What are friends with benefits

output 4 2016 / 4/2016

No obligations: Are “perks” as complicated in real life as they are in a movie?

This article was initially published in English in the English edition (6/2014, edition 21) of In-Mind magazine.

Link to the original article

Many people become “virtuous friends” in order to avoid drama and have sex without being bothered by their emotions. However, the reality shows that such friendships often get complicated. Why is that and is there anything that can be done to get around these difficulties? In this article, we're going to shed some light on what the science is behind when friends decide to have sex.

"No relationship. No feelings. Just sex. Whatever happens, we stay friends."

Jamie (Mila Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake) in "Friends With Benefits" negotiate the rules of their sexual agreement while swearing on an iPad Bible.

Relationships of the type “friends with certain advantages” or “friendship plus” have become more and more common in recent decades. This is supported by data from the General Social Survey, which shows that among college students surveyed between 1988 and 1996, 55.7% reported having had sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Among students surveyed between 2002 and 2010, this number increased to 68.6% (Monto & Carey, 2013). As the “Friendship Plus” concept has grown in popularity, the media portrayal of this type of relationship has also increased, as shown in the well-known films “Friendship Plus” and “Friends with Benefits”. These and other media depictions of “Friendships Plus” suggest that they tend to follow a certain process: While two friends meet to drink, they talk about how complicated and mixed up sex and relationships can be. These two friends then come to the conclusion that the problem can be solved by separating sex and feelings and just having sex with each other. Things take their course and everything looks pretty exciting for a while. Nevertheless, everything inevitably gets mixed up because the partners cannot hold back their feelings. Looks familiar somehow? It should, because this storyline has been shown repeatedly in films.

Image from Unsplash via Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/de/paar-afrikanische-gl%C3%BCcklich-mann-1030744/), CCO (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed. de) Does a “friendship plus” typically look the same in real life? Research suggests that “friendships plus” often turn out differently in real life than they do in films. People can have very different motivations for and expectations of “Friendships Plus”, which can mean that these relationships can take very different paths. Even so, the films get one thing right: managing a relationship in the “Friendship Plus” sense tends to be quite complicated.

What is "Friendship Plus" anyway?

In the mass media, "Friendships Plus" are invariably presented in such a way that friendship existed first and that this friendship is an essential part of the relationship. In everyday use, however, people define and use the term “friendship plus” or “friends with certain benefits” in many different ways. For example, Paul Mongeau and colleagues (2013) asked 177 heterosexual college students to describe the term “friendship plus” in their own words. After analyzing the content of all the definitions submitted, the researchers found that there are actually seven different types of “Friendship Plus”. These differ in how the partners placed the emphasis on sex versus friendship, how often they interacted with each other, and what they hoped to draw from the relationship in the long term. These seven variants of "Friendship Plus" included:

1. True friends: When two previously friends decide to have sex with each other, like in the movie. This type was most frequently reported by the participants as having already been experienced.
2. Just having sex: When two people "make out" with each other from time to time but are not really friends.
3. Network opportunism: When two people agree to serve each other as “backups” in situations where neither can find another partner for the evening.
4. Successful Transition: When someone intentionally uses a Friendship Plus as a stepping stone into a committed relationship.
5. Accidental transition: When a "Friendship Plus" accidentally turns into a steadfast relationship. Most media portrayals end up with the partners entering into some form of committed relationship, even though they originally tried to avoid precisely that.
6. Failed Transition: When someone hopes to use a Friendship Plus as a stepping stone into a committed relationship but is unsuccessful.
7. Transition out: When couples decide to maintain a sexual relationship (sometimes called sex with their ex) after a breakup.Image by Peggy_Marco via Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/de/liebe-treffen-begegnung-kuss-1013703/), CCO (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.de)

As you can see, the term "Friendship Plus" can have more than one meaning! Despite this clear variation, however, scientists have so far examined “Friendship Plus” as a homogeneous group. Hence, one has to wait for future research to be able to say whether certain types of “Friendship Plus” are more or less successful than others.