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Ask Dr. P

Dr. Geraldino Pranzarone


Dr.P. What do you think of the new relationship of “friends with benefits?”

A “friend with benefits” (FWBs) is also known as a “f**k buddy.” The terms refer to a more enduring situation between persons than merely “hooking up.” Hooking up usually occurs between persons who meet each other at gatherings or parties. A person usually goes to a gathering without the intention of meeting a specific person—almost anyone will do. The elements of romantic feelings are denied or are avoided. The sex is supposedly regarded as meaning nothing toward the establishment of a more enduring bond—and here is where the biology ambushes the psychology, as we shall see later.

All these terms refer to situations among acquaintances that supposedly allow for casual sex—often only oral sex, but it can include penovaginal or other sex—without commitment. The purpose of these relationships is for sexual release without the messy need for courtship, dating, romantic relationships or the perception or reality of “going together” or of becoming a “couple.” A specific FWB is usually one of several that an individual interacts with sexually. The intention is to deliberately avoid exclusivity or monogamy in these interactions.

One reason for these relationships, although the individuals would disdain the use of that word, is that young college people today have an agenda that keeps them busy with completing their undergraduate studies, planning for graduate or professional school and the long-term building of their careers. Whereas marriage decades ago occurred in the late teens and early twenties for females and males respectively, today marriages and the establishment of families now occurs in the mid to late twenties or even thirties! Young people today simply don’t have the time, commitment or need, to establish, nurture and maintain a long-term romantic relationship with its complex burdensome obligations for “coupleness,” monogamous lack of freedom and flexibility, and the inevitable pain of separation and breaking up. Valentine’s Day among these youths is now considered a day for “losers.” It’s best not to have a Valentine. I’m free! I’m free! But, I’ve got my f**k buddies.

Young people do want to later establish enduring monogamous relationships within the context of a marriage and permanent family, but not now. These are for later, not at this stage in their lives. Thus, we have FWBs. But people who think this way are fooling themselves. There is no free sex without costs, just as there is no free lunch.

The tradition of arranged marriages shows that people who regularly have sex with each other invariably develop feelings for each other—it can’t be helped. Biologically, sex leads to love and bonding. Oxytocin and dopamine, released by the brain and pituitary, are love-potions that establish a love-bond between the individuals present at the sexual interaction. Prostitutes have known this phenomenon as an “occupational hazard,” with themselves and their regular “john” falling in love and often marrying after what was thought to have been a purely business deal. See Pretty Woman—a Disney film, by the way.

Invariably among FWBs, one of the friends begins to want the relationship to become more than what it was, and there is potential for things to get messy. Even on the TV show Friends, the couples ended up with strong feelings and some did end up marrying one another. Usually, it is the women who later regret their activity of being an FWB and advise or hope that their daughters do otherwise. Guys handle it better.

The second cost to casual sex among FWBs is the increased risk of exposure to STIs and pregnancies. If the hooking up is so casual that the persons think they will never see each other again, the incentive to protect one-another from disease and pregnancy is minimal. Any behavior pattern that increases the number of lifetime sexual partners will increase the risk and incidence of infection and pregnancy—this is guaranteed.

Another problem is that patterns of sexual interaction that are established early, such as casual non-commitment sex with numerous partners, are likely to endure when the attempt is finally made to settle down with one supposedly perfect lifetime partner. The monogamous marital relationship with its restrictions and obligations becomes more difficult to establish and maintain. And finally, the tendency to seek the variety once enjoyed with your group of FWBs may become apparent after the romantic magic of the initial years of marriage diminishes. You won’t stay. You’ll stray.