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Can Real Life “Friends With Benefits” Avoid Drama?

The experts say FWB can work! (For some.)

| July 22nd, 2011
EverettMila Kunis, left, and Justin Timberlake in "Friends With Benefits"
Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Friends With Benefits

Friends with benefits,” or friends who have sex, is a relationship that always seems rife with conflict in its pop culture cameos, whether it’s Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine combining “the this with the that,” Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in the movie “No Strings Attached,” or its latest incarnation aptly titled “Friends With Benefits,” which opens in theaters this weekend.

In the film, the main characters, played by Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, have both just gone through horrible breakups and aren’t ready to get involved again. So, the friends decide to check their emotional baggage at the door to satisfy each other sexually—and how! (Let’s just say JT really knows how to bring the sexy back.) Despite how hard they try to stick to their strict no-falling-in-love rules, things get complicated…(shocker!).

But, without the need for a perfect Hollywood style plot line, can a real life friends with benefits (FWB) agreement avoid drama?

Well, FWBs aren’t just trending in Tinsel Town, it’s also a hot topic for research psychologists. A 2011 study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that college women and men both gave two thumbs up to their friends with benefits experiences. "They're saying these experiences were good: ‘I got a chance to be with this friend, I got to know them in a different way, and now that it's over I see it as a positive thing,’" study author Jesse Owen, Ph.D., told The Chicago Tribune.

The endorsement seems to be as enthusiastic as the FWB sex itself. While the two pals may show restraint when it comes to entering an official relationship, there is no such restraint between the sheets! As another study found, when it came to sexual spark, the FWBs “have levels of passion consistent with romantic relationships, but lack the romantic commitment typical of romantic relationships.“ In other words, they’re having their cake and eating it too!

And there’s a whole lot of icing on that cake because these kinds of relationships don’t seem to be lacking for quality. University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Psychology Terri Conley, Ph.D., a specialist in “stigma and sexuality,” agrees that having friendship as a foundation is a plus, not a complicated minus. She argues “These [FWB] relationships would strike me as likely more satisfying that other types of hook-ups, in which male partners are unlikely to provide the non-coital types of activities that contribute to women’s satisfaction.”

MORE: How Sex Makes You More Beautiful

In addition to a willingness to go the proverbial distance in bed, data also showed FWBs still provide the intimacy, which makes for great sex beyond just the mechanics. Unlike your run of the mill one-night stand, with an FWB there is “trust and comfort” combined with the rare, even seemingly contradictory, combination of freedom and security.

No wonder friends with benefits are an extremely common occurrence on college campuses— 60 percent of co-eds surveyed in a 2009 study reported they had at least one FWB relationship, 55 percent of men and 43 percent of women in a 2011 study.

Conley suggests the reason might be, “For college women FWB relationships can serve as a safe, caring space—we are talking about a friend, after all—in which to explore sexuality without pressure for a relationship that they may not be ready to commit to.”

However, it’s important to point out that due to FWB arrangements’ popularity on college campuses and the student’s accessibility to researchers, all the official surveys have only been done with co-eds as subjects. But, it could be argued that women of all ages could, under the right circumstances, have fun getting that itch scratched with a FWB.

Conley is quick to dismiss the notion that ladies can’t stick to their casual sex gentleman’s agreement saying, “Despite stereotypes about women needing a relationship, it does seem that women are fully capable of enjoying themselves in the absence of attachment.”

 YouBeauty Relationship Expert David Sbarra, Ph.D., would agree that beyond the college generation studied in the research, this kind of arrangement could work at any age for a specific type of person—those with a more avoidant attachment style.

QUIZ: Find Out Your Relationship Style

Sbarra described this type as someone with “hyper self-focus” who would agree with statements like: “You can’t trust others to give you what you want. Relationships aren’t necessarily good, but others force me into them. If I’m upset, it’s better to rely on myself than to look to a partner.”  If the two people involved fit this description, well, this could be the ideal “relationship” for both of them.

However Sbarra warns that this kind of casual arrangement isn’t for everyone. From a purely physical standpoint, he points out, “The biology of sex is designed to create attachment.”

After we have sex women get a surge of oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle” or “love hormone.” It’s the same potent stuff that bonds a new mom to her baby after labor. Sbarra argues, “There’s a reason it’s called making love.”

But it’s not just women who feel a tinge of those pesky feelings. According to “Why Humans Have Sex?”—a 2007 study from the University of Texas at Austin, men were more likely to have sex for physical reasons or mere availability, but were also motivated to have sex for emotional reasons.

While men can get just as emotionally involved in sex as women, there is little hope that casual sex will develop into anything more. Rough estimates suggest that only about 10 percent do ultimately become romantically involved. But hey, it could happen, just like in the movies.

Bottom line: Whatever the impetus to start an FWB agreement may be, from career demands, to personality, to age bracket, as long as you’re the type who can treat your pleasure like it’s just business, it seems you can have the sexual satisfaction you’re looking for, no strings attached—well, that is unless a Hollywood screenwriter gets involved.

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