interested in FWB and that is what we have agreed on, and I think he knows me well enough to know that I am not a secret hoarder of “The Notebook”-like fantasies. HOWEVER, I am a little worried that he might like me too much. I went home for the summer which afforded some metaphorical cooling down, but also allowed me to obsessively recall the details of the hookups and wonder if The Friend might be too attached.

Full disclosure: he was interested romantically in me last year. He got over that, but a few of the things he’s said while we’re naked-talking gave me pause and made me a little worried that he might at some point want more than FWB. A couple of my friends (who do not go to the university he and I go to) have said that perhaps I should cut it off if he’s actually more interested in me than I am in him. If he’s interested in more than FWB,  it would be unfair to him. Also to my nerves. Whatever happens (and FWB all end someday right?) I’d like to stay friends, and I know this kind of thing IS

possible. (I’m pretty good friends with an ex-boyfriend. This is something I am capable of.) If things DO start going in a direction I can’t commit to, do you have any advice on how to keep The Friend part without the Benefits?

Sincerely,

Definitely Not in a Rom-Com

 

Dear Definitely:

For someone who is not so invested in this relationship and writing this while home from college for the summer, you are the one who is agonizing about it from afar.

I think friends-with-benefits can work, sometimes, for some people.  Not everyone who makes you feel happy feelings in your pants or even lights up your heart is destined to be half of a functional couple (which can be a very heartbreaking and hard lesson to learn). In trying to develop a Universal Theory of UmmmFriends, here’s what stands out to me as ways to improve your chances:

1.  You actually are friends and treat each other with respect, kindness, and good manners.

2.  You are honest with yourself and your partner about your feelings and can set good boundaries for yourself in how you interact.

3. It is a *real* relationship, it’s just not one that expects exclusivity, provides a guaranteed date for family weddings, or involves a plan for a future together.  So you need to be open to the  amazing emotional stuff that can happen between two people when they have sex and able accept a certain amount of possible ambiguity and awkwardness as a given. As in, it’s impossible to predict and control how you will feel and your emotions may expand and contract. As in, some days you may fuck so truly and so well that your heart will overflow with it, but that doesn’t always mean you should become a couple.  The more you celebrate what’s working about it and let it be what it is and the less you define it in terms of what it isn’t, the happier you’ll be.

4.  You don’t try to manage the other person’s emotions for them. (Boundaries!)

5. You can have actual out loud conversations with the other person about what is going on, rather than conversations inside your head where you fill in what the other person is thinking or leave it up to magical chance and being “swept away.”  Checking-in is always part of a good sexual relationship.  In the moment, it’s “Does this feel good/are you enjoying this/should I keep going?”  In general, it’s “Are you happy with this?  Is this what you want?  Is there something you need?”  If you can’t honestly check in with the other person, you shouldn’t be fucking.

6.  You have to acknowledge the inherently temporary nature of this kind of relationship.  In most cases, a happy friends-with-benefits relationship is one that naturally runs its course. Either it turns into something else, or one or both of you meets someone else. (If you’re the exception to this rule, I salute you).

Anyway, #4  and #5 are where you’re going wrong.

Your sex-boy is a grownup, yes?  He told you he was romantically interested and you said “No” and then you worked out this arrangement?

  • Stop talking to your friends about what you should do and obsessing about how it’s going to work out.  Are you friends?  Are you fucking?  Is that making you happier than you would be if you weren’t friends/fucking/friends-who-fuck?  Then it’s working out. When it stops making you happier, stop fucking.
  • Stop obsessing over old hook-ups, unless you are masturbating.
  • Stop trying to preemptively control or manage this guy’s feelings.  As long as you are honest about what you want and consistent and respectful in how you behave toward him, and that you own your own feelings, you are fine.
  • Stop having conversations inside your head about what you think he’s thinking and just ask him what he’s thinking.
  • Don’t make your own anxieties and uncomfortable emotions into HIS anxieties to make them safer for you to process. That’s called projection.
  • If you don’t want to continue the relationship, your greatest chance of continuing the friendship is to tell him honestly – “That was super-fun, but I think we should knock it off now.  Can we hang out as friends instead?”
  • If he tries to steer it into the dating place, talk to him honestly about that.  “I feel like you are trying to steer this to a boyfriend/girlfriend place, and I still don’t think that’s going to happen for us.  Are you still ok with that?”

