Peter McGraw addresses a pervasive but under-discussed type of relationship: Friends with Benefits (FWB; i.e., sexual friendships). His guests are drawn from Colorado’s polyamorous community. Obviously, you don’t need to be polyamorous to enjoy beneficial friendships, yet McGraw invited them to join because they are experienced and comfortable talking about unconventional relationships. His guests share stories about their beneficial friendships, what friends with benefits are and aren’t, how it diverges from the relationship escalator, and conclude with some best practices.
Listen to Episode #104 here
FWB: Friends With Benefits
This is the second episode in the series on unconventional relationships. In this one, we tackle a pervasive but under-discussed type of relationship, which is friends with benefits, also known as, sexual friendships. My guests are drawn from Colorado’s polyamorous community. You don’t need to be poly to enjoy beneficial friendships, yet I invited them because these folks are experienced and comfortable talking about unconventional relationships.
My first guest is Noah. While extensively single, he has multiple concurrent long-term relationships as well as friends with benefits and occasional flings. He is an advocate for queer and oppressed people. He tries to build and strengthen the community wherever he is. He is ex-military, an entrepreneur and is into sewing, DJing, furniture and lamp building. He is originally from the East Coast. He’s been in Colorado for years.
My second guest is Laura. She’s a child-free, sex-positive solo polyamorous who enjoys first dates, job interviews and crafting complex spreadsheets for pleasure and profit. When not traveling to experience different cultures, she finds great meaning in investing in her relationships with herself and others. She lives in the Denver Burbs. Laura and Noah share stories about their beneficial friendships. We discuss what friends with benefits is and what isn’t. We talk about how it diverges from the relationship escalator and conclude with some of Laura and Noah’s best practices. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Welcome, Noah and Laura.
Thanks for having me.
I’m thrilled to be here. I always say that but I mean it this time. You two are following an episode about an unconventional style of relationship that has grown in prominence. It’s an arrangement between a sugar baby and a sugar daddy, sugar mama or sugar mommy. I had a sugar babysitting right where you are, Noah and my cohost was sitting right where you are, Laura. We’re in my new studio. It’s great. I’m very excited to have it.
We’re here to talk about another type of unconventional relationship, one that’s been around for a long time but allegedly was given its name by Alanis Morissette in 1995 with the song Head Over Feet. I’m going to read you some of the lyrics. She says, “You are the bearer of unconditional things. You held your breath and the door for me. Thanks for your patience. You’re the best listener that I’ve ever met. You’re my best friend, best friend with benefits. What took me so long?” I don’t know if it’s true that was where the name came from.
That’s the first time somebody wrote a song about it at least.
I don’t know. That Afternoon Delight song seems like it could be a friends with benefits kind of thing. We’re here to talk about friends with benefits, FWB or what others, especially those who care about technical accuracy, call sexual friendships. Let’s define what friends with benefits is. I don’t know if you have a working definition of it. I’ll offer one if I may and that is friends who are sexually but not romantically involved.
It’s helpful to use contrast because there isn’t a good working definition and usually, I use romantic as the contrast, so I like that definition.
It is why sexual friendship is the technically accurate correct term that’s there. Let’s give people a little bit of a flavor for what we’re going to get into. Let’s talk about some of your experiences with beneficial friends, which is my invented term.
My actual entry into my sexual awakening, let’s say, was in friends with benefits relationship. It started like a Seinfeld episode where I was dating this person who was me with a beard. We were way too similar. It seemed great at first and then it got old quickly. The romantic relationship didn’t last and then we went our separate ways. We came back together and have a great friendship still but one of the problems with our romantic relationship because we were both so similar. There was a lot of pressure, and neither of us was sexually experienced or aggressive. It didn’t happen.
There was all this tension and worry about that. It seemed like such a big deal and then when we were friends. It was like, “Do you want to have sex?” I was like, “I do. Thank you for asking. I appreciate it.” My beneficial friend asked me. We became friends with benefits. That was my entry into relationships in general. That worked so much better. There were already lots of trusts there. It was a lovely experience.
I didn’t know this but you seem well-qualified. From jump street, you were doing an FWB. Was it a big ask or a small ask? Was it production or one of these like, “What do you say?”
Since we were just friends, it wasn’t a production. That was the difference. That’s why it hadn’t happened before and then did happen once all of that expectation was removed of the long-term or romantic relationship.
Did it go well? Did it last for a long time? I assume that has paved the way for this to be part of your relationship repertoire.
Yes. There was experiential learning there from the get-go.
Are you still friends?
Yes, we are.
