Boundaries For Friends With Benefits
"Friends with benefits"—or FWBs as they're commonly known—is a term most adults already know. It suggests an arrangement, with no official label or commitment, that has the added benefit of sex. When a person wants their sexual needs met, but isn't in a position to be in a committed relationship, they may seek out a friend—or several friends—with benefits.
"In the simplest terms, this arrangement is typically friends who have casual sex and have no interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with each other," said Eisley Hallows, a certified integrative life coach in Atlanta. "Strictly extracurricular."
Friends-with-benefits arrangements can include benefits that aren't sexual, too.
In a sense, friends-with-benefits relationships are a form of modern non-monogamy.
"The benefits of friends-with-benefits relationships come in all different shapes and sizes. While we typically think of friends with benefits being friendship plus sex, there are all different kinds of intimacy that can be involved in a friends-with-benefits setup," said Madison McCullough, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice in New York City. "The additional emotional, physical and social intimacy people establish in friends-with-benefits relationships that they might not in other friendships can have very positive impacts on their mental health."
In a sense, friends-with-benefits relationships are a form of modern non-monogamy. Many FWBs don't promise exclusivity to each other. Even when they do, the terms of the arrangement can change over time. Long-term romantic commitment is not usually the ultimate goal. However, since we still exist in a largely monogamy-centric society, it may be hard for people to understand how anything but exclusivity is considered ethical.
The reality is that relationships of all kinds can be ethical, as long as all parties involved communicate and consent to the terms of the relationship. Ethics are not exclusive to monogamy, and people who aren't monogamous shouldn't feel shame for finding fulfillment in more casual arrangements.
Let's take a look at how you can keep things ethical within your friends-with-benefits arrangements and overcome the stigma placed on them by monogamy culture.
Expectations and open communication
Expectations and boundaries in friends-with-benefits relationships can vary, just like in all intimate relationships. For example, it's important to have conversations early on about how often you'll see each other, what your "benefits" entail and how private you'd like to keep the arrangement.
"As in any relationship, boundaries are key," McCullough said. "Friends with benefits should ensure that they're on the same page about how often they'd like to be in communication with one another, who else will know about their 'benefits' and expectations for how often they'll engage in the 'benefits' part of their relationship. And, if in a monogamous context, a plan for what to do if one of them enters into a committed partnership."
The very nature of friends-with-benefits arrangements assumes no romantic feelings are, or will be, involved. However, human sexuality is complex, and it's important to discuss how you will proceed with the arrangement if someone does, as they say, "catch feelings."
"Figure out where each of you stands on the idea of something more, and why, and what will happen if you catch feelings," Hallows said. "Just because you don't currently desire more romantic involvement now, that doesn't mean you won't. There's an entire apothecary of hormones and brain chemicals that can change that. It also doesn't mean you don't have to be vulnerable with each other from time to time."
While we're on the subject of vulnerability, it's important to be open and honest about your STD status with your FWB. Since exclusivity is often not promised between friends with benefits, it's important to have open, ongoing communication with your partners about your exposure and get frequent STD screenings.
"One of the healthiest things I love to see is, 'both of us will get an STD panel, and if we are not exclusive, we will get tested again every six months and show each other the results,'" Hallows said.
Stigma and non-monogamous relationships
If you've laid the proper groundwork for a healthy friends-with-benefits arrangement—or any other nontraditional relationship for that matter—you can rest easy with the knowledge you're treating your sexual partner(s) ethically and fairly.
Nothing to feel guilty about, right?
However, you may notice feelings of guilt and shame within yourself for not "settling down" and committing to one person. Especially since the constant societal messaging most of us grow up with paints monogamy the goal.
It's important to acknowledge these feelings and explore why you have them.
"First, I would say [it's important] to get real clear on what you actually feel about casual non-monogamy," Hallows said. "This might take some real soul-searching and it might not be comfortable. But I'd say it's a really imperative first step if this is something you're thinking about pursuing."
Non-monogamy is often stigmatized in broad society because people assume non-monogamous people lack loyalty, she suggested. That could be true in some cases, but as a general statement it's largely untrue and it's important to reframe our definition of loyalty. Loyalty and exclusivity are not synonyms for each other.
You can be loyal to your friends with benefits by respecting the boundaries you've set together. Doing so is something to be proud of, rather than ashamed of.
"Getting needs met by more than one person should never feel shameful, in my opinion," Hallows said.
It's important to recognize that the nature of love itself is not exclusive or monogamous. Humans are capable of loving many people in many different ways. Also, intimate relationships can take all kinds of forms, not all of them singular.
"We are capable of giving and receiving love and intimacy in abundance," McCullogh said. "Monogamy-dominant culture can create a scarcity mindset around our experiences of love and intimacy and non-monogamy teaches us that our capacity for experiencing love and intimacy is boundless. Another belief we can work on adopting more broadly is that no one person can be everything to us. Non-monogamy embraces the idea that no one partner can meet every single one of your needs and understands the benefits of being able to get different needs met by different people."
Hallows recommends internalizing this mantra: "Love multiplies as you give it freely to others. It never divides."
Cultivate an understanding community
Even if you do the personal work to reframe your perceptions of healthy relationships to include non-monogamy arrangements, you may find yourself lacking understanding from society at large.
For that reason, it's important to surround yourself with people who understand and support you.
"Find community. Whether in person or online, there are so many thriving communities out there that uplift and support folks who are interested in relationship structures that exist outside of the limited monogamy-centric models most of us have been given," McCullogh said. "There are dating apps, meet-up groups and online forums dedicated to people who are non-monogamous. When you immerse yourself in this kind of community, you give yourself the chance to experience validation and normalization, which will reduce the power of any stigma you've internalized and help you feel less alone."
The key takeaway is a friends-with-benefits arrangement, when approached with respect, honesty and open communication, can be as healthy as any long-term monogamous commitment. These are principles anyone in a relationship—no matter what kind—should strive for and pursue without shame.