Honesty and respect.  Confidence and joy. Talking out loud with words.

I’m glad we had this talk.

8 comments
  1. k said:

    I think FWB relationships and dating relationships have something really important in common: people have to stop stressing about the ultimate outcome and “how it will all turn out”. If you’re already playing 10-dimensional chess and trying to game things out so that afterwards, you’ll be able to be friends, I’m pretty sure you’ve forgotten that there is an actual entire other person involved in the situation. Know what I mean??? Relationships are always hugely unpredictable.

    By the way, I really empathize with this tendency to overthink it. But trust me it just does not help.

    • JenniferP said:

      Spot-on. “How can I do something risky and amazing with another human being and still maintain 100% control of the situation and their feelings?” Answer: YOU CAN’T STOP TRYING.

  2. kate said:

    Great advice, as usual. But I think you’re also falling afoul of #3.

    You have a great friendship, plus great benefits, which means moments of wonder when he is whupped upside the head by how amazing and beautiful you are and wonders whether the relationship couldn’t/shouldn’t be the fairy tale/rom com kind are all but inevitable — certainly pretty reasonable. But you’re reacting those moments (vigilantly guarding against them?) as a possible violation of the terms of engagement. “OMG — he’s looking at me/talking as if he really cares!!!! Like he loves me!!! Shit!!! He’s not allowed to do that!!!”

    Loving you is not a breach of your deal. It’s only a breach if he starts expecting you to do something about it that you have made clear you are not willing to do, and laying pressure/guilt on you for not meeting those unilaterally revised expectations.

  3. Rose said:

    No one can promise not to FEEL whatever (love, too much like), and I’m not so sure there’s anything terrible about loving a FWB, provided you don’t change the rules on them. You can love a friend you don’t sleep with, right? And you can change the rule by mutual consent. I think LW is trying too hard to make sure her FWB doesn’t feel too much, when in fact, all any of us can control is our behaviour.

  4. Christen said:

    Man, nothing makes me crazier than making myself clear with someone and then having them tell me how I REALLY feel. In addition to asking him how he feels rather than making assumptions, you should address the things he’s said/done that give you pause and own your discomfort about them: “I know you were all afterglow-y the other night when you said x, but I’ve felt a little weird about it since then. Can you tell me what you meant exactly?” or “Behavior y is nice in a way but a little clingy and I don’t think I like it. Can you cut it out?”

    Of course, this advice also applies to romantic relationships and totally platonic friendships. One issue with FWB situations is that people have different expectations about what is appropriate between *friends*. The things he’s saying/doing that strike you as clingy and too boyfriendy may well be him just be the way he treats any good friend, or getting caught up in a moment. But if they make you feel weird or anxious or irritated, that’s OK.

  5. Shora said:

    Having been in a FWB relationship that I wanted to be more serious and he didn’t, here are some things that I found were extremely important in helping me get over it and staying friends when we knocked it off;

    1. Consistency. Knowing exactly where I stood at all points forstalled a lot of the “What does it mean when he does x, y, z? Does it mean a, b, c? But now he’s doing d, e, f! I AM SO CONFUSED”

    2. Communication. The moment this guy told me straight out “You’re friend zoned, and it is extremely unlikely that we will ever date” Is the moment I was able to move on. It hurt a little, but it was much better for me to stop fretting about “will we, won’t we?” And start worrying about simply being a good friend.

    3. Affection. Just because you don’t want to date this guy and aren’t romantically interested in him doesn’t mean you have to suddenly be a Barren Emotional Wasteland, so that he doesn’t git the Wrong Idea. Complete affectionlessness, or even less than the usual amount of affection makes me bewildered and hurt, which makes me fret and overthink things. I’m not going to suddenly develop Feelings just because we hold hands and cuddle, but I really like doing those things. Also, when the relationship ends, it’s nice to know that I’m still important and valued, even if we’re not dating or having sex.

    I wish you much luck! I know from past and current experience that FWB are lots of fun 😉

  6. Thank you. This is really helpful, and all common-sensy things I know… but it is really helpful to have someone lay it out.

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