Social Psychology

Longitudinal study suggests ‘friends with benefits’ relationships work out best for those hoping to transition to friendship

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A study published in Personal Relationships suggests that a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship only plays out how people want it to 17% of the time. People whose relationships were most likely to evolve how they hoped were those who had anticipated transitioning to a regular friendship.

A friends with benefits relationship (FWBR) is a sexual relationship that typically occurs within the context of friendship but without the commitment of a traditional romantic relationship. Studies suggest that FWBRs are common and may even be rising in popularity among young people. Research also suggests that these relationships carry high levels of uncertainty and tend to be less emotionally and sexually satisfying than traditional romantic relationships. However, there has been little empirical study of how FWBRs develop or culminate in the long-run.

Study authors Laura V. Machia and team point out that these relationships are unique in that they typically evolve into another type of relationship — either a more intimate one (a romantic relationship) or a less intimate one (a regular friendship). This potential to evolve poses a challenge when partners’ desired outcomes do not match. Machia and her fellow researchers wanted to explore how FWBRs progress, and what predictors make them more or less likely to end happily.

An online survey was completed by 192 people currently in a friends with benefits relationship. All subjects were assessed during an initial survey where they were asked certain things about their FWBR, including how they hoped the relationship would evolve — into friendship, into a romantic relationship, dissipate altogether, or stay the same.

Most subjects (48%) hoped their FWBR would stay the same, while a quarter of them (25%) hoped that it would turn into a romantic relationship. Smaller numbers of people wanted it to transition to a regular friendship free of sex (12%) or no relationship at all (4%).

Around 10 months later, subjects took part in a follow-up survey where they were questioned on how their FWBR had evolved. The researchers found that these relationships rarely evolved as subjects had hoped. Subjects’ reported desire for how the FWBR would change only matched the outcome of the relationship (measured 10 months later) 17% of the time.

The ones who were most likely to see the relationship evolve how they wanted it to were those who had hoped it would end in friendship — of those who desired a future friendship, 59% got it. Those who were the least likely to see the relationship outcome they wanted were those who had said they wanted it to transition into romance — only 15% of those who wanted romance saw it happen.

The participants who were most likely to end up in romantic relationships with their FWBR partner were those who scored the highest in sexual commitment, friendship commitment, commitment to the FWBR itself, friendship satisfaction, and friendship communication. They were also more likely to report being in agreement with their partner on wanting a romantic relationship.

A reported lack of communication between partners was related to an increased likelihood of the relationship dissipating altogether, suggesting that if partners want to stay in any kind of relationship at all, communication is crucial. “Whereas communication is important to all relationship outcomes, it is likely even more important than in traditional romantic relationships,” the authors emphasize, “because FWBRs lack a guiding cultural script to define the roles and trajectory (VanderDrift, Lehmiller, & Kelly, 2011).”

Machia and colleagues conclude that both communication and aligned expectations are critical for an FWBR to end well. They suggest that future research should consider whether these findings extend to other types of casual relationships, and should include perspectives from both partners in the couple.

The study, “A longitudinal study of friends with benefits relationships”, was authored by Laura V. Machia, Morgan L. Proulx, Michael Ioerger, and Justin J. Lehmiller.

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