What To Do When Your Friend With Benefits Wants A Relationship With Someone Else

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
At a point in many friends-with-benefits relationships, something has got to give. On the last season of Broad City, for example, Ilana and Lincoln's "sex friendship" ended abruptly, because Lincoln decided he wanted to be monogamous with someone else. "I love you, but I want to be in a relationship," Lincoln says. When Ilana asks if they can still be friends, Lincoln says, "I don't think we're just friends." Ilana tries to mask that she's upset, but eventually loses her cool, and rightfully so.
Even though FWB relationships are common, and can function for some people, this sort of conflict is almost inevitable. Why? The short answer is that friends with benefits often don't communicate or agree on expectations beforehand. But there several variables that make it more complicated than that.
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At first, some people are okay with the fact that their FWB relationship isn't monogamous and won't last forever, says Justin Lehmiller, PhD, director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. "Not everyone finds it hurtful if their partner wants to move on or see other people," Dr. Lehmiller says. Of course, some people do get their hopes up that their FWB will eventually become a more serious relationship, so it can be sad to hear that your partner wants that with someone else, Dr. Lehmiller says.
Motivation also matters a lot in FWB relationships, and there are so many reasons why people choose to do it. Some people might not want to be tied down, or they might just want someone to have sex with. Other people might value the emotional connection of a friend, or want to avoid the messiness of a romantic relationship. And some people might just think that having a FWB is a good idea for them, for whatever personal reason.
Statistically speaking, it's unlikely that a FWB relationship will transition into a romantic, monogamous one — at least, not organically. One study that Dr. Lehmiller conducted followed FWB couples for a year, and found that only 15% of participants went on to become romantic partners. "Most either went back to being friends or had no relationship whatsoever after one year," he says. But it's not wrong or uncommon to hope that it could blossom into a defined relationship, Dr. Lehmiller says.
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In a 2011 study, one-half of women and one-quarter of men who had a current FWB said that they eventually wanted their relationship to become romantic. While that's a very gendered, heteronormative study, it shows that expectations and motivations can vary vastly from person to person, even within one relationship. And some people might not even realize they want something more until after they've already agreed to be a FWB. What you can glean from all these stats is that communication matters, particularly in an ambiguous relationship like FWB, Dr. Lehmiller says. Remember: Being a friend is an inherent part of that relationship.
You can't really predict where a FWB relationship will go, which might be appealing to some people, but it's definitely a good idea to set some ground rules. "It's important for people in friends with benefits relationships to establish limits, rules, and boundaries in the interest of no one getting hurt," Dr. Lehmiller says. For example, you might make a pact not to tell each other when you're seeing other people. Or you could tell your FWB that you want to be open about the other people you're seeing, as long as you're comfortable with it. "This will reduce the odds that you'll be caught off-guard later on," Dr. Lehmiller says. In Ilana and Lincoln's case, she wanted to know all the dirty deets about his sex life with other people, perhaps as a defense mechanism to mask that she really wanted something more.
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If your FWB does end up wanting a relationship with someone else, it's really hard not to take it personally. In most cases, you have to decide whether you want to still be friends with the person, or completely cut your ties, Dr. Lehmiller says. In that same 2011 study, 18% said that they were no longer friends with their FWB after the sexual relationship ended. This group also said they were the least happy with their relationship, and were the most likely to report feeling deceived. Despite the best intentions, if you don't have boundaries then "things get awkward and the relationship doesn't survive," Dr. Lehmiller says.
The moral of all this is that even loose, chill relationships like FWB ones can require some effort, but it's almost always worth it to have conversations about what you're cool with before you get in too deep. You're not necessarily doomed from the start, either. "Friends with benefits relationships can indeed work in the sense that they can be highly satisfying and people can remain friends afterwards — we know this from research," Dr. Lehmiller says.
You're also entitled to change your mind, but when you do, it's important to tell your partner. Honesty is usually the best way to go about that, and Lincoln actually did the right thing in this scenario, just maybe a little too late in the game. Also, friendly reminder: Ultimatums can totally work in this type of scenario. "The key [to FWB] is really whether the partners have the same expectations and put the necessary work into establishing their own rules and limits," Dr. Lehmiller says.
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