Do you still have benefits?
We no longer live close enough to but that’s another, in my opinion, a great benefit of this relationship dynamic. It works well for long distances. Long-distance romantic relationships are hard. Having friends with benefits, maybe you won’t see them for a month, a quarter, a year or a decade and that’s okay. You can re-get together again and maybe rekindle those benefits or not. Not having that pressure is great.
We’re going to talk about this issue of continuity momentarily. I’m happy to hear that you still got a chance. How about you, Noah?
I’ve had several friends with benefits throughout my life. I lost my virginity to one of my friends back in high school. It was too much pressure finding someone to date but I was like, “Where were all these people when I had the opportunity?” There are varying levels of success and enjoyment but for the most part, I find it to be a healthy and helpful relationship style.
Can you give us an example of one of these? I know you have lots to choose from.
There are certain people that I’ve met and like you, there’s some interest in a relationship but it’s not quite sticky or strong enough to perpetuate a romantic relationship. There’s some fun and communication. At some point, it’s like, “Do you want to get down?” It works.
In both of these cases, you’ve described this as there’s some connection and then it becomes a plus.
It also works out well for me. There have been several people that I’ve tried to date and at a certain point, we’re like, “This isn’t working from a relationship point of view but I still like you and spend time with you. Sex is fun and we both are horny, so why don’t we dial back our relationship expectations and still keep in what works?”
Feel free to jump in with other stories and anecdotes as we go. The first question is, is the friend a true friend in the following way? Anybody who’s a frequent reader of the show knows how much I care about friends. I believe that friends are especially important and as a result, you should know what a friend is, what qualifies someone to be a good friend or someone worth having in your life. A good friend provides value in some way, shape or form and that could be vast. They could be fun to go to concerts with, a good hiking partner or a confidant. The list is endless.
They’re high integrity, so they are reliable and trustworthy. They’ll keep your secrets and show up when they say they’re going to show up. You will be familiar with this given your background but they show anti-jealousy or what’s called compersion. As a friend, they’re happy when you’re successful and they’re sad when you’re not. They’re not trying to outdo you or competing with you in this relationship. For friends with benefits partners, in your opinion, do they still need to qualify for those three criteria?
We need to add another category, which would be romantic relationships, friends with benefits and then the booty call. I am very much of it. It helps when you’re trying to get to a definition of what isn’t this.
What isn’t a booty call?
In that kind of situation, you don’t have all those beautiful things you mentioned in a friendship inherently. Maybe that would blossom out of a booty call relationship. I welcome other terms if we have them but this is a sexual relationship.
There’s bang buddy, a one-night stand or hook up. The list goes on and on. Those people are not typically friends. That’s a sexual relationship.
I’ve known people to be very antagonistic to each other but also, every once in a while, hook up with malice.
It’s called hate sex.
I do like those criteria that you set up for a friendship. If you can’t rely on someone to show up when they say they’re going to be there for you emotionally or care positively about the things in your life that are positive, then they’re not your friend. On top of that for friends with benefits situations, I would also add sexual chemistry or compatibility. It is very important that you are friends first and sexual partners second. You are friends first and then you have your benefits. If your friendship can’t stand on its own, then you’re just fuck buddies. You’re something else.
If you remove the sex, the relationship could stand on its own.
I don’t disagree that is a great way to do it. I like that idea. I’m personally very bad at one-night stands because I’m going to have a one-night stand but then when I meet your dog, you tell me a few jokes and you feed me, you’re not getting rid of me then and we become amazing friends. I have quite a few friendships and friends with benefits that have started that way. Would I recommend that to people? Maybe not but it works a lot for me.
You’re pulling back on this idea that in some cases, you remove the sex, and there’s not enough on the value side to keep this friendship going.
That could happen but not generally. The situation I described, that’s not friends with benefits until the friendship does develop and then you have all these beautiful qualities you outlined but the origin or the beauty of it is the flexibility to come at it from either side of we were friends first and we added benefits or we were romantic or sexual and then we decided that the maximum of this relationship could be turned out to be a friends with benefits situation.
Both of those stories we started at the outset that you told. You were friends with someone and they were like, “What do you say?” What you were describing Laura is sometimes, it starts sexually and then you get fed.
I’m a simple person. As an adult, I find that it’s harder to make friends. There are two main ways I make friends. That’s the office and dating sites, specifically online dating sites where I say, “I’m looking for someone to be romantic/sexual with.” I’m going to meet these new people I’ve never met before. We’re going to get to know each other. Sometimes, we’re going to end up as friends or just a hookup. It can become anything it needs to become but that’s one of the main ways I meet new people.
