Can Friends with Benefits Stay Friends?

In a recent episode of "Grey's Anatomy," Alex and Lexie, two of the doctors who aren't romantically involved, engage in a "no feelings" quickie, as it's referred to in the show's episode recap.

Unlike the fictional characters in ABC's hit TV series, having sex with a friend just for sex's sake is not uncommon.  In fact, some 60 percent of college students have been in a "friends with benefits" relationship, according to a study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. Many of those who have this kind of "no strings attached" sex do so just because it feels good and because they don't have to feel tied down. Of the students who participated in the survey, 59.7 percent said that the biggest advantage to this type of relationship was "no commitment," according to the study.

The problem is that, sooner or later, one person in the relationship often ends up wanting more. When this happens, the whole friendship can be in jeopardy.

Sure, there are some advantages to having a go-to friend for when you're in the mood. You're familiar with each other, you know what you're getting, and there are no questions asked.

When both people are open-minded enough to accept those terms, all goes well. But, says sex and relationships counselor Ian Kerner, Ph.D., the "friends with benefits" concept usually spells trouble, and for a couple of reasons.

"It's rare that when it comes to sex, attraction and romantic feelings, for two people to feel exactly the same way," Kerner explains. "One may have a higher level of attraction for the other one. Sometimes feelings grow for one person but not for the other."

The "friends with benefits" arrangement can be especially hard on a woman, Kerner says. That's because for women, sexual desire and arousal are highly correlated with oxytocin, the so-called "cuddle hormone." When a woman begins having sex with a friend, this hormone triggers an emotional connection she may simply not have counted on.

"For this reason, I generally think 'friends with benefits' is not a good idea," Kerner says. "I think that sometimes sex is more intimate and intense than we think it will be."

So if you're contemplating a "friends with benefits" arrangement, is there a fail-safe way to make it work? Not really, but it's worth talking through with your intended bedroom partner before you get under the sheets so you're both on the same page. Here's how:

  • Be very clear about what you expect.

  • Set boundaries and communicate them to your friend, says sex therapist Debra Laino, DHS, M.ED, MS. "For this type of relationship to work, it needs to be clearly stated what you will and won't do," she says.

  • If you start developing romantic feelings for your friend, it's time to pull back. "You may have to tell the other person that you think you should end the arrangement right then so that you can maintain your friendship," Laino says. And that's the part that can be incredibly painful. When considered from all sides, you may simply decide to just be friends, in the conventional sense of the word.


Law, Sally. "Survey Finds 'Friends with Benefits' Common." 2 April 2009. Accessed March 10, 2010.