If there’s any sexual activity that’s gotten way, way more popular in the past few years, it’s ye olde friends with benefits. That’s not just my opinion: it’s research. And while that’s great news for anyone interested in alternative relationship configurations, the friends with benefits setup does require some solid interpersonal skills — if you’d like to avoid drama.
When you’re a pacifist, pleasure-loving individual, who’d also very much enjoy a friends with benefits arrangement, not to worry. Justin Lehmiller has some research-backed pointers on FWB’s and what makes them successful, on everything from initiation to maintenance. (We interviewed him on that very subject.) So here are six steps to pursuing one, without undue tears/angry texts/general malaise. Right this way for benefits—the friendly, sexy kind.
Step 1: Be selective.
If you’d like to initiate a friends with benefits dynamic, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to be picky. Just because it’s not an “official” relationship doesn’t mean you have to throw standards out the window, so when assessing potential candidates, here are three things to think about:
- Am I attracted to them?
- Are they a good communicator? (More on that in a moment)
- Are the circumstances conducive to this?
The first one should be easy to assess, the second we’ll cover more in-depth. But the third question is crucial, because the best candidate will likely be someone who already occupies some healthy distance in your life. A family friend? Yeah, that’s asking for a weird Thanksgiving. Your coworker? Maybe, but then again…could go south, fast. The yogi you met at the gym who’s sexy as hell, but not someone you’d want to pursue a serious relationship with? Now you’re talking.
Step 2: Set the ground rules.
Justin says that in his research, the FWB’s who are most successful prioritize communication, and get that piece down first. Mutual attraction is the easy part, folks! What you’re really looking for is someone who can answer the following questions:
- What are you looking to get out of this?
- Are you OK with the things I want from this?
- Is there anything off-limits? Sexual activities, couple-y behaviors, etc?
If you can navigate this conversation, and find the other person to be mature and realistic in doing so, then congratulations: you may have just found yourself a playmate! But a word of caution here — it’s a lot easier to do this with someone who wants the same things you do, rather than convincing someone to try it.
So be aware that in the initial communication, you should be clear that this isn’t a trial period for an actual relationship, or an on-ramp to something more serious. Don’t be a smooth talker; be frank, honest, and a good listener. That will help both parties make a wise decision.
Step 3: Have sex…safely.
You’re doing it: you’re accruing “benefits!” Yay you. But even if emotional expectations have been managed, your fertility and STI status are just as serious. So while this one is (hopefully) obvious, give your FWB arrangement some standard protocols:
- Use contraception, and communicate about it openly
- Have both parties get tested in advance of play time
- Create a communication policy around outside partners and STI status
These rules will not only keep things drama-free, but will also help keep your communication skills in check. Which brings me to:
Step 4: Think through attachment.
Let’s turn the focus to you for a moment, dear FWB-er.
When you’ve found someone who’s down with boundaries and ground rules, that’s awesome. You’re letting them know what’s what, and doing a lot of important legwork on the front end. Great! But you’ve also got your own heart in the mix, so it’s smart to reflect on your attachment style.
Once you start touching this person, your brain’s feel-good chemicals are going to explode a bit—and this is to be expected. This is why communication is so important, so you can verbalize what you need to keep things copacetic. If you tend toward anxious attachment, some uncomfortable emotions may come up that you didn’t expect, and you could find yourself getting worried or jealous. On the flip side, if you tend toward avoidant attachment style, you could overlook check-ins with this person, who, after all, is still your friend.
If attachment styles are new to you, there are lots of quizzes on the internet to find out where you stand, and a growing number of books to help you explore the concept more deeply.
Step 5: Be a good friend.
We’ve talked a lot about sex; let’s turn to the friendship part.
Justin says that in his year-long study of FWB’s, the outcomes were pretty evenly split. Some went back to being platonic, some shifted into romantic relationships, and some ended both the friendship and the benefits in an acrimonious fashion. The fourth group remained happily FWB-status though, and again, the biggest difference was clear: they had great communication.
So in the maintenance phase of your friends with benefits relationship, don’t neglect the friend part. And by that I mean, are you being kind and decent? Are you avoiding relationship status confusion, by making conscious choices? Casual convos and even hangouts are great, but introducing them to your family could be overstepping an intimacy boundary. You know: the one you went to ends to create.
In that spirit, you might want to consider one potentially sticky issue, and that is: are the two of you allowed to discuss outside partners?
Just like you would with a platonic friend, it should probably be OK to discuss this stuff. If not – that could be a red flag, so back up and return to your agreements if they (or you) begin to display signs of jealousy.
Step 6: Expect evolution.
That brings me to my final point: the only constant in life is change, and I promise, your friends with benefits arrangement will.
Just as in Justin’s study, you might revert to friendship, you might switch gears and become romantic, or you may go your separate ways. During your initial set-up and your check-ins, here are some things to think about as the relationship (naturally) evolves:
- Do we want to spend the night?
- How frequently do we want to have sex?
- What happens if one of us gets involved with a monogamous partner?
These are just a handful of the things to think about as you and your friend travel to Sexy Town together, and all require a lot of maturity to navigate. But if you’re reading this article, chances are you’re already a considerate person. If you remain communicative and open to change, then you very well could forge a special connection that defies societal boxes and, is incredibly fulfilling for both of you.
Tolly Moseley is a writer and content contributor for Sex With Emily. She is a storyteller and board member for Bedpost Confessions, has written for The Atlantic and Salon, and loves listening to all the sex podcasts. When she’s not writing, she’s doing aerial.