I was reflecting on this. I met a woman on an app. I have a picture of a comedian on my profile and me. It’s the only picture of me with someone else. The caption is, “I have at least one friend.” This woman said, “My roommate wants to double date with the two of you.” I said, “I can’t. He’s not available. He lives in LA.” I sent him a text and said, “When are you going to be in town?”
I was like, “Hold on. Let me figure this out.” I was surprised at how few single guys I know at this moment I would invite for a double date and then I was thinking about the number of single women that I know. If the woman was bisexual, we could easily pull this off but many of those women I met online dating weren’t the right fit but why let them go?
This goes to the relationship escalator metaphor. That’s because you’re not going to get on that escalator and end up at the epitome of what you could or couldn’t be. You can still let the relationship develop organically and be what it is or what it can be. You don’t want to force it to be something it’s not and you don’t want to kick that person out of your life just because they don’t fit into that box. That’s where this category of beneficial friends comes from. We’re taking the great stuff of friendship. It’s one of the benefits of a romantic sexual relationship, combining that and molding it into what fits best between us two.
Let’s talk about the relationship escalator. It is relevant here, especially as we’re nailing this definition of what is friends with benefits and what is it not. Amy Gahran, the interpreter of this framework, talks about these hallmarks. One of them is romantic and sexual monogamy. The next one is special status. That escalator relationship sits above all other adult relationships and then the last one is continuity or consistency. It starts and ideally, it never ends until someone dies.
Even momentum is part of it. I don’t know if she specifically calls that out. The way I always explain the escalator to people is it’s moving, it’s going upwards or it’s broken.
You’re advancing until you get to a certain point where there’s no more advancing to be done. You’re living together. You merge your identities, finances and lives. Let’s look at the friends with benefits relationship about these hallmarks. Let’s start with the first one. They’re monogamy, romantic and sexual or it’s not necessarily romantic.
It’s not specifically unromantic. You have to have some chemistry with that person but it’s not roses, wine and all the typical trappings that we think of. It can be whatever you like doing with your friends and then sex or sex first if you’re in a time crunch.
You could play red light green light with the romance like, “I need a plus one to the holiday party. Let’s go out. We will have some wine, dress up and hold hands.” You’d be like, “Let’s play beer pong after,” or whatever you normally do as friends. There’s no expectation of continued romance.
Let’s talk about monogamy. My sense is it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for friends with benefits. You could have monogamous friends with benefits situation or you could have a non-monogamous one.
I don’t know if I would use the word monogamous friends with benefits. You might have sexually mutual exclusive friends with benefits but I don’t know if that meets the definition of monogamy.
The definition of monogamy is perverse. You’re not allowed to have sexual relationships with other people but it doesn’t guarantee sexual relationships between the two people. Monogamy is about what you can’t do and not what you can do. What is the nature of your beneficial friendships? Do they tend to be monogamous or non-monogamous?
I have friends with benefits relationships with monogamous people at the time that we are friends with benefits. It’s the benefits part that can turn on and off for them because they are monogamous. They can enter into a romantic or maybe long-term relationship and then we need to adjust our relationship because they are no longer at liberty to have friends with benefits relationship.
These are serially monogamous. They’re monogamous with you, then they meet someone and then they turn the sex switch off. I assume that you’re a patient woman. If it doesn’t work out, they flip the switch again.
She doesn’t have to be monogamous with them. She can have other friends with benefits.
Is that something you negotiate, disclose and talk to them about prior to getting together?
That’s the way you should do it. The one caveat I always say about a friends with benefits relationship is you don’t normally plan it. I’m usually very intentional about my romantic or sexual relationships but this is one where I thought it was going to be a thing but it turns out it’s not that thing. It’s friends with benefits and that’s great but there’s a lot less negotiation that goes on beforehand. It would be lovely if that were possible. It’s never too late to communicate those things but sometimes, you stumble into it.
Before I had an ethically non-monogamous lifestyle when I was monogamous, I had friends with benefits and tried to play by those rules. I only had one at a time and then if something happened and either myself or that person was to say, “I started dating someone and it’s getting serious. I need to put the sexual aspects of our friendship on hold,” we would do that. There’s going to be some frustration, some unmet needs or something along the lines but if your friendship is strong enough and that friendship can stand on its own, then you will continue to still be friends even though you can’t or don’t have sex with each other.
