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The psychology of ‘friends with benefits’

Barney and Robin from TV Series How I Met Your Mother. Image: YouTube Screenshot

Some of my colleagues and I have published a series of studies on friends with benefits (FWBs) over the last few years, which I have written about before on the blog (see here and here).

Among the many things we have found in our research is that people get into these relationships for a range of reasons and, as a result, sometimes have wildly different expectations for what they hope will happen to their FWB in the future.

For instance, some people hope that their FWB will become a romantic partner, others hope to go back to being “just friends,” whereas some simply want to remain FWBs for as long as possible.

These findings led us to wonder what ultimately happens to FWBs over time and how likely it is that different relationship transitions will occur. We recently completed a one-year longitudinal study of FWBs that we presented at the November 2014 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. Below, I will summarize some of the key results from this research.

In this study, 191 people who were currently involved with a FWB completed two online surveys about one year apart. The sample was predominately female-identified (70%), White (74%), and heterosexual (72%), with an average age of 30. Participants reported that they had known their FWB in some capacity for about three years on average before the study started.

In the first survey, participants were asked what they hoped would happen with their FWB in the future. They were also asked a range of other questions including how satisfied they were with their relationship and how much they communicated about relationship rules and boundaries. In the second survey, we asked whether the nature of their relationship was the same, or if it had changed.

So what did we find? First, we discovered that some relationship outcomes were more likely than others. After one year, 26% were still FWBs, 15% had become romantic partners, 28% had gone back to being just friends, and 31% reported having no relationship of any kind with their former FWB. As you can see, most participants reported continuing at least some type of relationship after that year had passed — but there wasn’t a lot of commonality in terms of what happened.

However, these results do reveal that it is at least possible to remain friends after a FWB ends.

Second, we found that some relationship goals appeared to be more attainable than others. Those who wanted to go back to being just friends appeared to be the most successful, with 60% of those who desired that outcome at Time 1 attaining it at Time 2. Those who wanted to remain FWBs long-term were somewhat less successful, with 40% of those desiring it at Time 1 reporting that they were still FWBs at Time 2. Lastly, those who wanted to transition into romantic partners were the least successful, with just 15% of those who initially wanted that outcome reporting such a transition.

One other finding worth noting here is that among those participants who reported maintaining at least some kind of relationship with their partner over time (whether it was sexual or non-sexual in nature) reported more communication about setting ground rules at Time 1. Those who were less communicative in this regard were more likely to report having no relationship whatsoever at Time 2.

What these findings suggest is that there are a lot of different ways that FWBs can go in the long run; however, if you’re looking at your FWB as a means of starting a romance, you might want to think again because the odds seem fairly low. And if you want to maintain at least some type of friendship or relationship with your FWB down the road, the key appears to be communication.

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for previous articles or follow the blog on Facebook (, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit ( to receive updates.


This article originally appeared at Sex and Psychology. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook. Copyright 2015. Follow Sex and Psychology on Twitter.

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