The Problem With Friends With Benefits

A love story near the trash can
A love story near the trash can

There are two ways friends with benefits can work and a lot of ways it can't.

First, there is the fairy tale twist. The two of you -- such great friends! -- fall in love. You decide you don't want to be FWB, after all. You want to be together for real, you want to get married and have babies and live happily ever after.

The second way is if the FWB agreement goes according to plan. That, however, doesn't make a very exciting story. Isn't that the whole point? No drama, you and your FWB might agree. No strings attached. Let's just be upfront and honest if we want to call it off or if we meet someone else, and no one will get hurt. Even after the benefits run dry, the friendship will still be there, fully intact. Maybe better than ever!

But sometimes, things don't stay on course, feelings creep up out of nowhere, hormones start sending the wrong messages to your brain and that's what does make a good story. A good story is something worth striving for, in writing and in life.

I have never been in a friends with benefits arrangement. I've made out with my friends a few times, sure. It happens. But I've never sat down with someone and hashed out all the details, signed a contract or solemnly sworn on a sacred copy of The Joy of Sex. (Does anyone do that? That's how it works in movies. And, apparently, my imagination.)

I made a ton of romantic missteps in my twenties, but I avoided FWB precisely because I assumed I wouldn't be able to handle it. I'm the type of person who would make a mess of things. Either I'd fall for the guy and then go crazy with jealousy when he inevitably moved on with someone else, or the guy would fall for me and I would know it, but continue with our little FWB arrangement anyway. I'd feel bad about it, he'd feel bad about it and everything would blow up in my face.

For someone who has never technically been in a FWB arrangement, I can't stop thinking about it. I'm interested in it as a fiction writer. Almost a decade ago, I wrote a short story that involved a 20-something guy and girl getting dressed after sex. As he pulls his pants back on, he says something to the effect of, "By the way, that will be the last time. Thanks! It was fun. I just want you to know I met someone."

The girl is taken aback. She thought they had a good thing going. She thought neither of them wanted to be in a committed relationship. At this horrible moment, she realizes that he did want a committed relationship... with someone else. She might have said something to him. Something like, "When did that happen?" She would attempt to make her voice sound light and conversational.

"Listen," the guy says. "We both agreed to this."

The girl doesn't say anything back. He was right. She had agreed to a simple, drama-free arrangement that would provide her friendship and sex. There was nothing she could do.

I thought this story was pretty good. I showed it to a friend. At the bottom of the page, she wrote that the story lacked tension, drama or some sort of moral dilemma. Without those things, there was no story at all.

Perhaps to prove her wrong, I continued to mine the subject for future projects. I wrote a whole novel about it. FWB fascinates me because it says something about the state of love and dating today. We have so much more romantic freedom than we did even a generation ago. FWB is a modern -- dare I say advanced -- idea. It's the notion that we can control our love lives, that we can be open and honest about what we want and avoid a lot of the messiness that traditional relationships can bring. If it all works out, great! If it doesn't, well, that's where things get interesting. That's where the real story lies.