This brings us to the next idea about continuity. In an escalator, once you become exclusive, it’s supposed to continue. There are no, “We’re taking a break.” To take a break within an escalator relationship is incredibly threatening. Separations are threatening. The sense of talking through the examples that you’re giving so far is that there’s quite a lot of flexibility when it comes to consistency or continuity in an FWB.
For me, flexibility has led to a lot of sustainability. Maybe that’s different than continuity because there are breaks. However, the friendship is continuous. Even though the relationship is constantly changing, it’s much more sustainable because it has the flexibility to change with people’s needs.
It’s a quote from Amy or maybe someone else but the people in the relationship are more important than the relationship itself. If what you’re doing is mutually beneficial, then continue to do it regardless of the bounds of the relationship. That brings up comets. They are people who are in your life for either a very short period or only every once in a great while. I may have a friend with benefits who I might only see once every few years or once every few months. Our friendship remains unchanged during that time and then suddenly I’m in town or she’s in town. We can connect physically for a while and then maybe the comet moves on to another galaxy.
It is interesting how friendships are so malleable in ways that romantic relationships are not. I have friends that we could not talk to for 1 year or not see each other for 2 years. There are no hard feelings. There’s still great affection. Nothing has changed at all. Nothing has been diminished by the fact that we have not been in contact, so I do get the sense, especially these comet style friends with benefits situations that it should have some good foundation from a friendship standpoint that has some feeling of continuity where there’s not like, “Where have you been? Why haven’t I heard from you? Why haven’t you called?”
Sometimes, your lives go in different directions for a while and you don’t hear or even think about each other for a while, then you meet up randomly in the world and suddenly, that connection is right back where you left off and that’s fun.
The last one is this idea of hierarchy or special status. Even when someone wants to ride the escalator, they don’t elevate this friends with benefits relationship to their most important adult-adult relationship. Is there a notion of hierarchy or greater status because your genitals happened to touch on occasionally?
Perhaps and unfortunately, friendships typically in the traditional monogamous structure of America typically exist below “your normal romantic sexual relationships” but your friends with benefits might even be a little bit higher than your normal friends if you value that sexual activity more so than the normal non-sexual stuff you do with your other friends.
In a heteronormative society, we aren’t programmed to make our friends compete against each other. Let’s be clear. You got your best friend. People hang out with more or less or friends that go way back or new friends but there’s less of this, “This is the one.” There’s less language around that and less pressure to compare and contrast one friendship to another. I don’t place those relationships above other friendships that don’t have benefits.
Frankly, I don’t even like the term best friend. I’m like, “I don’t want to choose.”
Once you get out of middle school, the concept of a best friend is not helpful.
It could be if this person is a true partner in life. This does happen. I had Rhaina Cohen talking about platonic partnerships and in that case, that best friend truly is the best friend. They are the equivalent of a life partner, so I believe it can happen. I want to get back into some of these other things and talk to you about your perspective a little bit. I’m having a debate with a former girlfriend and now friend.
She’s a beneficial friend but she says she’s not and here’s what it is. We are intimate. We hold hands, cuddle and do this thing that she calls chesticle-nesticle. It’s quite adorable. She lays her head on my chest as we lay down. That certainly crosses a boundary that friends don’t normally cross but as I’ve been making the genital joke, nothing is happening there. She’s like, “No. There has to be sex for it to be friends with benefits.”
Then, I’d say, how do you define sex? We can have a whole hour on that.
In that regard, the friends with benefits definition don’t do justice. I have a friend who does my hair and then I give her a massage. Those are benefits to our friendship on top of the other random, cool stuff that we do as friends. We trade services and we’re both better off for it. Those are benefits to our relationship but they’re in no way sexual.
We go back. Do we like the term friends with benefits or do we like sexual friendships?
Friends with benefits is a nice way to say sexual friendship and in that way, she’s correct and I’m incorrect. I knew that was going to be the case.
If you consider that sex, it’s sex.
I don’t. Do you have more thoughts on either continuity or this idea about non-monogamy? These are two of the ways that these things can reveal the flexibility that a beneficial friendship can have.
They stand changing life circumstances very well. I had a gentleman who I was very interested in all the ways. We started dating and then he decided he wanted to join the clergy in a religion that wanted him to not have sex. Call me superficial but that was a little bit of a deal-breaker for me. We continued to remain friends. He was going through this very transformative experience. It was wonderful being his friend at this time. We became very close and talked about theology. It was wonderful but then he decided the clergy wasn’t for him and I was there and ready.
Let’s talk about chicken and eggs for a moment. We’ve already alluded to this a little bit. Laura, you’ve had situations where the sex is the egg and the friendship is the chicken. You have the egg and then here it comes to the chicken. Both of you have talked about the chicken and then you get a little egg. Is there a better model? Is there one that you think is more common?
I’ve had this happen where there is some chemistry and interest but we weren’t friends. We didn’t hook up right away. We started dating, flirting and then we realized together and agreed, which is helpful, that this didn’t have an escalator future. It turned into a beneficial friendship. The escalator started, stalled out and then this better outcome happened because if we had tried to ride it, it would have failed.
As far as which is better, I don’t think either is inherently better. Some work better for certain people. It sounds like Noah greatly prefers having a friend first and then adding the benefits later. That’s great. A common model is you’re still sleeping with your ex. You don’t hate your ex. You have a wonderful history with that person. You have a lot of closeness and a shared history.
You’ve broken up but you’re saying, “You’re still a good person. I value having you in my life. Our genitals like each other, so let’s keep that going.” That’s a very common way of entering into a friendship with benefits. If you’re thinking about which ways are most common, I don’t know. We need to talk about that one. It’s a very common experience.
I don’t get the sense that there’s one right way to do it but it is interesting. If I hear you correctly, Laura, what you were saying is to know yourself. Know what works for you, what feels right for you, what have other kinds of relationships like this might’ve looked like and what feels comfortable if you’ve never done it before and want to try it.
My most common way of entering into a friends with benefits situation is attempting to date someone and then somewhere along the line, you realize that it’s not going to work out. You’re not going to get on the escalator together for whatever reason but you still have enough in common to continue being friends and to continue rubbing your genitals to each other.
There’s very little research on this. I always do a deep dive into the topics that I’m looking at. This was a study in 2009 called Archives of Sexual Behavior. I’m not going to say it’s a great study but it’s data. This is by Bisson and Levine. They looked at college students. You might not be surprised to hear this but college students do this a whole lot.
1 in 3 had current friends with benefits situation. One of the questions they asked was, “What happened to it?” 29% said it went on indefinitely, 36% stayed friends but stopped having sex, 10% became romantic and started dating and 26% said the relationship ended. On balance with these college students, 3 out of the 4 of those are quite favorable. I don’t think that when relationships end, it’s necessarily bad. I don’t want to say that the fourth one is negative per se but the majority of those had a positive outcome and these are college kids who are not super experienced with relationships.
An experience with relationships might be why the friends with benefits work so well because if you don’t know how to date or how to be dateable, then you might default to someone with who you just have camaraderie and also an attraction.
One of the benefits of friends with benefits was it keeps you out of trouble.
Having friends with benefits helps avoid jumping into long-term relationships too quickly just to end a dry spell. It takes that desperation out of it, which is a plus.
For some people, sex is a major motivator, so if you’re not having sex, you may be motivated to have sex and one of the best ways to get sex is to get involved romantically with someone. What’s fascinating about the escalator is that a certain amount of non-monogamy can be tolerated as long as you’re working towards finding the right person. This idea of seeking romance to get sex is a common tool for people who just want the sex but that leads to a lot of sometimes hard feelings, dishonesty and so on because the person is like, “I want to date,” but that’s not necessarily the case.
You’re gaslighting someone to think that you’re serious about the relationship just because you’re interested in the physical aspects when that’s not true.
As a younger man, I’ve done that and I’m deeply embarrassed and regretful for having done it.
You’re confusing and lying to yourself too, not just to other people.
Also, consider the largely Christian and religious aspects of our society where they tell you that you are not supposed to have sex until you’re with the one you’re going to marry.
Love opens the door. There’s another study from Lehmiller, VanderDrift and Kelly in 2011. This is in The Journal of Sex Research that looked at a friends with benefits relationship and found a gender difference. That’s low-hanging fruit. As a reminder to everyone, whenever I talk about gender differences, the genders are more alike than they are different, so whenever you find a difference, it’s usually rather small, although it may be measurable. In general, men and women are more alike than they are different when it comes to these things.
You’re not going to be surprised to know this one. The men were more interested in sex and the women were more interested in friendship and emotional connection. That’s a self-report of the people who are involved in this. One of the cool things about it was the commitment to both the sex and the friendship were very high in general for these participants and they were more committed to the friendship. It’s probably the best way to go about doing it where they’re like, “Let’s keep the friendship intact regardless of what happens.”
If you’re willing to blow up your friendship just to get into your friend’s pants, you’re not that person’s friend. It is important to be explicit about what your needs and expectations are. One of my longest and most fulfilling relationships comes from us being friends, going out doing friend stuff, having a lot of fun and then one day, I was like, “Do you want to fuck?” She was like, “Yeah,” and then we did. It was awesome. Our relationship continued to develop, grow, deepen and it’s wonderful. It was then too but now even more so.
When you asked for what you wanted in this situation, did you have a hunch that the answer was going to be yes?
There was a little bit of risk to it but you had a sense that it was going to be affirmative.
We had been flirty and used a lot of innuendoes to be fun. At a certain point, I was like, “Do you want to add this to our friendship?” It worked.
Let’s talk a little bit about that. It was friends first and benefits second in this case. You asked and you got a yes. Was there more conversation? Was there negotiation? How did you set the stage for this transition?
When you enter into any sexual relationship, it’s important to be explicit about your past, STI status, even get checked and know for yourself. Know what your needs are and find out what the other person’s needs and interests are. Compare notes and then go from there.
You talk about condoms and getting tested. If you have an STI, you should disclose it. Would you add anything to this? Do you have your own best practices, Laura?
I do. It’s easy to conflate the frequency of the sex in your friends with benefits relationship with the quality or the health of the friendship. I don’t want people to fall into that track. That means they’re doing great. Our relationship is better because we’re having more sex. I want to warn people not to do that or think like, “They haven’t been interested in sex with me in a while. Our friendship must be suffering,” which is not inherently true. It could be an indication of something wrong but that’s a good way to start spiraling, second-guessing and worrying about things that don’t have to do with the friendship itself.
Let’s talk this through for a moment. I have limited experiences with friends with benefits. I have had two. They went for quite a long time and they were incredibly fulfilling. I have a great fondness for my partners but I saw them infrequently, so maybe once a week or rarely twice a week. It was more of a regular where we have a day together. I’m going to tease some bonus material. I’m going to talk to you about one of my greatest inventions. It’s called the Health and Wellness Day that came out of one of these friends with benefits situations. Given my limited experience, there was no conflating in the frequency because it was almost regular. Maybe, when we were busy traveling or something like that, there would be an extra week.
The meetups and sex were on the same rhythm.
The worry is that the relationship starts to crowd out other relationships because it might start to get a little of that hierarchy. You’re like, “All things are equal. I can go out with Joe and we can have a beer. I go out with Jane.” What you’re saying also is like, “I’m not in the mood. Things aren’t right.” How do you have those conversations like that? I can imagine that being a threatening situation, especially if you’re a subscriber to Noah’s belief about friends first. What do you do?
Communicate. I have had a similar experience to this. It followed more of the, “It feels like you’re pulling away because we haven’t been meeting up as often. What is that?” “I didn’t know how to have this conversation to approach the subject with you but I am entering into a monogamous relationship with someone else and I thought you would react badly. I didn’t want that confrontation, so I slowly started stepping backward.”
In that instance, it ended up great. I was like, “I’m super happy for you. I would love to continue being friends with you,” but there was this big worry that, first of all, the sex ending would mean the friendship would have to end and not knowing there are so few models for having that conversation. It worked out but there have been other instances where all of a sudden, someone has stopped getting back to you. They’re like, “I’m in a romantic relationship.” “I thought this friendship was important to you. It turns out it wasn’t and I’m hurt.”
Let me do a quick PSA. If you change your behavior, your friends will notice. You’re communicating without communicating when you change your behavior. In episode 100, we talked about ghosting and power parting. Power parting is the opposite of ghosting. It’s a continuum for ghosting. It’s in between simmering and icing.
Power parting is simply, “Laura, I’ve enjoyed spending time with you. You’re a good friend. It’s a little apprehensive for me to say this but I’ve met someone else. We started dating. I started to get serious and I couldn’t maintain two sexual relationships at the same time. I wanted you to know about that. I feel like I need to end the sexual element of our friends with benefits.” You wait and hope for the best. Normally, it’s more of a clean break as Esther Perel talks about it, which is like, “You’re a nice person. I’ve enjoyed our time together but I don’t think this is the right fit. I want to wish you the best out there.”
I much prefer that. Power parting gives a negative connotation for me, at least. It sounds more like being super truthful, straightforward and advocating for your own needs and wants, then hoping that the other person receives it well.
The power part in a sexual friendship is different. First of all, no one goes, “I want to keep banging but we can’t be friends anymore.” That rarely happens but the other one is, “I’d like us to remain friends but we have to stop the banging.”
I’ve had that conversation. Most of the time, it goes well.
Laura, do you have some other best practices?
Understand the normal romantic relationship dynamics of each person and how that’s going to affect your friends with benefits situation if their romantic life changes. If that person is monogamous and is only having sexual relationships with one person at a time, if they meet someone else in our heteronormative society, usually, that will be placed hierarchically above your friends with benefits. Are you okay with that from the get-go? Whereas that’s not inherently dynamic.
You could be with someone who’s non-monogamous, demisexual or asexual. Maybe their interest in sex at all ebbs and flows and that’s their normal sexual or romantic style. How is that going to affect your friends with benefits relationship? Having that strong friendship certainly helps to have that foundation but knowing and trying to suss out how that’s going to make you feel down the road is a good way to start to avoid some of the pitfalls.
You might have to ask some questions to figure those things out depending on how close the friendship is or was prior to getting involved. You joked about the cliche of communicating but I have come to this conclusion and it has taken me a long time that honesty is the best policy. It’s a very vulnerable policy. You might not get an answer that you like or please the person in the way that you want to but no one can ever accuse you of being low integrity. If you’re friends and you follow my definition of a good friendship, value, integrity and compersion, it demands honesty in a sense. You’re not being a good friend if you’re not being honest with that person. Noah, do you have another best practice that you want to share?
Fortunately, it goes right back to that communication. Be very explicit about your capacity for a relationship. What can that person expect from you within your friends with benefits organization? I had a friend come to me and ask me on a date. I said, “I would love to go on a date with you but my life is hectic. I’ve got all these other things. I’m already dating two people. I would like that but I don’t have the capacity for another full-on romantic relationship. Do you mind if we roll in a little bit of sex and/or kink into our existing relationship?” They said yes and then we did and it was awesome.
Capacity is an interesting word. Also, time and energy.
I like bandwidth but capacity is the noun there too.
If my cup is already full and someone’s trying to pour me another drink, it’s not going to go down. Maybe that metaphor falls more on that.
It’s because you have so much going on. You get so much more, so it’s intoxicating.
That feeds into another note I had on best practices. It’s embracing that there’s no model here and saying, “Here’s a concrete type of relationship you thought you wanted and you asked me for it.” I said, “I can’t give you that but let’s negotiate. Let’s figure out what can work for both of us.” It’s having that flexibility. I keep coming back to flexibility. That’s what I like about it.
It diverges from the escalator in so many ways and there’s no one way that it diverges. I like that too. It’s part of the reason why I wanted you both to share some of your experiences because there are many ways to do it.
Sprinkle in a little romance in there. Do a little chesticle-nesticle.
Show your friends that you care about them, not only inside the bedroom but out.
Let’s be honest. You two are unconventional in the way you go about dating in your relationships given the community you’ve been drawn from. It’s part of the reason I wanted you here because I find that folks who practice non-traditional relationships are incredibly thoughtful about how they do it. They’re good at communicating. They also have a breadth of experience to share. If I had two vanilla serial monogamists in here, it’s going to be a little bit different. They’re more limited in that way. With that said, what features is also a bug and that is you’re advanced in this sense. Someone who has a more traditional focus who is trying to arrive at the escalator and is a serial monogamous, in this way, their capacities to do this might be rather minor in a sense.
If you could speak for them or maybe you were them at one point in time, what do you see are the challenges for that person who’s not as good at communicating and is not as perhaps open to something unconventional but could stand the benefit from considering this because maybe they don’t have a lot of capacity, they’re doing a Ph.D., they have a lot going on or maybe they’re struggling to try to ride the escalator and they have an opportunity or a person who might be a good partner?
Noah touched on it. It’s a good way to build some relationships skills without as much pressure. It’s a way to build sexual skills. We’re assuming these people are open to sex before marriage. It’s a way to dip the toe in, maybe if that’s what you’re into. We’ve all made mistakes because we’ve been learning but to say, “You probably have had a lot of experience with friendships. This is a way to add on training wheels and get a little more mobility or skillset.” Reading this, maybe you feel like you’re going to have all these friends with all these benefits. It’s okay to have one friend with maybe a little bit of benefit. That’s a great place to start.
The word to be on the lookout is what Noah was saying. There is a little bit of flirtation, spark or chemistry there but for whatever reason, you don’t see yourself being a good long-term partner for that person or you don’t see that person being a good long-term partner for you.
The idea of a long-term partner is so big and maybe scary. When you’re starting, that seems such an undertaking, especially the first one or if you think maybe the first one’s going to be one, that’s so much pressure that you’re putting on yourself or that society is putting on you.
There are very few resources out there. I wanted to title this episode as beneficial friends but I’m not. I’m going to call it friends with benefits and the reason is it’s more likely going to be found when people search.
A lot of people know what that term means generally.
I can’t ask you to speak to this necessarily. The other community where this is more prevalent, at least as far as I can tell, especially my conversations offline, is in the gay community. I was having a conversation with a gay man about it and he goes, “It’s pervasive.” The way he described it is out for brunch with six gay men. They’re all friends and he’s like, “That’s my ex and we still have sex sometimes.” These guys used to be together. He was like, “When many of your friends are also the same people or the same gender that you would have sex with, the opportunity goes way up.”
When you think about it within heterosexual relationships, most men have mostly male friends and most women have mostly women friends, so to be friends with benefits, you need to be friends in that sense. If you’re living in a community where it happens to be the case that many of your friends are of the same group that you want to have sex with, your proclivity to have a friends with benefits situation goes up.
That makes sense because I’ve had mostly female friends my entire life and that’s worked out pretty well.
Also, being in a smaller community, you’re most more likely to run into your ex. You can’t write people off as easily because the community is so small. It’s like, “We’re breaking up but we’re both a part of this community. We both have these shared beliefs and lifestyles, so we’re going to maintain some kind of level of interaction. We can’t go nuclear on it.” I find that in the non-monogamy community as well but I assume you’re going to have that to some extent in any non-traditional relationship.
This idea came from an audience question. I have this community that people can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo. One of my members in the channel wrote something along these lines. She said, “I also think there’s a huge difference between heterosexual and homosexual culture when it comes to this. Heterosexual friendships seem to be extremely rare and far more common in the gay male population and somewhat more common with lesbians and bisexual women who have had said sexual friendships with women. There are also differences between monogamous people who have friends with benefits, polyamorous and ENM people who do.”
I would sum up an overarching perspective and speaking a little more than an hour about this probably doesn’t do it enough justice. On one hand, there’s a lot to like about this and in many ways, there are not as many downsides as you might think. However, it’s complex. It seems like one of the more complex types of relationships that you may have versus a bang buddy, which is pretty straightforward. It’s a friendship that is well-established in terms of the norms. An escalator is difficult but straightforward. Do you agree with that assessment that recognizing, negotiating and navigating the complexities of this are real, but it seems to be, in your case, worthwhile?
Yeah. The skills that you learn from being in an ethically non-monogamous community or another community where your pool of datable or sexual partners is smaller than usual or smaller than the wider world, you have to be more diplomatic in those arenas to not burn all your bridges where suddenly, you have no friends and no one left to have sex with. I also want to point out that this can go away. I’ve had very good friends or people that I appreciate and respect and try to introduce a level of intimacy go through that thing of like, “Do you want to bone?” For whatever reason, that goes sour and the whole friendship dissolves. I’m worse off because I tried to have my cake and have sex with it too.
When you’re talking about the gay community, queer community and non-monogamous community, one of the beautiful things about people in these non-traditional relationships is that they were faced with the heteronormative model that Disney sold them about the way relationships should be and they said, “That’s not for me,” and they can put that down. By putting down the social programming, they open themselves up to experiential learning to say, “I tried something like this and it worked. I’m going to try a little harder and do a little better. Friendship first, sex later works better for me or sex first, friendship later works better for me.”
Being a little more intentional but also a little more experimental with that helps navigate this. Pitfalls come up, so you need to understand your relationship with sex and how that is tied together with your understanding of romance and whether those two are inherently linked for you or can be separate. Some people maybe don’t understand that, so they’re trying to figure that out, are confused or get it wrong. Catching feelings or judging yourself for not catching feelings can also be a killer of the friends with benefits dynamic.
Regardless of which of these communities you belong to and we’re talking to some experts here, if this is something that seems worthwhile to consider, experiment with it. Pay attention to how you feel. Work on your communication skills. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Noah, Laura, this was very fun. Thank you for your time.
- Archives of Sexual Behavior
- Sex Differences in Approaching Friends with Benefits Relationships
- Looking Back And Looking Forward – Previous episode
- Making Friends The Center Of Life – Previous episode
- Getting Off The Relationship Escalator – Previous episode
- Seeking Arrangements – Previous episode
Laura is a child-free, sex-positive solo polyamorist who enjoys first dates, job interviews, and crafting complex spreadsheets for pleasure and profit. When not traveling to experience different cultures she finds great meaning investing in her relationships with herself and others.
While ostensibly single, Noah has multiple, concurrent long-term relationships as well as FWB and occasional flings. An advocate for queer and oppressed people, he tries build and strengthen community wherever he is. He is ex-military, an entrepreneur, and is into sewing, DJ-ing, and furniture and lamp building.